A Musing on Tech for Peacebuilding

It’s been ages since I posted, so instead of a targeted piece on some particular topic I thought I’d post something general.  Consider it a shakedown post to get the rust off.

Pretty much how I feel about blogging right now

A bunch of things happened this summer which have shifted my view on technology and peacebuilding.  In some ways my belief that these tools, such as mobile phones, crowdsourced maps and social media can create a space for profound change has been reaffirmed.  In other ways my skepticism of the world-changing nature of technology has been stoked.  Perhaps my inner political scientist has a hard time accepting one or the other, so I’ve begun thinking of technology and social change through the lens of political economy.

There’s a part of me that still firmly believes these tools, mobile phones, participatory maps, and social media can affect positive social change.  They can provide a space to create political meaning, gauge popular sentiment and organize uprisings.  In the field of international development we are seeing mobile phone applications change how we collect public health data, track project outcomes, and provide educational messaging that is having particularly positive effect on women’s and maternal health.  SMS messaging is improving access to services in the developing world, especially rural regions.  In conflict resolution and peacebuilding, projects like PeaceTXT are creating a narrative of peaceableness for subscribers in Kenya as opposed to merely being a reporting mechanism.  This is all great.

But this is where the skepticism starts creeping in.  I wanted to think of technology access in a way that wasn’t technology centered, so one day (that I now rue) I decided to take a political economy approach to how ICTs spawn and expand in societies.  Instead of trying to decide whether ICTs are good or bad for democracy and conflict prevention, the question became whether different types of investment strategies led to ICT distributions that favored citizen empowerment or government control.  Since investment is as political as it is monetary, and investment is required to build mobile phones systems and internet connections, I decided it would be fun to unpack how different investment instruments impact technology distribution and the political effects thereupon.  This topic will be revisited over the coming academic year, since it’s both fun and complex.

The skepticism creeps harder when I start thinking about data ownership, the World Bank/Google ‘open’ data alliance, and Herbert Marcuse’s “One Dimensional Society.”  This will be covered in more depth in the next post.  For now, I think I’ve exercised enough writer’s block.

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