Flashpoints | Security

What Would Technology for Peace Actually Look Like?

Defense technology columns spend a lot of time looking at how emerging technology will shape the future of war. Could technology reshape peace as well?

What Would Technology for Peace Actually Look Like?
Credit: Flickr/Lisa Ouellette

When trying to predict how technology will impact the future of war and peace, it is perhaps too easy to focus on the first part of that formulation. After all, military technology is generally expensive, high-profile, and both designed and used to loudly communicate intent and capability.

That ease lends itself to a too-glib-by-half answer, which is to suggest that the technology of war is also the technology of peace: to borrow from the motto of U.S. Strategic Command, the ability to make war is precisely that which guarantees peace. There isn’t space in this column to litigate the entire debate about nuclear (and conventional) deterrence. But even the maximally generous interpretation of the arms-race-as-deterrence-as-peacebuilding narrative — that nuclear weapons prevented WWIII and that horizontal proliferation prevents other large-scale wars — does not account for wars and armed violence below the great power level.

So, what role could technology play in building and maintaining peace up and down the scale of conflict?

One common answer is that a critical element of peace is about forging human connections: The idea that creating connectivity between different people across ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and/or national lines will create empathy and make violent conflict unthinkable. This is the philosophy of a number of technology for peace initiatives (as well as non-technological initiatives, to be fair).

But it also tracks closely with the explanation that tech company executives — most notably, Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey — give to explain their business philosophy. Connectivity, in their telling, is a positive end in and of itself; to bring people together is to provide an overwhelming social good regardless of what ethical boundaries are blurred along with way. The staggering profitability of these enterprises for a relatively small number of owners and investors rarely makes it into these high-minded explanations, of course.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

But to accept the narrative that technologically mediated connection axiomatically builds understanding and peace is to ignore the many, many ways that social networking has contributed to the opposite. These run the gamut from nominally benign but distressingly common, as in the creation of epistemic bubbles, to the far more nefarious: disinformation campaigns, propaganda dissemination, and even organizing support for (or denial of) actual war crimes.

To be clear, I am not arguing that connectivity is inherently contrary to the goal of peace. But technological connectivity, as currently implemented by massive, barely accountable corporations, is incentivized toward factors other than building empathy and consensus. And fora that are designed to produce empathy and consensus have far, far smaller audiences — and, accordingly, far less potential for impact.

One final area where technology can be genuinely useful to the cause of peace is to undergird transparency and accountability measures. Satellite imagery and open-source intelligence, for example, have made it possible for researchers and activists to track violations of domestic, international, and humanitarian law. Technology has made numerous arms control pacts — from the Open Skies Treaty to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty — verifiable and therefore politically feasible.

That is the key element. Technology, in and of itself, is not sufficient to ensure peace. As an intellectual framework, would-be peacemakers should look to technology as a means to make a de-escalatory or stabilizing political process possible; not that the technology by itself should deliver that goal. In that way, it is a mirror image of the technology of warfare: A sophisticated weapon is no guarantee of strategic success in the absence of political will and strategic, tactical, and operational skill.

The absence of a flashy, widely known example of a miracle peacemaking algorithm may serve to limit the inclination of would-be peacemakers to put too much stock in technology. But by the same token, there needs to be a better understanding that peace is not always a sufficient reward. In many cases — especially low-level and irregular conflicts — the absence of peace allows for forms of commerce (drug trafficking, illegal mining, or simply operating businesses without regulation) which are sufficiently profitable for their stakeholders to resist the resumption of “normal” governance. Perhaps there is a technological solution that would change that dynamic, but it is difficult to imagine what it might be.

Still, we should be trying to imagine how technology can support the cause of peace and supporting creative and experimental efforts to push the boundaries of the possible. But we should do so with an understanding that technology exists as part of a set of moral and political systems which are not necessarily set up to prioritize peacebuilding. That means we must also address those failings in order to give peace technology a chance.