NAE report on ICT and Peacebuilding gets it right. And also very wrong.

The National Academy of Engineering organised a workshop on Technology and Peacebuilding on 14th December 2007, the report of which I was sent last week. Through a rather tedious rigmarole, it is possible to download this report from their website.

Do it. It’s worth it.

I joined the workshop over Skype Video and was introduced by none other than Vint Cerf. The workshop featured some big names and greats in the field, beginning with my friends Colin Rule from eBay and Nigel Snoad from Microsoft and extending to Steve Wozniak, Patrick Meier, Richard Solomon (President of the United States Institute of Peace) and Chris Spence (CTO and Director, National Democratic Institute for International Affairs). Kudos to NAE for having brought such an august gathering together.

Having read the report cover to cover, one of the most interesting pages for me is page 2, which enumerates the use of ICTs in peacemaking, peacekeeping and conflict prevention.

Examples of Peace Practitioner need of ICT
Examples of Peace Practitioner need of ICT

I think this is a brilliant categorisation, though missing from this is ICTs in peace negotiations and reconciliation. Designing and developing ICT systems for peace negotiations is something I’ve actually done and its use in reconciling, non-violently, differences between identity groups and warring parties, is also an important application.

I won’t go into detail about the plethora of stimulating arguments captured in this report on the use and potential of ICTs for conflict transformation and peacebuilding which for me is particularly heartening to note as someone who has actively promoted and pursued ICT4Peace for a number of years. The growing interest in this field from influential actors in the global policy making can only benefit the practice and application of ICTs in peacebuilding.

I will however, point to a few confusing aspects, beginning with the presentation of Prof. John Packer from the University of Essex. On page 22 of the report he notes,

“… peace negottions often fail because of poor communication and poor understanding. ICT can help provide better communications and understandings in terms of quality, quantity and timeliness.”

Agreed. But then he goes on to say,

“But ICTs cannot entirely replace relationship building and dialogue in establishing confidence and trust between parties”

This is a bizarre assertion which I can’t quite fathom the meaning of. I don’t think anybody would be foolish enough to say that ICTs can in fact take the place of relationships and dialogues in trust building between (warring) parties. The point however is that ICTs can help build trust, even when there is little or none to begin with. My paper on Creating virtual One Text processes in Sri Lanka explores this in great depth as well as the construction of transformative mediation techniques virtually using ICTs.

The Professor ends on an equally baffling note in saying that,

“.. communications technologies cannot respond to the new kinds of threats that have arisen, such as irrational or nihilistic parties, terrorists whose only goal is destruction of enemies and who reject all compromises out of hand. In the fact of those threats, Prof. Packer said, he is “not confident that technology can respond to the challenge”

I strongly disagree with this assertion. Two papers of mine – Untying the Gordian Knot: ICT for Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding and Daring to Dream: CSCW for Peacebuilding – completely debunk this through lived experience in violent ethno-political conflict (in Sri Lanka) and the use of ICTs to address the challenges posed by terrorism, which I’ve known all my life. Both papers are available for download in full here.

Subsequent explorations of this issue on this blog have developed some of the arguments in these papers. Negotiating extremism – How to talk with terrorists… and Terrorists also use Google: So what? are just two posts of many others.

But the most egregiously incorrect understanding of conflict dynamics comes, very surprisingly, from Dr. Richard Solomon from USIP who uses the following graphic to illustrate the “phases” of conflict management (page 4 of the report).

"Curve of conflict". Oh dear.
"Curve of conflict". Oh dear.

As an aside, I was invited to lecture on Stability, Security, Transition and Reconstruction at the Asia Pacific Centre for Security Studies in 2006 to a class of active military service personnel that included field commanders, officers, military intelligence and other faculty from APCSS. It was a challenging, to say the least, to talk about ICT for conflict transformation in front of a class that was in fact hugely invested in peacebuilding, just not through the means I was proposing!

The point is however that I addressed precisely this outdated notion of a “bell curve” for violent conflict transformation in my presentation, which resonated with everyone present who had witnessed the ebb and flow of violence on the ground during peacekeeping and peacemaking.

I noted first that this notion of a bell curve assumed a great deal, including that of rapidly diminishing levels of violence after a ceasefire or peace agreement.

Debunking the bell curve
Debunking the bell curve

As I see it, after living in the midst of violence for 30+ years in Sri Lanka and with a vested interest in its transformation, the blithe assumption of a reduction in violence after a ceasefire or peace agreement is signed is at significant odds with the failure of a majority of peace agreements. Empirical studies show that nearly half of post-conflict peace agreements revert to violent conflict withing 5 years, failing to engender sustainable and just peace (read page 83 of Breaking the Conflict Trap: Civil War and Development Policy co-published by the World Bank and Oxford University Press).

The myth of conflict genesis and resolution
The myth of conflict genesis and resolution
Neatly pigeon holed. Not.
Neatly pigeon holed. Not.

My full presentation, titled SSTR – Opportunities and Challenges, is available here.

Akin to Dr. Solomon’s bell curve, the traditional and wholly incorrect way of demarcating combat, stabilisation and reconstruction operations in SSTR is around a bell curve that assumes the reduction of violence after a peace / ceasefire agreement. This simply isn’t true. The bell curve is a myth that has, may I add, been debunked in most serious conflict resolution literature I have read for years.

My own visualisation of peace processes and the art of the possible using ICTs is akin to this graph (following studies on the peace processes of Sri Lanka and other countries). Any peace process shows, over time, an escalation and deescalation of violence and also a transformation of violence (from war to crime for example). Deescalation of one kind of violence (war) can lead to other forms of violence that are challenging for nascent or battered democracies to handle. This in turn means that socio-politically and economically, violent conflict ridden societies and polity take years if not generations to heal and negotiate differences non-violently. In this scheme of things, even significant agreements sighed at the higher political level may take decades to trickle down as perceived benefits to the all tiers of society. The lack of any perceived peace dividend is often ratcheted up by spoilers and extremists, leading to further militarisation of society even after a peace agreement.  

Peace process in the real world
Peace process in the real world (Click for larger image)

In this hypothetical mapping of a peace process conflict fatigue leads to a ceasefire agreement that leads to a deescalation of conflict. But the death of a key signatory (think of a Mandalesque figure) leads to diminished confidence and a sharp escalation of violence, until Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) are put into play. A military stalemate leads to a peace agreement, but a breakaway faction with its own agenda leads to another spike in violence. Parties resolve issues until social and political unrest on account of the perceived lack of any peace dividend leads to a rise in violence (think of crime and not just war) until a power sharing agreement restores some order.

And so on.

Process and not just events. (Click for larger image)
Process and not just events. (Click for larger image)

While media and most other actors (including donors and the international community) tends to latch on to key events (an agreement or the violent collapse of peace talks for example) a peace process is about peacebuilding at a variety of levels not necessarily pegged to the fortunes of the top-tier / Track 1 political negotiatons. Grassroots level peacebuilding, inter and intra-community dialogues and reconciliation, initiatives that address the fall out of conflict on women and children, various other development programmes for example take place even amidst war.

The point I wish to make is that ICTs help in peacebuilding at all stages and at all levels of a peace process, even in the midst of violent conflict. A bell curve diagram simply doesn’t do justice to the reality of any peace process, suggesting as it does that stages in violent conflict are linear, follow a logical progression and are quite distinct from each other and also that ICTs can only help in a post-conflict situation.

There is one final point I want to point out that in this report. And it’s a vital one. Bran Ferren, Co-Chairman and Chief Creative Officer of Applied Minds, notes that

“…meetings like this workshop always focus on the cheapest tools that can be used. At a certain point, he went on, the value equation has to be revised. Significant amounts of money, even $5 million, for a high-bandwidth technology in a troubled portion of the world, might cost much less, even if measured only in dollars, than a war, which could cost billions.”

I completely agree with this point and just wish that more donors would listen. Just on this though, Mr. Ferren also speaks about face to face meetings and why coming together in the real world / physical particiation is qualitatively different from virtual participation between on the non-verbal cues. I connect this with Mr Ferren’s earlier point of actually providing infrastructure to enable parties to avail themselves of tremendous advances in virtual conferencing, which I have written about in some detail here.

On balance, this is a report well worth reading. It’s emphasis on communications and mobile phones as a means of empowerment is vital to note, in a world where repressive regimes are viciously clamping down on the use of both. It’s emphasis on the use of ICTs in a culturally, politically and socially sensitive manner is rare to find and heartening to note exists amongst such an influential group of thinkers.

The report demands more exploration into some of the points raised in it and a more careful, focussed look at some of the examples noted.

ICT Update article – Bringing peace to life

ICT Update

“Peacebuilders everywhere are convinced that a better world is possible. They are devoted to that dream and can imagine peace, unlike so many others around them. There is no single epiphany that shows them the way to peace, or what to do to strengthen and sustain it. Many peacebuilders are killed or, through fear for their own lives, are forced to leave their country. ICTs help address and transcend some of these limitations by generating, recording and amplifying ideas and actions regardless of their geographical location. Using technology, peacebuilders can write for posterity. They collect vital information using mobile phones. They create virtual communities to support and raise funds, and they appeal via the internet for help from governments and citizens of other countries to support their work.

ICTs will only become more integral to peacebuilding and conflict transformation in the years to come.”

Read my article, Bringing peace to life, in Issue 43 of ICT Update.

Technology for Peace: Ideas from the Trenches

I’m excited to be conducting a workshop for peacebuilders from across the world on how Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) can help strengthen their work next week, as part of the GlobalPeaceBuilders Peacebuilders Summit from 6 – 7 May 2008 in Belfast

My presentation Technology for Peace: IDeas from the Trenches is online and can be downloaded. It won’t make too much of sense without what I have to say on each slide, but at least gives an idea of the technologies I will talk about. 

I’m looking forward to Belfast and to what I hope will be a stimulating workshop!

Papers and research on ICT in peacebuilding, Online Dispute Resolution, Conflict Early Warning, Disaster Mitigation and Response

A collection of papers I’ve written over the years on ICT4Peace, ODR and the use of technology in disaster warning, mitigation and response.

 

Daring to Dream: CSCW for Peacebuilding

This study will examine research around the areas of Computer Supported Cooperative Frameworks (CSCW) and in particular, the Locale Framework, to examine the possible use and design of ICT systems that can strengthen efforts at conflict transformation. In doing so, the study will examine in particular Groove Virtual Office® (used by Info Share) using the locale framework as an example of a CSCW system in a peace process.

Click Daring to Dream – CSCW, ICT and Peacebuilding for paper. Click Daring to Dream presentation for PowerPoint presentation.

 

After the deluge : InfoShare’s Response to the Tsunami

This document explores the use of technology in the tsunami relief efforts in Sri Lanka and addresses the need to create sustainable and culturally sensitive technology frameworks and systems for relief work and disaster management.

Click After the Deluge : InfoShare’s Response to the Tsunami for paper.

 

Online Dispute Resolution, Mobile Telephony and Internet Community Radios

This paper will submit that for the pervasive use of ODR in the Global South (as opposed to its increasingly entrenched acceptance in the Global North) a radical overhaul of its theories, conceptual underpinning and technologies needs to be undertaken. In doing so, it will propose wholly new ODR systems that new technologies that already exist in the Global South.

Click ODR, Peacebuilding and Mobile Phones for paper.

 

Computer Supported Collaborative Work (CSCW) in Sri Lanka

The central thesis of this paper will be to argue for CSCW systems that virtualise aspects of conflict transformation with a view to strengthening real world peacebuilding interventions over the long term. Such virtualisation and its possibilities will be set against the microcosm of the North-East region of Sri Lanka in order to rigorously test the hypothesis that ICT for peacebuilding can address gaps in communication within and between the multiple tiers of society and polity that are part of any peace process.

Click ICT and Mobiles for Conflict Prevention for paper.

 

Untying the Gordian Knot: ICT for Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding

This study will concentrate on the increasing confluence between ICT, conflict transformation and peacebuilding. The proposed study will examine Info Share, an ICT initiative in Sri Lanka that is involved in the peace process, as an on-going experiment in the use of these radical new technologies to augment traditional conflict transformation techniques on the ground to help strengthen an on-going peace process.

Click Using ICTs for Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding for paper.

 

The future of Online Dispute Resolution

This brief paper seeks to explore a few ideas related to ODR that seek to kindle, jar and even anger the imagination to engage with ideas that lie at the heart of ODR systems design and implementation in the years to come. These dialogues in support of shaping next-generation ODR systems is seen as essential to avoid the development of systems that cannot fully grasp and respond to the complexities of social, commercial and political transaction in real and online worlds.

Click Paper written for 4th UN ODR Symposium – Cairo, Egypt for full paper. Click here for the related presentation.

 

An Asian Perspective on Online Mediation

New information and communication technologies such as the internet offer new capabilities for mediators. Online dispute resolution (ODR) refers to dispute resolution processes such as mediation assisted by information technology, particularly the internet. At least 115 ODR sites and services have been launched to date, resolving more than 1.5 million disputes. A number of these online dispute resolution services have been launched in the Asia Pacific including examples from China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and Sri Lanka.

However this paper challenges the current paradigm being used for development of online dispute resolution and its application to the Asia Pacific region. Instead, it suggests that a more Asia-Pacific perspective needs to be taken that responds to the patterns of technology adoption in this region. In particular, the next generation of online dispute resolution systems will need to reflect the rich diversity of cultures in Asia and its unique socio-political textures. In doing so, these ODR systems will need to address peacebuilding and conflict transformation using technologies already prevalent in the region, like mobile telephony and community internet radio. Practical suggestions are made for future areas of development in ODR after a brief exploration of key challenges that influence the design of such systems.

I co-authored this paper with Melissa Conley-Tyler. Read the full version here.

 

Thoughts of technology in the wake of tragedy

The sensitive and creative use of technology can help nurture change processes that can lead to more peaceful and sustainable futures and avoid the pitfalls of partisan aid and relief operations. Providing for mobile telephony that give remote communities access to constantly updated weather and geological information and helping create endogenous early warning systems using local knowledge, using tele-centres to serve as repositories of information on emergency procedures and evacuation guidelines, coordinating the work of aid agencies on the ground ensuring the delivery of aid and relief to all communities, monitoring aid flows and evaluating delivery, creating effective mechanisms for the coordination of reconstruction and relief efforts, creating avenues for effective communication between field operations and warehouses based in urban centres, creating secure virtual collaboration workspaces that bring in individuals and organisations sans ethnic, geographic or religious boundaries, enabling centralised data collection centres that collect information from the field and distribute it to relevant stakeholders are just some of the immediate uses for technology.

Read full article here.

 

The PC is Dead ! Long live Mobiles !

Eschewing the tendency for PC based ODR systems to impose top-down hierarchies and sometimes exacerbate the digital-divide in the Global South, technologies that use mobile telephony and radio assume that communities are more comfortable using what is familiar as opposed to what is not, however sophisticated and powerful such systems might be. To this end, ICT for Peacebuilding systems must identify and develop existing local / grassroots capacities. In Sri Lanka for instance, this would involve using the very high literacy rate (91%), the ubiquity of radios, easy and low cost access to batteries, one of the most highly developed Alternative Dispute Resolution frameworks in the Global South with supporting legislation, thousands of trained mediators, multiple village level peace networks (very often with little or no communication within and between these social networks) and exponential growth of mobile subscribers and related services, with lower cost of access than PSTN telephones and coverage in conflict ravaged areas where traditional copper-wire infrastructure is still decades away.

Read full article here.

 

Mediation from the palm of your hand: Forgining the next generation ODR systems

In sum, this paper will submit that for the pervasive use of ODR in the Global South (as opposed to its increasingly entrenched acceptance in the Global North) a radical overhaul of its theories, conceptual underpinning and technologies needs to be undertaken. This paper will also develop ideas first discussed during discussions on ODR for an ADR course conducted by University of Massachusetts in March 2005 and further developed during Cyberweek 2005 in April 2005, in which the author was invited to present ideas of expanding the use of ODR through existing mobile telephony and radio (including internet radio) networks in the Global South. Certain ideas in this paper also stem from a presentation on ODR and conflict transformation given at the UN ODR Conference in July 2004. The author’s involvement in the on-going work of Info Share in Sri Lanka, an organisation that uses technology for peacebuilding, single text negotiations and the design of other conflict transformation processes, also under-gird the assumptions and arguments in this paper.

Read the full paper here.

 

The Internet and Conflict Transformation in Sri Lanka

At present, and even more so in the future, the importance of Information Communications Technology cannot be ignored by government, civil society and NGOs in Sri Lanka. ICT by itself is an impotent tool. What animates it is a culture in which stakeholders use ICT to buttress and build confidence between communities, engender discussion and help in the dissemination of information regarding state-of-the-art conflict resolution techniques and events. There are no easy solutions for the peaceful settlement of protracted ethnic, but a realisation of the power of ICT can help efforts on the ground to bring a negotiated, just solution to war in Sri Lanka.

Read the full paper here.

 

ODR sans PC said the mobile to the radio

Originally developed for Cyberweek 2005, this presentation on how Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) is evolving, particularly in Asia, beyond the Personal Computer and embracing mobile device such as mobile phones. I submit in this presentation a macro, meso and micro level strategy for ODR in developing nations.

View the full presentation Cyberweek_2005.ppt.

 

Presentation on Role of Technology and Media in Peacebuilding

As part of the World Press Freedom Day celebrations in Colombo, Sri Lanka, the BBC World Service Trust and the Swiss Development Agency (SDC) hosted a debate on the role (if any) of media and technology in conflict resolution. My presentation covered the many ways through which media could play a role, through public service values and professionalism in reporting, conflict transformation in a context such as Sri Lanka. My presentation, a brief one that lasted for 10 minutes, also touched upon the ways through which InfoShare had engineered several ICT for Peace (ICT4Peace) initiatives in Sri Lanka.

Download the full presentation here.

 

Thoughts on Democracy, New Media and the Internet – Working Draft

This paper, through the example of Sri Lanka, explores the larger challenges of new media and the internet in the promotion of democracy and peace in the Global South. A central contention of this paper is that internet and new media are inextricably entwined in larger social processes of peacebuilding and conflict transformation. This requires proponents of ICT to engage with the complex dynamics of politics, systems of governance, manifestations of conflict and the social capital in support of peacebuilding if they are to construct inclusive and sustainable frameworks and systems for the promotion of peace.

Read the full paper here.

This was first presented at a conference on Communication Technology and Social Policy in the Digital Age: Expanding Access, Redefining Control, organized by Annenberg Schools for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Southern California on 10th March 2006 in Palm Springs, California.

 

10 ideas for Microsoft Humanitarian Systems Group

This brief paper seeks to examine ten key elements of change that will shape the next 25 years of software development for humanitarianism, peacebuilding and by extension, all collaborative team work that uses Information Communication Technology (ICT). Written into this fabric are applications such as Groove Virtual Office® and new Communications Servers from Microsoft as well as technologies in support of informational archival and retrieval, presence awareness and the mobile web – such as new Microsoft Live technologies, Vista and Groove 12.

Read the full paper here. More information of the Microsoft Humanitarian System Group can be found here.

 

Creating virtual One Text processes in Sri Lanka

As such, within the larger matrix of OCT for peacebuilding, the central thesis of this paper will be to argue for One Text processes, which fall under the broad rubric of transformative mediation, that virtualise real world processes in order to increase the efficiency, sustainability and success of such processes of conflict transformation and peacebuilding. The specific case of Info Share’s work in Sri Lanka will be explored and used to examine the specific challenges that face such systems in the real world. The object will be to briefly explore the creation of new iterations of such systems that will be better able to respond to the dynamic and unique challenges of peacebuilding in post-conflict contexts.

Read the full paper here.

Critique of “Virtual Diplomacy” workshop at GKP touches a raw nerve

My earlier post on the workshop on Virtual Diplomacy at GKP seems to have touched a raw nerve with, strangely yet tellingly, the folks from Diplo Foundation who moderated and organised the session far more than some of those in the panel itself.

Clearly, the prissy and defensive responses that are found in response to my post, which are markedly different from those I received (via email) from Joshua Fouts and Rita King from Dancing Ink Productions who were actually represented on the panel, reveal a desire to obfuscate facts surrounding the constitution and organisation of what I will maintain was not just the worst workshop I attended at GKP, but one of the worst I have attended in my life on ICTs and their application to augment real world processes such as public diplomacy.

A few salient points are worth noting. Diplo Foundation states that,

“The background on SL for the audience was available at the beginning of the session (the description for the GKP-publication was provided two months before the event). In order to properly address the audience, the session was moderated to provide basic information on Second Life and the list of main, mainly development-related, aspects of SL.”

Several questions arise in this regard. It would be fascinating to discover how the organisers were able to fathom the constitution and interests of the audience before the workshop in order to tailor the content of workshop for them. I certainly didn’t get any revised material before or after the workshop and neither did my Sri Lankan colleague who accompanied me to the worhsop. There was none at the entrance, none on the chairs, none circulated in print or electronic by the GKP secretariat or by the Diplo Foundation. Participants came to the sessions based on and with their GKP brochure, which irrespective of when it was printed, outlined what was to be the terrain covered by the workshop. That it was changed was only too painfully evident as time progressed. It was only upon visiting the Diplo Foundation’s site after I returned to Sri Lanka that I discovered how much the panel’s scope had dramatically changed from that which GKP’s brochure had us believe. “Properly addressing” the audience therefore would have been to first inform them of the changed agenda and scope of the discussions.

As I noted in my first post however, it wasn’t even the fact that the scope changed that was the issue, but that the panel’s submissions were most disappointing for those with significant experience in SL for public diplomacy and who expectations of this workshop was to learn more than what they already knew. The Diplo Foundation deliberately confuses basic with naive in this regard and my original post covers a range of issues that the panel did not even hint at.

Diplo Foundation’s monotonous refrain in its comment, that “This was not the theme of the session; see the above mentioned descriptions of the session” in reference to the points I bring up, ergo, has perhaps more to do with the dastardly organisation of the workshop, for which the GKP secretariat perhaps must take the greater share of blame.

Clearly however, better communication from and between GKP and the organisers of the workshop (given their penchant for spamming participant Inboxes) would have helped orient audience expectations better and alerted those of us like myself, with significant real world experience in the use of augmented and virtual reality, to stay away.

Diplo Foundation goes on to note, correctly, that the question I posed in my post on whether the Maldivian Embassy in SL would continue to exist if activists launched protests in it against the essential dictatorship of the Gayoom regime, was not asked in the workshop itself.

Mea culpa.

What I did point to in the session was the fact that governments and other institutions may initially take kindly to and look at with great interest the possibility of establishing a presence in virtual worlds without realising the potential for them to be embarrassed by avatars staging demonstrations against them. Elections in France and acts of virtual vandalism in Australia demonstrate what’s already been done in Second Life in this regard. Going further, my point at the workshop was that initial enthusiasm may in some cases give way to increasing levels of resistance to virtual worlds in light of the above.I fleshed out this submission further in an email I sent to the moderator of the workshop, Jovan Kubalija from Diplo Foundation, after my return to SL. I averred, inter alia, that

I enjoyed the panel on SL, but may I humbly submit that I thought some of what was proposed by the panel to be naive and a result of a limited experience with complex political emergencies (CPEs) and protracted ethno-political and intra-state conflict (which defines many regions in the world today).I have worked over 8 years in peace process design and ICT and my optimism is tempered to a large degree by the fact that I live and work in a country where, when I step out of my home, I don’t really know whether I will make it back home alive. There are worse situations and the challenge also is to get, for example, the SL Maldivian Embassy to welcome and regularly conduct open forums that challenge what is in South Asia the longest running dictatorship and a regime with an atrocious record of freedom of expression and assembly.

Jovan’s response was,

I agree that the personal experience is very important for grasping broader political concepts. it is especially important for understanding tacit, emotional and “non-recordable” aspects of conflicts. Unfortunately, like yourself, I and most of Diplo team have experienced “reality” of the conflict in the Balkans.

Eva Chan Tanner (who I assume is also from the Diplo Foundation, given the curmudgeonly tone) also makes some comments on my post.

The prospect of using the virtual environment to build communities, to promote actual constructive dialogue and, hopefully to lessen the social and physical barriers that so often overshadow any real efforts diplomatically and in our daily lives was what was actually said.

I agree – that’s precisely the problem. The potential for progressive communications and dialogue is there and is one I unequivocally recognise and support. The real potential for its anti-thesis – of the creation and / or exacerbation of real world differences through virtual environments, of which examples are many including outright murder – and the panel’s inability and unwillingness to address it, was where the central problem lay.

Eva goes on to note that “There was no place in this session to politicise or promote a cause”. Though from the tone and content of her submission and the one earlier I find it hard to imagine Diplo Foundation furthering significantly any political cause, the raison d’etre of public diplomacy is precisely that. To ignore (party) politics or shaft it aside as unnecessary and unimportant is what I referred to in my original post as the dangerously naive outlook of some in the panel.

Eva then avers that,

“More importantly, the session showed how different governments are using it as part of their way of reaching out to the world. Isn’t this better than nothing at all?”

This is, most politely put, a pedestrian argument. Doing something is not necessarily better than doing nothing. Certainly, the swank Swedish Embassy with streaming Swedish pop would be a cool place to hang out to find out more about a country many of us born to conflict wish we were citizens of. But the mere presence of Government’s on Second Life does not mean they are “reaching out” and does not mean they want any real participation that critiques official policies or questions their propaganda. A presence in SL may just simply mean that they see it as another way to promote their (parochial) interests through a different medium and in no way can it be assumed that a two-way, meaningful dialogue is engendered and sustained by the virtual creations and presence of real world governments and States in Second Life.

Another point is made in the defense of the panel’s submissions on Second Life’s low carbon footprint, which in my post I said was not a given. In an earlier post on Second Life and the environment I noted that,

If it means that in some way it’s use cuts down on carbon emissions through the reduction of air-travel, then I guess it’s all the more reason to promote it as a platform for serious work and collaboration.

The point however is that the jury’s out on the real benefits of using SL to save the environment, as Nicholas Carr’s post here fleshes out in some detail. The panel was unaware of this debate and simplistically said that using SL was more sustainable than real world interactions.

Sadly yet in a manner that colours our appreciation of her entire submission, Eva ends her comment on a rather juvenile note by saying that

“I highly recommend that you revisit your notes from the session. Perhaps for the next GKP event, it would be wise to submit a proposal to do a session on ‘the use of Blogs, the beauty of it and the beast within it’.”

Condescension is the last refuge of those unable to countenance anyone who challenges their established wisdom. Obstinately protecting the halo around their noses, the ivory towers that Eva and the rest of her ilk reside and revel in are too far removed from reality to acknowledge the significant work of those who, based on what was presented at this workshop, are a few years ahead of the Diplo Foundation in their use, understanding of and approach to virtual worlds and new media to facilitate and augment public diplomacy, understood by this author as dialogues, physical and virtual, in support of the reconciliation of difference, the transformation of violence and the celebration of diversity.

Virtual Diplomacy Workshop at GKP GK III: A missed opportunity

I attended Diplomacy Goes Virtual: Opportunities and Limitation of Virtual Diplomacy, a worshop at the recently held Global Knowledge Partnership GK III conference in the hope that I would learn more than I knew and had already done using tools, mechanisms and platforms such as blogs, Skype, mobile communications, the XO laptop and Second Life, to further inter-cultural understanding, reconciliation and peacebuilding.

I was very, very wrong.

The panel was, by far, not just the worst I attended at GK III, it was one of the worst and most ill-informed I have ever attended in my life.

Perhaps it was on account of the gross mismatch between what the audience expected from reading the description of the workshop in the official GK III brochure (as reflected here) and what the panel turned out to be, which as noted here concentrated exclusively on Second Life.

I could have even endured a discussion on Second Life if it was anchored in the socio-political and cultural dynamics of countries and regions outside of North America and Western Europe – for example, those with repressive regimes that clamp down on fundamental freedoms, or those that were embroiled in Complex Political Emergencies (CPEs) and protracted ethno-political conflict.It was not to be.

The panel, that did not have a single Asian on it or anyone with experience in using MMORPG‘s / virtual worlds / Second Life for real world complex political negotiations, focussed entirely on the simplistic uses of Second Life to bring people together for genetic research and other mundane and relatively uncomplicated tasks. The unique and extremely challenging demands of virtual diplomacy shaped by and responding to violent conflict or where not at all covered.

The panel repeatedly pointed to the existence of Embassies of countries such as the Maldives in Second Life as proof of the coming of age of virtual diplomacy. My challenge to the panel was to map out how long the Maldivian Embassy on Second Life would last if there was a concerted effort to demonstrate against the essential dictatorship of the Gayoom regime in its virtual space.

It was a question they could not answer.

Even with Second Life, they did not cover at all the potential of conflict within sims, real world conflict spilling over into virtual interactions (or vice versa), alternative dispute resolution mechanisms within Second Life (such as the E-Justice Centre in Second Life), evolving notions of justice and peace within Second Life, how media reporting within and on Second Life influence the manner in which avatars interact or how sims in Second Life could be used for future scenario model based simulations in support of conflict transformation processes.

Further, the panel did not address the challenges posed by new media, such as blogs, to diplomacy and diplomats, as brought out in my post Diplomacy and blogs (on Jan Pronk’s behaviour in Sudan) or critical discussions on how the United States State Department is now using blogs to further international relations.

The panel also scoffed at the environmental impact of using Second Life, even though there’s no agreement that using Second Life is as environmentally friendly as it is often made out to be.

In fact, the panel did not address even a single point on the potential and challenges of using Second Life for dispute resolution, collaboration and civic participation I had made earlier at the 5th International Forum on Online Dispute Resolution in Liverpool, England.

On the positive side, the panel did discuss the urgent need for and developments towards interoperability of virtual worlds and the need for open standards and open source based access to and development of various sims and MMORPG‘s. A representative of Linden Labs who connected virtually made the exciting announcement that Second Life would be connected to (and perhaps even accessible from) mobile devices.

Regrettably, the constitution of and terrain covered by this workshop was the anti-thesis of what was expected from a global knowledge exchange as envisioned by GK III. Not only was the knowledge imparted through this workshop US and Western Europe centric, dated, passe and extremely blinkered, it was also at at times, dangerously naive.

To say nothing, especially when speaking, is half the art of diplomacy said Will Durant, the American writer and historian. In light of the overwhelming insignificance of this workshop’s presentations, one can compliment them all on mastering half the art of diplomacy.

I sincerely wish however that GKP invites, the next time around, non-diplomats who would invariably make for more meaningful and interesting discussions!

UPDATED: Please read Critique of “Virtual Diplomacy” workshop at GKP touches a raw nerve