First published in Conciliation Quarterly, Fall 2002, Vol. 21, No. 4. Republished with permission.
With the state of the world today, anyone would be hard pressed to make a case that the Internet has had a significant positive impact on world peace. On the other hand, knowing how much the Internet has changed the world, it is hard to imagine that the Internet has not changed the peacefulness of the world. The Internet has changed everything.
Information and Communication
Assuming that peacemaking organizations have been effective, it would be clear that they have done so by distributing information. Education, public awareness and political pressure would appear to be their primary means of effectiveness. An Internet search, on terms like peacemaking, peace builders and other peace terms, finds hundreds of websites. Many peace organizations have invested energy in the Internet. Vast amounts of information are available but it still begs the question of effectiveness. Who reads it and what do they do with the information. Students learn from it and they grow to become peacebuilders, they enter the world and have impact, but that is a stretch to say the Internet did something for peace. It has certainly done much for peacemaking organizations. PeaceNet and ConflictNet were pre-Internet networks working to enable peace organizations and mediators with information and communication technologies (ICTs). The umbrella organization Institute for Global Communication ( IGC.org) developed partner relationships through out the world and in 1990, helped form the Association for Progressive Communications (APC.org).
Today APC is an international network of civil society organizations dedicated to empowering and supporting groups and individuals working for peace, human rights, development and protection of the environment, through the strategic use of information and communication technologies, including the Internet.
The Flip Side
The Internet has also certainly done much for groups seeking to change the world by other than peaceful means. There is no question that terrorist groups use the Internet very effectively to coordinate their activities. There is probably an APT (Association for Progressive Terrorism) but we don’t hear much about them.
What is somewhat less obvious is how the Internet is being used to recruit, develop and coordinate radical extremist groups. Extremist ideas raised in an open Internet discussion may cause negative reactions by that group, but it may also stimulate email sidebars and invitations to join a more private group where such ideas are prevalent and growing; a first step in recruiting. Before the Internet, these groups needed to meet in secret locations, dependent on geographical proximity. The coming and going of members were easy to detect and often deterred more frequent meetings. Global secret meetings are simple on the Internet.
Sinister information is readily available, instruction manual’s for bombs, deadly chemicals and a whole array of technologies for violent activites are easy to find. (This could be a myth, since My Google Search on Bomb building didn’t find much of use.) I suspect that a bit of networking and shopping around may prove more effective in obtaining destructive information. It may also bring invitations from extremenist groups and perhaps a visit from the Homeland security folks. Again, prior to the Internet there was information available and it was being passed around, now it is just more and easier.
The forces of evil are not technophobes or late adopters, the Internet is certainly a part of their arsenal.
Print, radio and television, as well as web-based news portals gather and distribute vast quantities of information about conflicts and atrocities around the world. While journalists have long had vast information gathering networks, the Internet has significantly increased the scope of these networks. This increased access to information may actually make the world appear to be a relatively less peaceful place. Prior to the Internet we simply did not know how many conflicts were occurring.
But does more information and news reduce conflict? If the world knows we are about to declare war, are we less likely to do so? The concept of “The whole world is watching,” may be a mixed bag. Some conflicts may escalate, knowing that there is an audience. Having TV cameras in the courtroom has shown indications that it heightens the fervor of battle. If we know how many conflicts are happening are we prone to be numbed by the sheer quantity and come to care less and less about more and more?
Governments benefit from being able to control the flow of information to and from their citizens. There have been many examples of conflict and coups that have been impacted by information being emailed and faxed through the boundaries of government controls on the Internet. Oppression and human rights violations are quickly known to the world and it is increasingly difficult to keep a population in the dark.
The Internet has quickly moved us from “one to one” or “one to many” communications, to a “many to many” modality. There is a democratization of information. Before the Internet, expensive broadcast capacity was required to get your message out to the world (one to many). Now with, only the cost of an Internet account, you can start your message on a course that will not only travel worldwide, but may persist in the medium for a very extended period of time and reach millions. With Television, radio and news print, if you missed the timing, you likely missed the news. News messages come and go in the blink of an eye. Information on the Internet can continue to circulate and even become permanently stored and accessible by database searches. So it is not only one to many communication, but persistence also.
Building or Expanding Communities
The Internet began with the dreams of creating global virtual communities, but very few have grown as imagined. With very little searching I found that from my computer in California I can read my small town Michigan newspaper and listen to the local radio station, and even view video clips from the local television station on the Internet. Before info overload again set in, I was back in my little community feeling connected. With another simple search, I was reading the Prague Post and listening to Radio Prague. If I were an immigrant from Prague I would certainly stay connected to my community through services like these. Of course email with family and friends would also be a part of my strategy for staying connected.
While this may not be the global community model imagined in the early days of the Internet, it is a very real extension of communities in a way never before possible. The reality that evolved is more of an extension and expansion of families, communities and the workplace. The virtual market place has also grown. The Internet has clearly contributed to an increased globalization, but that impact is beyond my speculative scope. What is clear is that there is an ever-expanding global connectedness. Will connectedness alone contribute to peace, or do we need to be connected about something? Do we need to have focused dialogues or facilitated processes for resolving disputes or can we actually participate in the democratic process online?
Governance or Government?
In the early days of the Internet, as the military released the technology to the scientific community, the preponderance of activity came from the Universities; often the hot bed of radical social change. Computers and the Internet in the hands of the idealistic youth have turned many social conventions on their heads.
The early Internet had no structured leadership or governance and attempts to impose such structures are still floundering. At times, the commercialization of the Internet looked much like law and order in the American Wild West. Send commercial SPAM and you and your Servers were likely to be brought to your e-knees by a flood of retaliation coming from vigilantes everywhere, using devices just created. Attempts at censorship or control of pornography have had very limited success. Even the registration of Domain names got so out of control, there is still much effort being spent to sort it out.
It has been and will likely continue to be the best example of a functional anarchy. Governance and regulation are evolving but it will clearly be international and democratic. And the democracy will be inclined to be a participatory democracy, rather than a representative democracy. Attempts at governing the Internet may prove to be more challenging than using the Internet to govern.
In September of 2002, the Institute for the Study of Information Technology and Society sponsored a conference at Carnegie Mellon University entitled, “The Prospects for Electronic Democracy.”
The conference assembled an international group of researchers and democracy practitioners to “provide an interdisciplinary and multidimensional assessment of potential for new information technologies to promote and revitalize democracy.” Panels focused on “the experience and consequences of e-democracy; the social and psychological contexts of on-line deliberation; e-democracy’s impacts on the institutions of representative democracy; and the implications of developments in information technology for the future of democratic theory and practice. ”
As e-commerce became a reality, the European Union, already very concerned with a changing trans boundary marketplace, began taking a serious look at the impact of the Internet on the global market place. The United States Federal Trade Commission also took a leadership role in establishing a system of ecommerce re-dress. Markets need means of resolving disputes and with the Internet, it becomes very difficult to determine where the Court room might be located and which laws might prevail. The world of Online Dispute Resolution was born. Many plans have been devised, but of particular interest is an underlying theme that suggests that mediation is the preferred process for resolving disputes. If a system can encourage parties to resolve their disputes with resolutions that they voluntarily agree upon, then the problem of enforcement becomes much easier. If a Court or an arbitrator imposes a resolution or judgment, the question immediately becomes one of, who provides the enforcement. If mediation can gain a foothold in the e-commerce marketplace then perhaps it has a chance in more complex venues.
We must remember that the Internet is still in its infancy. It reminds me of a Great Dane puppy I raised. He grew rapidly and became a very large dog, but he was still very awkward and still very much a puppy. The dot com bubble was very much a puppy trick, but the Internet will grow out of it and become a relatively well behaved muture adult making a significant positive impact. The ability to communicate, to be creative, and to imagine the future are hallmarks of human evolution. The Internet is the nexus of these traits and thus holds great promise for a better future. Onward!