Post-Coronavirus: Towards pandemic panopticons or something radically new?

Cross-posted from the ICT4Peace Foundation’s site.

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On the invitation of Christina Goodness, Chief Information Management Officer at the Departments of Peacebuilding, Political and Peace Operations DPPA-DPO, the ICT4Peace Foundation’s Sanjana Hattotuwa gave a presentation titled ‘Beyond the global reset: Towards pandemic panopticons or something radically new?’ as part of the ‘(un)data Seminar Series on Outrageous Questions’.

Scheduled for 1.5hrs but running closer to 2hrs because of a vibrant Q&A session, the presentation attracted high-level UN staff from around a dozen different agencies and  departments, spread geographically.

Download the presentation as a PDF here.

Description of the session

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

Arundhati Roy: ‘The pandemic is a portal’, Financial Times

Covid-19 is a Ctrl-Alt-Del moment for the world as we knew it a few weeks ago, resetting assumptions but resettling prejudice, restoring hope yet also reaffirming old anxieties. There is no tabula rasa at the end of lockdown. We will continue to harvest what we have sown for decades, albeit differently to what was planned and perhaps even quicker, in circumstances unimaginable at the start of 2020 and still impossible to predict. This is a planetary black swan event. The legacy of decisions and choices, made before Coronavirus was a household name, will inform progress around an agenda for change, or result in the restoration of the unjust, polluting, autocratic and violent. The fear is around the seamless transition to the latter, while the former is buried under emotive rhetoric linked to pandemic response as the altar upon which liberty must be sacrificed. But for how long? The immediate response requires big government, but once expanded, can it ever shrink? Epidemiological surveillance is vital today, but how can we stop pandemic panopticons, where contact tracing morphs into mass surveillance at hitherto unseen scope and scale? Is it fashionable or even possible to ask these questions today?

I come from a country where at the best of times, social media is often a Petri dish inciting hate and violence. Today, with automated content review almost completely supplanting human oversight at Google, Facebook, Twitter and other companies because of shelter at place directives in Silicon Valley, countries with a democratic deficit are those now most at risk from algorithms that don’t understand context, culture or community, deleting blindly, yet blind to what really should be deleted. What will be the result of misinformation’s seed and spread, amidst record-breaking unemployment and populism’s new footholds?

Technology’s role in conflict transformation was always to augment the work of peacebuilders. Yet as social media – for the first time in history – now almost completely replaces real life’s rich physical, kinetic interactions, can peacebuilding evolve at pace? The UN loves to debate ‘frontier issues’ and ‘over-the-horizon’ scenarios, but the approach to and definitions of both will need to be radically revised post-Coronavirus. A future never planned for is already here. PKO addressing regional conflict now competes with global exigencies around peace and security. Systemwide, UN will face drastic funding cuts unprecedented in its history which begs the question, will it become a virtual platform more than a physical presence? The compression of time and acceleration of unintended outcomes shapes new realities that have completely outpaced existing insight, insurance, and investment.

However, wicked problems can also inspire novel responses. Pandemic effects are stochastic. Our analytical and response models need to change at pace. What we do now and who we choose to become matters. The pervasive new attention economy around morbidity and mortality blinds us to the study of key trends that will shape the post-Covid19 world. The presentation will through select frames of on-going doctoral research pose challenges of coronavirus as a vector of violence. But the presentation also hopes to spark discussion on how the future of work in PKO, peacebuilding and politics have shifted in ways unimaginable a couple of months ago, and how to avoid, as Shakespeare’s Sonnet 59 timelessly captures it, the challenge of approaching something entirely new with a vocabulary grounded only in what is already known or done.

If there be nothing new, but that which is
Hath been before, how are our brains beguil’d,
Which, labouring for invention, bear amiss
The second burthen of a former child!

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Overview of the presentation 

Sanjana approached Covid-19 as a wicked problem, noting that the solutions in response to it at local, regional and international levels, from medicine to politics and policies, added to the complexity of the pandemic and its aftermath. Looking at 7 key vectors of violence, Sanjana noted that the pandemic had essentially amplified structural drivers of conflict which predated it. Using an infamous video juxtaposed with the ground realities in India after a countrywide lockdown was suddenly issued, Sanjana flagged the violence arising from a disconnect between those who used hashtags like #WeAreOne and those who suffered the brunt of lockdowns.

Anchored to his doctoral research, Sanjana captured in a single slide developments around, inter alia, governance, human rights, democracy, disinformation, propaganda, Islamophobia, the weaponisation of social media and surveillance as harbingers of populism and authoritarianism’s entrenchment, post-Coronavirus. He flagged that this was a danger not only in the Global South, usually associated with a democratic deficit, but the rollback of liberal democracy even in the Global North. In several slides looking at a historically unprecedented phenomenon – a context in Sri Lanka where and elsewhere, content mediated through online vectors now provide the sole (not just primary) frames of news & information – Sanjana explored what could be the physical and kinetic impact of what is digitally consumed and engaged with. Noting contemporary challenges around disinformation, anchored to the Global South, Sanjana highlighted the inadvertent consequences of automated or algorithmic review.

The next slides dealt with disturbing mission-creep that Sanjana said was built-into, or could be silently and at scale, easily retrofitted onto epidemiological contact-tracing and surveillance apps. Framing the pandemic as an opportunity for the rapid deceleration of democratic gains, Sanjana flagged some of the very real dangers of syndromic surveillance morphing into systemic surveillance – what he called ‘pandemic panopticons’.

Calling for a new vocabulary to deal with the challenges in the long-shadow of Coronavirus, Sanjana referred to the Greek notion of time as Kairos, and the importance of seizing the moment to shape a new Overton window that could be used, by the UN and others, to project and promote a radically different worldview. There was no going back to a “normal” that existed before the pandemic. To this end, the principles of swarm dynamics or murmuration were posited as those that could both aid in the understanding of the Coronavirus challenges and institutional response(s).

Sanjana then went on to explore the potentialities and problems arising from the pandemic for peacekeeping operations (PKO). Building on this, he went on to look at 6 key ideas for radical, systemic reform at the UN, that could from unprecedented existential challenges emerge as an institution centre and forward in the conceptualisation and realisation of a post-pandemic world.

Calling for investments today around disruptions that in the future will pose similar or greater challenges than Coronavirus, Sanjana ended by stressing how the pandemic could help institutions and individuals become better versions of themselves.

In the Q&A session that followed, Sanjana was asked about, amongst a number of other topics, counter-terrorism in the context of the pandemic, the possible future of terrorism, concerns around a post-Covid-19 elite & the resulting discrimination, social credit systems, and their rapid expansion, more pervasive data gathering and the entrenchment of surveillance, gendered perspectives to pandemic response especially around the use of AI as well as the privatisation and preservation of data.

A recording of the session will be made available by the UN at a future date.

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