The Technology of Peace

Last week, imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo received the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. He is a worthy winner. But another nominee for this year's prize is also deserving of recognition: the Internet.

Cynics will no doubt see the nomination of the Internet for a Nobel Peace Prize as sensationalist nonsense, a way to capture the public interest following last year's shock selection of President Obama. The Internet is just a tool, like the telephone or printing press. Like all tools, it can be used for both good and evil.

This is certainly true. But the web has shown itself to have a reach and impact which defies comparison with earlier communications technology. The Internet has played a critical role in many of the efforts of some of the world's bravest men and women to challenge injustice, overthrow tyranny and build the social conditions for peace in communities around the world. Liu Xiaobo himself hailed the web for bringing about the "awakening of ideas among the Chinese people"; the spread of the Chinese grassroots campaign for democracy, Charter 08, depends on the Internet, and several of China's top bloggers are signatories to the movement. In Iran, the 2009 Green Revolution was famously organized via Twitter and instant messenger, and although the uprising was swiftly suppressed by the hardliners, last summer's events have struck a blow against their regime's legitimacy and monopoly on power, and may yet finish it.

But the Internet is playing a much more profound role in creating a world free of conflict, because it is also a transformative force -- not just a network of computers, but a network of minds. Regimes which oppose peace seek to instill in their populations a totalizing narrative about everyday life, and to portray those who question or challenge it as their enemies. But the Internet utterly undermines both these goals. Not only does it provide access to a torrent of alternative narratives, it is an alternative narrative, of a world characterized by a default quality of openness, connectivity and access to information. A world free of national and natural borders, cultural and ethnic divisions. In this way, the Internet is changing the way people think, and promoting a new spirit of human empathy which is global in nature. We've already seen this in the way that the web has responded to moments of profound tragedy, like the outpouring of online donations produced by the earthquake in Haiti.

Because of this, the Internet has an inherently disruptive impact on regimes, institutions, social conventions and ideas everywhere which stand in the way of progress. This is why governments are going to such great lengths to control and limit the expansion of the web. Just take a look at the Google Transparency Reports showing requests from government agencies around the world to remove content from the search engine.

But even with such interference, national firewalls and filtered search terms, they are destined to fail. Short of blocking the entire Internet, there is no way to stop the many deep structural effects it exerts on society.

Some people would suggest that the main effect of the Internet is really just to reduce our attention spans and make us incapable of deep thought. The web is also clearly providing a platform for some of the nastier elements of human nature to make their presence felt, whether it's, at the mild end, the frequent outpouring of bile and stupidity found in the comments section of any news article, or more severely, the proliferation of websites linked to extremists and militant groups -- or being used to channel propaganda and misinformation. These are not unimportant issues.

Ultimately though, the web's potential for positive and far-reaching social change far exceeds its use for evil. And that's why societies and governments who desire peace must invest in the future of the Internet. Everything that the web has achieved thus far is but a fraction of its true power. If we are to see its potential realized, then the web must reach more people and be freed of the constant peril of bumping up against its own technological limitations -- the only real threat to its capacity to effect change. That requires legislative attention, which itself depends on policy-makers appreciating the capacity of the web to be part of the solution to pressing social and international debates. Hopefully, being nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize will do just that.

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