Peace Technology: Scope, Scale, and Cautions

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Margarita Quihuis and Mark Nelson co-direct Stanford Peace Innovation Lab, where Karen Guttieri leads the security and development initiatives. The lab creates design frameworks and innovation processes for technologies that measurably improve positive peace. The Stanford Peace Innovation Field Lab Network is a global research community consisting of thought leaders from the fields of innovation, technology, business, game design, finance, and peace studies. Margarita Quihuis tweets at @msquihuis, Mark Nelson tweets at @mark__nelson, Karen Guttieri tweets at @Karen_Guttieri. 5

Peace technology, as we have defined it at the Stanford Peace Innovation Lab, is fundamentally mediating technology—it acts as an intervening agent, augmenting our ability to engage positively with others. Peace technology, as we experience it today, contains four sub-components working together:

  1. Sensors that can measure human engagement behavior with ever-greater precision (such as cameras, microphones & GPS) between any two social entities across difference boundaries such as gender, income, ethnicity, age, nationality, etc.
  2. Communications technology including: cellular radio, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi capabilities in phones and laptops, as well as landline, fiber optic, and satellite networks.
  3. Computation, particularly distributed and cloud-based computing.
    The above three components enable detection and early-warning systems.
  4. The addition of actuators, which can include humans or devices, allows us to trigger and coordinate action in response.

These four component technologies are now so inexpensive and ubiquitous that your smartphone contains many of each.

Unlike previous technological revolutions, individuals can now design and deploy peace technology at scale almost anywhere in the world.  As Sheldon Himelfarb writes about teenagers in developing world neighborhoods, “these young entrepreneurs for social good represent a sea of change taking place in the conflict resolution field.”

Increasingly, technologies developed for other needs are being appropriated to increase peace. For example, military-funded technologies we now use every day such as the Internet and GPS have been redirected for humanitarian relief. The peacebuilding field can also redeploy innovations from the for-profit tech industry, which invests billions in research to increase positive engagement—as in the Airbnb “citizen diplomacy” example discussed below. Unlike the previous century in which technology was aimed at calculation, accounting, and manufacturing processes, today’s technology is focused on facilitating collaboration among groups of diverse people. This ideal is core to the mission of peacebuilding.

What possibilities await us as people continue to share images and stories across today’s early mediating technologies, such as Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp? These technologies enhance the ability to trust, permitting increased mutual action, and increasing our positive engagement with people farther away from us. This enlarged identity drives Peter Singer’s “expanding circle of altruism,” increasing our ability and motivation to help others, as often now happens in the wake of natural disasters.

Margarita Quihuis Mark Nelson Karen Guttieri Building Peace Forum #PeaceTech

(Photo Credit: Zeevveez via Flickr)

This new “share economy” is fueled by this ability to trust at scale.  For example, Airbnb, a virtual, global bed-and-breakfast company, uses sensors, communication tech, and computation to match hosts and guests worldwide. Hosts and guests do peer ratings to incentivize positive behaviors across geographic and cultural boundaries. This is fine-grained citizen diplomacy, and Airbnb explicitly sees itself in the peace business: “A lot of times, we tend to villainize the other, but when people are traveling, getting to know others, and turning strangers into friends, we create a world where there are a lot fewer people who seem alien to us,” says Chip Conley, Head of Global Hospitality for Airbnb.

In 2009, Stanford Peace Innovation Lab partnered with Facebook to demonstrate how mediating technology could quantify peace, as measured in episodes of positive engagement. At, we focused on the smallest detectible positive behaviors that make a measureable difference—in this case, “friending” across various conflict boundaries.  No one knows how strong a Facebook friendship is – only that when a Palestinian asked an Israeli to publicly acknowledge him as a friend, and that the Israeli publicly accepted, we could measure it—and that weak quantitative signal happened almost 20,000 times a day. What’s more, during the 2012 Israeli Operation Pillar of Defense war, friending between Palestinians and Israelis on Facebook did not drop precipitously; rather, it tapered down slowly, to 16,303 on November 20. It then immediately rebounded to higher than ever at 22,893 friendships on November 23, two days past the ceasefire, before stabilizing at previous levels. By contrast, during the entire war, the worst estimates placed on total citizens killed and injured at only 1,478.

“War and peace are rooted in individual behavior. The trends & events we read about are much better understood at the level of individual human acts that comprise them.”

As this example illustrates, war and peace are rooted in individual behavior. The trends and events we read about are much better understood at the level of individual human acts that comprise them.  This dynamic means it can now be more effective to design technology that enables and triggers new behavior, rather than the traditional approaches of designing policy or institutions to address broader groups.

While mediating technology augments our ability to engage positively, it simultaneously increases the potential for harm in three ways:

  1. Omission, such as distracting us from face-to-face, positive engagement with loved-ones at meals
  2. Commission, as seen in online bullying
  3. Unintended consequence, e.g. when increasing ease of trust erodes social bonds.

The reach and integration of technology in modern life has also created a participation deficit due to varying levels of access. As Ann Mei Chang writes, many voices are still not heard because “only 40 percent of the world’s population is online… but those who do not have Internet access are disproportionately poor, rural, older, and female.” At the same time, this technology is also increasing engagement of disenfranchised minorities at unprecedented levels—Forrester forecasts that more than 50 percent of the world’s population will be using smartphones by 2017, with most of that growth in developing countries.

By design, mediating technology changes human interaction. As a result, concerns around identity, trust, reciprocity, cyberbullying and accountability must all be rethought in this environment. While we have many concerns, our best estimate is that the upside of mediating technologies does outweigh the risks.

“A lot of times, we tend to villainize the other, but when people are traveling, getting to know others, and turning strangers into friends, we create a world where there are a lot fewer people who seem alien to us.”

Better technological and institutional designs to manage trust, decrease toxic discourse, and protect privacy are on the horizon. Consider previous technologies like aviation that conferred great advantages, but at a cost of tragic accidents and the potential for intentional harms. Yet every day we—individually and collectively—decide that aviation is worth those risks. Why? Because we have a global organization of engineers who systematically study every accident, then change the designs and regulations to ensure that those kinds of accidents never happen again.  In the same way, we need a rigorous, systematic, global approach to these newer, faster, smarter technologies.

To balance the potential of peacetech, we must remain mindful of serious known risks, ethical dilemmas, and the possibilities of vast unintended consequences that arise from its design and deployment.

As with aviation, doing no harm is impossible as we deploy new peace tech for the first time. But a “do no known harm approach is possible. A global organization of peace tech engineers and practitioners should work with regulators to transparently analyze and document every peace technology failure, ensuring the same harm is never repeated. In the same way that aviation has become the safest form of travel, peace technology can be come ever safer for those with deep differences who wish to positively engage.

(Feature Photo Credit: Delayed Gratification via Flickr)
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