The Impact of Tech: Getting Past ‘Good Versus Bad’

The emergent theme from my travels this summer presenting academic papers on tech for social change hasn’t been “is it good or bad,” but instead “why are their good and bad outcomes, and can these be generalizable?”

It’s this kind of question that motivates me as a political scientist.  Yes, indeed technology can be used for good and bad.  We could argue all day about where and how technology has or hasn’t affected positive social change, spurred a revolution, or promoted government centralization of information flow.  What’s useful is to ask is why these outcomes came to pass.  A political science approach can help us understand why mobile telephony can play a positive role in conflict prevention.

We can look to the literature on conflict risk that addresses information systems and information failures.  James Fearon of Stanford University points out that conflicts are rooted in information failures.  At some point there is not enough information being shared between two or more groups, leading to a security dilemma.  Security dilemmas exist where two or more groups are unsure of the others’ intent, and once a security dilemma exists, the optimal choice is to attack since you don’t want to end up on the back foot in a conflict.

Mobile phones come into play when we view security dilemmas as information failures or information asymmetries.  One group (A) in a potential conflict environment might have incorrect information about the other group’s (B) intent, leading to the assumption that B is going to attack.  If there is no way to communicate directly between the groups, the information asymmetry becomes a security dilemma, where group A has to decide whether to sit back and wait, potentially falling victim to surprise attack from group B, or attack after deciding the risk of waiting is too high.

Here is where we inject mobile phones, albeit with some important caveats.  Since mobile phones are so heavily used in conflict sensitive environments at the local level, information sharing across local actors is increased.  This is important, since usually the fighters and perpetrators of violence are the local militias or youth; if the communication system starts at this level, you’re going to see conflict prevention at work.  PeaceTXT, as explained by Patrick Meier, is a fantastic example of how mobile phones can be used to engage at risk populations to change the narrative of violence.  The other reason this local level information sharing is critical is because it can take away the power of conflict entrepreneurs and instigators.  Instigators thrive on information asymmetry, but mobile phones in the hands of local actors can lead to a robust counter narrative with regard to group intent.

Of course there are some critical caveats.  First, we have to identify a willingness to prevent violence at the local level.  People have to prefer non-violence; if local actors are amped up for a fight, a pile of mobile phones can have quite the opposite effect of conflict prevention.  In 2007 during the electoral violence in Kenya mobile phones were used to spread rumors and organize violence.  Indeed, communication technology is just an amplifier of human intent.  We also have to consider second level information sharing.  While mobile phones are quite ubiquitous, having a plan for getting this local level information onto radio waves is crucial since so many people in conflict-affected regions rely on radio for information.

There is a certain thrill to getting at the role of technology in conflict prevention and peacebuilding using “why” questions.  We’re seeing a set of tools emerging that are making the theories regarding information sharing a practical reality on the ground, and it’s hugely thrilling since it helps political scientists see when we’re getting things right while providing data for grounded theories, where we still need to improve upon our models to be of practical use in conflict resolution.

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