Is technology a tool, or is it tooling us? Opening remarks for the Build Peace 2018 Conference

Transcript of remarks by Helena Puig Larrauri, co-founder and Director of Build Up. Build Up recognizes and catalyzes better local peacebuilding through innovation — and one of the places it does this work is through supporting the formation of the Build Peace community.

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What is the relationship between innovation, digital technologies, and peace? We keep asking ourselves this in different forms, different contexts, and different angles. In fact, it’s underpinned our inquiry for last four Build Peace conferences, and it is core to our questions this year at Build Peace 2018 — Re-imagining Prosperity: Alternative Economies for Peace.

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There’s often an underlying assumption to that question, that is that technology is just a tool, and what matters is how we choose to use it. If you’ve been to a Build Peace conference before, you’ve heard me say that, because I think I’ve said it at the beginning of every single conference. If you’ve been to any of the trainings that Build Up runs, you’ve heard us say it: technology is just a tool, and what matters is how you choose to use it.

This underlying assumption about the neutrality of digital technology is also behind our ideas around the strategic functions of technology in peacebuilding, how it can be designed, developed, and utilized.

The tools, or the tooled?

We have a problem: We’re increasingly starting to question that assumption.

We’re actually not so sure that technology is just a tool. We think questioning that assumption is very relevant to the theme of the conference this year.

We’re increasingly starting to think that technology is actually tooling us. Technology stops being just a tool when it fundamentally alters the human experience.

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One way to start thinking about this is to consider clocks. Before we had clocks, we had a very different experience of time. Time was measured according to different processes, to natural processes, to how long something took to do, to the weather, to the seasons, or just to how long you wanted to do something for.

When clocks were introduced time suddenly began being measured in a different way. by being measured in a different way, we became conditioned by that tool.

Our experience of time changed fundamentally.
Our experience of work changed fundamentally.
Our experience of leisure changed fundamentally.

I’m not sure a clock is just a tool. In a way, it tools us.

It’s even more important to think about how digital technology is tooling us. It’s relevant to the conversation we’re having as peacebuilders when it comes to innovation.

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Digital technology is changing our incentives.
There is a neuroscience interest in and early stage research into how social media is changing our brains. Some are looking into the “dopamine effect”: how dopamine releases for using social media and smartphones, from all the notifications we get, release dopamine, which may help create neural pathways that changes our incentives. These incentives may create a kind of real chemical addiction — we are addicted to looking at our phones.

While this research into the effect on our brains is still tentative, there is a larger body of practice and research on the behavioral orders and disorders associated with so-called “persuasive technologies”. The idea focuses on finding the exact the way to issue “notifications” at the moment they are going to be most addictive. If you can do this, your smartphone app, or your digital technology, will be more successful. It’s a little perverse in my view, but it’s very effective.

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Digital technology is affecting how we construct discourse.
We know that most people are increasingly consuming media through social media, and we know that social media is built to maximize engagement. In order to maximize that engagement, most social media platforms present us content similar to that which we have previously liked. In other words: they’re built to create filter bubbles. They’re built on the idea of homophily — ‘birds of a feather flock together.’ People want to hear what they already agree with. They create echo chambers. They change how we’re constructing discourse.

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Digital technology is changing our identities.
If we have a change in our incentives and a change in how our discourses are built, this alters how we build our identities. We are beginning to see that a lot of teenagers who overuse digital technologies, and social media in particular, are more likely to be depressive. We know that political polarization is more prevalent as a result of how we’re constructing discourse. And, we’re beginning to understand that people who use digital technology more are less likely to be able to manage interpersonal conflict.

These are indicators of things that we should be thinking about as peacebuilders. We should be thinking about how digital technology is tooling us, because we’re people who want to build peace in innovative ways, and do so using digital technologies.

Prosperity, technology, and peace

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In Build Peace 2018, we explore how digital innovation and creativity can reshape the economic opportunities, economic organization, and economic power that impact how we live together in peace. We also know that in many contexts, building peace requires addressing the role of economics in conflict. To build peace, we must also re-imagine the economic organization and the economic powers that affect how we live together.

Creative and digital economies can create or deepen conflict, altering or reinforcing the balance of power in ways that damage efforts toward reconciliation and social cohesion. It can go either way — we know there has always been an economic dimension to who gets to affect our incentives, our discourses, our identities. I think what we want to question is whether digital technology can re-entrench this power, or whether it can reshape it.

I want to encourage you to engage with these three cross-cutting questions:

  • How can we build innovations that reshape rather than re-entrench the economic power that impacts how we live together in peace?
  • How can we create tools and processes that are anchored in values of inclusion and equality rather than persuasion and power?
  • What ethical guidelines can help us navigate digital technologies that are much more than “just tools”?

Finally, every year, the Build Peace organizing team offers up a slogan that we hope can capture the spirit of the conference. This is the spirit in which we hope we can all move through this particular inquiry with respect for each others’ ideas, integrity, and lived experience:

“Nothing about us, without us, is for us.”

It’s a slogan that many different organizations working in many different fields have used over the years. For us, it’s relevant as we think about how we can insure that there is inclusion and prosperity for all within this very complex setting of innovation in digital technology.

Thoughts? Comments? Connect with us on Twitter and Facebook, or email us.

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Build Up transforms conflict in the digital age. Our approach combines peacebuilding, participation and technology.

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