Beyond Tunis: ICT4Peace before ICT4D?

Flightplan 1.5

It is inevitable that advancements in technology find their way into peacebuilding – we are not even scratching the surface of what is possible today. The future of ICT4Peace, however, is pegged to the availability of funding to explore ways that technology can best help communities transform violent conflict. To date, donors, international agencies and local bodies are reluctant, at best, to approach ICT4Peace initiatives. This needs to change, and soon.

Precisely because of its growing importance and global recognition, ICT4Peace is no longer the domain of geeks or early visionaries. Ranging from Online Dispute Resolution (ODR), inter-cultural mediation, and virtual secure spaces for international collaboration to decision support systems in peace negotiations and advanced information visualisation, ICT4Peace spans a gamut of technologies, theories and communities of practice. From mobile phones to PC’s, from wireless to wired, from the village to the city, from citizen to politician, the future of ICTs in general, and ICT4Peace in particular, is invariably entwined with how well it vitiates violent conflict that mars our world today.

So much of ICT these days is about the use of big words. The core vision and raison d’etre of ICT4Peace however is quite simple.

It exists to generate hope, where little or none exists.

And that’s something truly worth supporting, for all our futures.”

Read my article in full here.

Interview with Dan Gillmor on Citizen Journalism at GK3

Interview with Dan Gillmor at GKP GK III in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 13th December 2007. I moderated a panel titled Pushing the envelop: New Media, Citizens Journalism, Human Rights and Development that had Dan on it at the Global Knowledge Partnership, GK III conference.

Interviewer: Ahmed Shifan from Young Asia Television

Clip 1 – What is Citizen Journalism?

Clip 2 – How did you become involved in Citizen Journalism?

Clip 3 – Citizen Journalism seems to be a growing trend in the world. So what now is the role of the professional media?

Clip 4 – What about the credibility of reports that are posted by Citizen Journalists?

Clip 5 – What is the future for Citizen Journalism?

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

Vint Cerf on ICT and Development: “If ever a technology defined an era of human development, ICT has that role in the 21st Century”

Speaking on the role of private, public and civil society in an interview with GKP, Google’s Vint Cerf goes on to explain how each can contribute to the exploitation of new ICTs for building and sharing Knowledge for Development purposes:

“The public sector (governments) have the opportunity to set policies and to support research that can lead to more rapid proliferation of ICT access and use. It can also lead by acquiring products and services that stimulate the use of ICT in government. Such uses can include provision of services to citizens via ICT as well as intra-governmental applications.”

The private sector can help to develop products and services based on ICT for use by government, business and residential users. It can engage in competitive investment and development of new ICT products and services and it can be active in the development of standards to achieve interoperability in the context of competition, to the advantage of users.”

Civil society can participate in the development of policies favoring the use of ICT, protecting a competitive environment for the private sector that favors domestic and international investment in ICT. Civil society also has the opportunity to collaborate with the other sectors to develop policies that protect privacy of individuals while at the same time empowering governments to protect against the abuse of ICT (spam, fraud, denial of services, viruses, worms, Trojan horses and so on).” 

Cerf goes on to say:

“I believe that information technology has the potential to open up a world of information to those who have been denied access in the past owing to lacking infrastructure or weak economic conditions.”

but fails to flesh ot his own position on Google’s internet censorship.

GKP Panel – Pushing the envelop: New Media, Citizens Journalism, Human Rights and Development


Despite a degree of skepticism about the event, in which I am not alone, I helped design and will moderate a panel for the 3rd Global Knowledge Conference organized by Global Knowledge Partnership.

Pushing the envelop: New Media, Citizens Journalism, Human Rights and Development

This panel brings together key thought leaders and innovators in new media and citizen’s journalism to explore the intersection of traditional and new media and the opportunities and challenges this presents to support human rights and media freedom – especially in countries with violent and repressive regimes.

Key questions explored by this panel will be:

  • Are citizens journalism and new media mere buzzwords or do they really make a difference compared to the reach and impact of traditional media?
  • Does censorship that traditional media is often subjected apply any differently to new media and citizens journalism?
  • Placed in harm’s way for the content one produces or showcases, how resilient is citizens journalism in the face of regimes that attack human rights defenders and media freedom?
  • Broadband is a pre-requisite for most new media. Is the new media revolution exacerbating the digital divide? How much can we generalise on the potential of new media to strengthen sustainable development as well as political and human rights issues?
  • Is new media more or less reflecting the imbalances in old media (gender related, for example) or is it more representative and equitable?
  • YouTube and SecondLife play a visible role in the mainstream party politics of some countries – is it a sign of things to come and what are the possibilities it presents for the future?
  • What does the future hold? Will the new media in 2015 look, feel and sound like?

More details here.