I have a new site up for the book, with details on events, reviews, media and articles. It’s at:
The following oped was in the Globe and Mail last Friday. It is a response to the news of a new digital diplomacy initiative at the Munk School of Global Affairs funded by the Canadian Government. While i think the intention of the program and likely many of the initiatives it will produce are to be lauded, it really must be evaluated alongside the wide range of often contradictory digital foreign policy initiatives. The core argument below is drawn from a chapter on Digital Diplomacy in my forthcoming book.
At 5 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 7, 2012, five Canadian diplomats stationed in Tehran quietly left the country. After years of increasing tensions and rhetoric Canada cut all diplomatic ties with Iran.
But as Canada was cutting its formal diplomatic ties with Iranian officials, a separate team within the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade was working with the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto to build an online platform where Iranians could discuss their upcoming election. If Canadian diplomats could not speak to Iranian officials, they were going to help Iranians speak to one another.
This week’s announcement of an expanded digital diplomacy initiative based at the Munk School of Global Affairs is being positioned as an expansion of this “public square” initiative. And as an extension of the traditional public diplomacy once practised on TV and radio (think Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and BBC World Service) onto the Internet.
But it is, in fact, a far more assertive act, one of making foreign policy rather than simply communicating it. Such programs are part of a growing attempt by the state to remain relevant in a world of increasingly decentralized power.
Whereas states were once the primary means of incentivizing collective action and asserting power on the international stage, they are now being challenged by a wide range of individuals and groups who are using digital technology to organize, protest, report, aid each other, trade, and at times attack. Whether they be hackers, digital humanitarians, cryptocurrency innovators, activists, citizen reporters, or terrorists, the Internet allows people to take on the institutions that once held a monopoly on power.
Digital diplomacy is therefore part of the state’s attempt to remain relevant and to assert power in the digital space. And while the goals of any one initiative might be lauded (as this one can), we need to view and ultimately assess it as only one component of a wider suite of digital foreign policy actions. Taken as a whole, digital foreign policy is fraught with challenges and hypocrisies.
First, such seemingly innocuous initiatives often backfire. Take, for example, USAID’s elaborate scheme to create a Cuban version of Twitter with the goal of fostering dissent and promoting regime change. While an innovative and audacious use of digital technology to achieve a (however misguided) State Department objective, the revelation of the program tainted the reputation and hurt the effectiveness of USAID as a whole.
Second, the platforms and tools being built through initiatives like the Iran Dialogues, replicate or use the very anonymizing capabilities that our national intelligence agencies are simultaneously seeking to break and undermine. The ability to communicate anonymously empowers perceived nefarious and legitimate actors alike, whether they be terrorist, black market commerce sites, domestic protesters, or dissidents in Iran. Programs seeking to break encryption will ultimately negate any well-intentioned digital diplomacy initiatives.
Third, digital foreign policy is increasingly being outsourced. Governments distance themselves from acts of hacking or cyberwar through the use of arm’s-length organizations. Whether it be the Syrian Electronic Army, the recent North Korea hack, or the U.S. and Canada using think tanks to build digital tools, it is getting increasingly hard to attribute online action and to hold it accountable.
Finally, the same governments that are seeking to enable free speech in countries like Iran are at the same time rapidly expanding the surveillance state. Thanks to the revelations of Edward Snowden we now know how the state has chosen to respond to this new space of digital empowerment. Like a traditional battlefield, they are seeking to control it. To, as they themselves claim, “know it all.”
And herein lies the central tension in the digital diplomacy initiative. By seeking to control, monitor and undermine the actions of perceived negative actors, the state risks breaking the very system that positively empowers so many. And this will ultimately harm those living under autocratic and democratic regimes alike.
The answer, unfortunately, is not as simple as many critics of digital diplomacy assert. Simply returning to traditional in-person diplomacy ignores the global shift to decentralized digital power. Digital diplomacy is a well-intentioned attempt to participate in this new space. However, it is one that is both ill-suited to the capabilities of the state, and is negated by other digital foreign policy programs.
We are at the start of a reconfiguration of power. Navigating this terrain is one of the principal foreign policy challenges of the 21st century.
My forthcoming book, Disruptive Power: The Crisis of the State in the Digital Age, is now available for pre-order on Amazon. Official launch is March 1, and will be touring internationally throughout March and April. Lots more details soon. Blurb from OUP is below:
Anonymous. WikiLeaks. The Syrian Electronic Army. Edward Snowden. Bitcoin. The Arab Spring. Digital communication technologies have thrust the calculus of global political power into a period of unprecedented complexity. In every aspect of international affairs, digitally enabled actors are changing the way the world works, and disrupting the institutions that once held a monopoly on power. No area is immune: Humanitarianism, War, Diplomacy, Finance, Activism, or Journalism. In each, the government departments, international organizations and corporations who for a century were in charge, are being challenged by a new breed of international actor. Online, networked and decentralized, these new actors are innovating, for both good and ill, in the austere world of foreign policy. They are representative of a wide range of 21st century global actors and a new form of 21st century power: disruptive power.
In Disruptive Power, Taylor Owen provides a sweeping look at the way that digital technologies are shaking up the workings of the institutions that have traditionally controlled international affairs. What is it that makes for successful digital international action? What are the tools being used by the actors increasingly controlling international affairs? How does their rise change the way we understand and act in the world? What constitutes effective online international action? What are the negative consequences of a radically decentralized international system? What new institutions will be needed to moderate the new power structures and ensure accountability. And how can governments and corporations act to promote positive behaviour in a world of disruptive innovation? Owen takes on these questions in this survey of the frontier of international affairs, a world enabled by information technology, and increasingly led by disruptive innovators.
With cutting edge analysis of the fast-changing relationship between the declining state and increasingly powerful non-state actors, Disruptive Power is the essential road map for navigating a networked world.
Cross posted on www.towcenter.org
Long a figment of technophile imagination, a confluence of technological advances has finally placed in-home virtual reality on the cusp of mainstream adoption. Media attention and developer interest have surged, powered by the release of the Oculus Rift to developers, the anticipated launch of Samsung’s Gear VR, rumored headsets from Sony and Apple, and a cheeky intervention from Google called Cardboard; a simple VR player made of cardboard, Velcro, magnets, a rubber band, two biconvex lenses and a smartphone.
We now have the computational power, screen resolution and refresh rate to play VR in a small and inexpensive headset. And within a year, VR will be a commercial reality. We know that users will be able to play video games, sit court-side at a basketball game and view porn. But what about watching the news or a documentary? What is the potential for journalism in virtual reality?
Virtual reality is, of course, not new. A generation of media and tech researchers used both cumbersome headsets or VR ‘caves’ to experiment with virtual environments. Research focused mostly on how humans engage with virtual environments when the mind tricked them into thinking they are real. Do we learn, care, empathize and fear as we do in real life? Do we feel more? This research is tremendously important as we enter a new VR age; out of the lab and into peoples’ homes.
In addition to the headsets, a second technology is set to transform the VR experience. While initial uses of the Oculus Rift and similar devices have focused on computer generated imagery (gaming) and static 360° images (such as Google Street View), new experimental cameras are able to capture live motion 360° and 3D virtual reality footage.
The kit is made from 12-16 cameras mounted to a 3D printed brace, and then stitched onto a virtual sphere to form a 360 degree virtual environment. While 360 cameras have been around for years, these new kits are also stereoscopic, adding depth of field. They are not yet commercially available, but several are in production, including one by startup Jaunt and another by NextVR that uses six extremely high resolution Red Epic Dragon cameras. We are working with the media production company Secret Location who have also built a prototype, pictured below.
This new camera technology opens up a tremendous opportunity for journalists to immerse audiences in their story and for audiences to experience and connect to journalism in powerful new ways. And this is the focus of a new Tow Center Research project studying and prototyping live motion virtual reality journalism
The project is a partnership between Frontline, The Secret Location, and the Tow Center. James Milward, the CEO of the Secret Location is leading the production, Raney Aronson, the Deputy Executive Editor of Frontline is leading the field experiment and shoot, Dan Edge is taking the camera into the field, and I am leading the research. Together, along with Pietro Galliano, Sarah Moughty and Fergus Pitt, we will be running the demo project and authoring a Tow Brief to be published in partnership with MIT documenting the process and lessons learned.
The project recently won a Knight Foundation Prototype Grant.
In short, this project explores the extension of factual film making onto this new platform. Unlike other journalistic VR work, such as the pioneering project by Nonny de la Pena, which has relied on computer-generated graphics, this project will be centered on live video, delivering an experience that feels more like documentary and photo journalism than a console game. There are few examples of this type of journalism. The one that comes closest would Gannett’s recent project for the Oculus Rift called Harvest of Change.
The first phase of the Tow Center VR project has several components.
First, we are testing the equipment needed to capture live motion virtual reality footage. This includes a prototype 360/3D camera and surround sound audio recording. We recently held a training session for the camera at the Secret Location Toronto office.
Twelve GoPros mounted in a 3D printed brace.
The 360° stereoscopic camera, with directional microphone.
Second, we are deploying this video and audio equipment to the field on a story about the Ebola outbreak being directed for Frontline by Dan Edge, a renowned documentary film-maker. This phase will test how the camera can be used in challenging environments. But crucially, it will also explore new journalistic conventions. How do you tell a story in VR? What does narrative look like? Dan is currently in Guinea with the camera and he will be traveling to Liberia and Sierra Leon in early 2015.
Third we will then be testing new post-production VR processes, including the addition of interactivity and multimedia into the VR environment.
The demo will be launched in the spring alongside the release of the feature Frontline documentary and with an accompanying report documenting the experiment and what we have learned. We will also be hosting apanel on VR journalism and this year’s SXSW featuring James Milward, Nonny de la Pena, and head of Vice News, Jason Mojica.
We are all acutely aware that this emerging practice, while exciting, presents some challenging questions.
For the practice of journalism virtual reality presents a new technical and narrative form. It requires new cameras, new editing and shooting processes, new viewing infrastructure, new levels of interactivity, and can leverage distributed networks in new ways. In addition to these technical innovations, an emerging scholarly discourse is exploring how virtual reality also challenges traditional notions of narrative form. Virtual reality, combined with the ability to add interactive elements, changes the positionality of the journalists, breaking down the fourth wall of journalism. Storytelling is pulled from its bound linear form, and moved to a far more fluid space where the audience has new (though still limited) agency in the experience of the story. This changes how journalists must construct their story and their place in it, and challenges core journalistic assumptions of objectivity and observation. It also changes how audiences engage with journalism, bringing them into stories in a visceral experiential manner not possible in other mediums.
CBC The Current Interview on Virtual Reality Journalism with Taylor Owen and Nonny de la Pena
More conceptually, virtual reality journalism also offers a new window through which to study the relationship between consumers of media and the representation of subjects. Whereas newspapers, radio, television and then social media each brought us closer to being immersed in the experience of others, virtual reality has the potential to further break down this distance. A core question is whether virtual reality can provide similar feelings of empathy and compassion to real life experiences. Recent work has shown that virtual reality can create a feeling of ‘social presence,’ the feeling that a user is really there, which can create far great empathy for the subject than in other media representations. Others have called this experience ‘co-presence,’ and are exploring how it can be used to bridge the distance between those experiencing human rights abuses and those in the position to assist or better understand conflict.
It is our hope that this initial project, as well as a planned larger multiyear research project, will begin to shed light on some of these questions.
This Walrus magazine article provides some further background to the project.
Last weekend, the Globe and Mail published two articles on Twitter, both of which were dismissive of the platform and were written by authors who do not actively use it. In short, “What Twitter is, and isn’t,” and “Will Twitter Change Politics?” by Konrad Yakabuski and Tom Flanagan respectively, informed us that Twitter and its users are trite, and liberal, and that its value should be judged by its ability to “change” elections.
Twitter has real advantages and limitations, but neither were spelled out. While it is encouraging to see public debate about this emerging form, it deserves a more nuanced discussion.
Twitter is used in a vast number of ways. For some it is a means of following friends; for others it is a source of links to news and articles. It increasingly serves as a collective fact checker for traditional media. Many use twitter as a newspaper or magazine, providing links to both breaking news, and longform journalism and reporting. During the Libyan revolution, citizens and revolutionaries used it to communicate with the outside world. The manhunt for the Boston bombers was live-tweeted, and twitter was used to corroborate the police scanner. During sporting events and awards shows it forms a collective second screen community. It is a place for snarky commentary, gossip, and breaking news. Some people tweet all day, others just watch.
The point is, any list of how twitter is used, will itself be trite. Users engage with Twitter in diverse ways for diverse reasons, just as they do with newspapers and TV.
For me, Twitter is a way of actively immersing myself in the communities in which I work and engage: international relations, digital technology, politics and journalism.
Using Twitter, I can actively participate in a 24-7 real-time collective conversation in each of these communities. In each, I follow and engage with academics, politicians, journalists, activists, technologists, and a wide range of citizens from all backgrounds and professions interested in the same subjects as me. Herein lies the real power of the form. Twitter is not an extension, or supplement to public discourse, it is a public discourse. And, compared to other media, a remarkably accessible form of it.
When people ask whether twitter can be democratizing, they usually ask, as Tom Flanagan did, whether it can shape elections. This is an attempt to prove relevance only via instrumentality, which to me is the wrong metric. Twitter has broken down the barriers of entry to public discourse. This, in itself, it it’s democratizing effect. We value free speech and newspapers for more than their instrumental effects, and so we should Twitter.
Twitter has been successful because it has become a part of the public and personal discourse, not because it overthrows dictators. The question driving the debate over what Twitter is and isn’t, therefore, shouldn’t be whether twitter will change politics, because twitter is politics. A gossip-mill or an accountability mechanism – just like any other political system, it is a reflection of the people who use it.
The fact that Twitter has become a de-facto public space poses real challenges. But these are not whether people have trouble finding useful information, or are overwhelmed by the pace, or don’t enjoy short videos – the problems depicted by Flanagan and Yakabuski. These are simply projections based on personal tastes, like saying I don’t like newspapers because they leave ink on my fingers, or they take too long to read.
The real challenge of Twitter, and social media more generally, is that we need to think carefully about what it means to devolve the public space to private companies. There are a wide range of challenges that stem from this. Here are four.
First, just as more newspapers go behind paywalls, and cable TV replaces broadcast, more and more of our public debate costs money. So far, Twitter has remained free. But with increasing pressures to commercialize, and the increase of social marketing, we will pay in some form or another. This payment will undoubtedly have an effect on Twitter’s democratizing role.
Second, we need to think as a society about how our individual and collective information (or “Big Data”) is being used by the private and public institutions that collect, sell, and trade it. In particular, who owns the data we leave behind as we engage online, or our “data exhaust”. The EU is grappling with these tough questions head on, and has recently proposed a right to erasure and deletion.
Third, Twitter needs to decide whether it is a publishing platform or a media company. Increasingly, Twitter, like YouTube and Facebook, is making editorial decisions about what content is allowed on their platform. Tweets to the videos of the killing of a child in Syria would be allowed, for example, whereas those to the mass shooting of a group of children in the United States would surely be taken down. Why, and how are these decisions being made? Twitter and Google both now issue transparency reports detailing their editorial decision making, as well as government requests for data. But these only provide a very limited glimpse.
Finally, what is the nature of free speech on privately owned platforms? Over the course of the twentieth century, we developed laws, regulations, and norms around public communication on TV, radio, and in print. Few of these have transferred to the new public squares, which are almost wholly owned by increasingly monopolistic private companies, in varying degrees of contact and partnership with national governments.
Twitter is many things to many people, and its uses present a vast array of opportunities and challenges. Let’s seriously debate the changes it represents in the way we communicate and interact, not dismiss it as a trite fad.
This week, in partnership with Google, we launched a new feature on OpenCanada.org called the OpenGlobal Show. Each episode, I will connect with a panel of friends/colleagues/experts on international affairs through Google Hangout.
For the first episode, the panelists were:
- Ivan Sigal, Executive Director, Global Voices
- Joshua Foust, International affairs writer, analyst, and columnist for PBS
- Katherine Maher, Director of strategy and engagement at the digital rights organization Access
Given the weeks events, I wanted to dive into three moments in the days following the Boston bombing that I think represent changes in the way the public engages with breaking events:
- Yesterday: Was the Reddit community manhunt a positive use of the released photo?
- Last night: Is this our first post-cable national news story?
- This morning: What do we know about the suspects’ backgrounds, and can we process these assumptions usefully in real time?
- Next week: What will be drowned out by this story next week?
The video of the first episode is below, and the link to the OpenCanada.org home for the show is here.
Imagine that you are living somewhere in Pakistan, Yemen, or Gaza where the U.S. suspects a terrorist presence. Day and night, you hear a constant buzzing in the sky. Like a lawnmower. You know that this flying robot is watching everything you do. You can always hear it. Sometimes, it fires missiles into your village. You are told the robot is targeting extremists, but its missiles have killed family, friends, and neighbors. So, your behavior changes: you stop going out, you stop congregating in public, and you likely start hating the country that controls the flying robot. And you probably start to sympathize a bit more with the people these robots, called drones, are monitoring.
As reports of the Obama administration’s policy on the use of drones to target American citizens trickle out, infuriating libertarians and flummoxing liberals, their global use continues unabated.
The drone program is now one of the signature foreign policy initiatives of the Obama Administration, and its scale is significant: since 9/11, over 4,000 drones have been employed in surveillance, reconnaissance, and lethal attacks in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan alone. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that the Defense Department will spend about $36.9 billion across its different branches on 730 new medium-sized and large drones through 2020. This does not include the wide range of experimental research into such technologies as swarm drones, funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). These small bird or insect sizes drones, capable of flying in coordinated masses, will challenge current conceptions of weaponry, and push the bounds of ubiquity in modern warfare.
The reports of the numbers of people killed by American drones vary. Senator Lindsey Graham recently remarked, “We’ve killed 4,700 … Sometimes you hit innocent people, and I hate that, but we’re at war, and we’ve taken out some very senior members of Al-Qaeda.” Much of the conversation about the impact of these strikes has rightly focused on the moral and legal costs of these civilian casualties, but it is a mistake to judge the impact of the U.S. drone program only by the number of sorties or kills. When this is the sole basis for evaluation, it is easy to argue that there is nothing particularly unique about this form of warfare – that these people would have been targeted and killed by U.S. Special Forces or manned aircrafts had the drone program not been in place. But this type of analysis misses a defining characteristic of the drone program that makes it qualitatively different from the less sophisticated weaponry that it is replacing: ubiquitous drone use blurs the line between citizen and militants.
The psychological impact of drone surveillance, when combined with the civilian casualties we already know occur during strikes, leads to significant negative strategic costs that need to be incorporated into our assessment of the drone program.
Drones don’t enter into a battlefield like a strike fighter or Special Forces team, quickly taking out the target, and then leaving. Drones are omnipresent. They hover over villages and cities, watching, then killing, then watching again. Like Big Brother. What are the human and strategic costs of this uninterrupted drone presence?
This infringement of basic privacy, combined with potential lethality, has a profound psychological effect on those living with drones overhead. There have been a wide range of studies investigating this phenomenon (see list at bottom of the post); Living Under Drones, a study conducted in the northern tribal region of Waziristan, is by far one of the most comprehensive ones. Taken up at the request of the U.K.-based non-profit Reprieve, this study was conducted by lawyers and researchers at Stanford University (International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic, IHRCRC) and New York University (Global Justice Clinic), with help from a local Pakistani non-profit, Foundation for Fundamental Rights (FFR).
The findings of this study are striking and, more importantly, truly disturbing. For instance, a vast majority of people reported being perpetually scared of drone strikes, day and night. Just the constant noise above makes people experience bouts of emotional trauma and symptoms of anxiety. And these symptoms are more widespread than previously thought – there are reports of men, women, and children too terrified to sleep at night. Medical practitioners have asserted that these anxiety-related disorders amongst the people of Waziristan often manifest themselves in the form of physical illness, ranging from headaches to heart attacks, even suicides.
Drone-induced anxieties are profoundly impacting the way these people live their lives. For example, most kids in Waziristan no longer attend school. People avoid daily activities such as grocery shopping, farming, and driving for fear of drone strikes. One psychiatrist argues that this behaviour is symptomatic of “anticipatory anxiety” – a psychological phenomenon that causes people to constantly worry about their immediate future (this is very common in conflict zones). People experiencing anticipatory anxiety report having emotional breakdowns, running indoors for safety, hiding during the day, having nightmares, and other anxiety-related problems which dramatically affect their ability to live their lives.
In his account, David Rohde described both the fear the drones inspired among his captors, as well as among ordinary civilians: “The drones were terrifying. From the ground, it is impossible to determine who or what they are tracking as they circle overhead. The buzz of a distant propeller is a constant reminder of imminent death.
Similar examples of psychological trauma exist in Gaza, where people report that drones disrupt their daily activities, making them feel powerless and unsafe. The emotional trigger/stressor identified by most Palestinians is the buzzing sound of the drones. Again, they report avoidance of social activities and tribal rituals, including weddings, funerals, and burial processes, and consequent disengagement from their communities.
Scientifically and medically speaking, this phenomenon can be explained as an outcome of unpredictability and uncontrollability. It is very akin to reactions to torture. In particular, some have argued that living under drones leads to psychological trauma based on the learning theory formulation of torture, which states that exposure to inescapable and uncontrollable stressor events “that threaten physical and/or psychological well-being” lead to “a state of total helplessness.”
The broader impacts of drone use are revealing. They expose the false dichotomy between civilians and militants that underlies both the tactical decision-making process and much of the public debate about that process. Drones do not only affect their intended “kills” – they affect the civilians literally caught in their kill zones, and those living under them in fear day and night.
There is a clear and undeniable moral dimension of this form of warfare. But there are also real strategic costs. What do the people living under drones, let alone those who have had family and friends killed, think about the countries operating them? As one mental health professional remarked to a Living Under Drones researcher, “People who have experienced such things, they don’t trust people; they have anger, a desire for revenge … So when you have these young boys and girls growing up with these impressions, it causes permanent scarring and damage.”
As Ben Kiernan and I noted in an article that draws parallels between the use of airpower in Afghanistan to the U.S. bombing of Cambodia, when U.S. bombs hit a civilian warehouse in Afghanistan in late 2001, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld responded: “We’re not running out of targets, Afghanistan is.” There was laughter in the press gallery.
The January 13, 2006 aerial strike by a U.S. predator drone on a village in Pakistan that killed women and children and inflamed local anti-U.S. political passions is a pertinent example of what continues to occur in Afghanistan and Iraq. The “collateral damage” that occurred in this case even undermined the positive sentiments previously created by billions of dollars of U.S. post-earthquake aid to that part of Pakistan. Aside from the killing of innocent civilians, how many new enemies does U.S. bombing create?
Drones may ultimately prove strategically beneficial. They may even prove more palatable, in a human rights sense, than the alternatives. But when we calculate their utility in war, we need to include a full accounting of the strategic costs, including the long-term implications of widespread psychological warfare.
Some important studies/sources and their findings/arguments:
- Living Under the Drones (Stanford Law and NYU Law)
- The Civilian Impact of Drones (Columbia Law School)
- Charting the data for US airstrikes in Pakistan, 2004 – 2013 (Long War Journal)
- Drones and Physical and Psychological Implications of Global Theatre of War (Medact)
- Year of the Drones (New America Foundation)
- Predator Drones, Empathy, and the President (Psychology Today)
- Drone Strikes or Mass Torture – A Learning Theory Analysis (Metin Basoglu)
- The Drone Wars: 9/11-Inspired Combat Leans Heavily on Robot Aircraft (Scientific American)
- Obama terror drones: CIA tactics in Pakistan include targeting rescuers and funerals (Bureau of Investigative Journalism)
This article is cross-posted on opencanada.org
I have two books on human security coming out this year, which have both just gone to production. The first is a Sage Major work on Human Security, which is a four volume best-of the human security literature. I choose 75 articles that I think should define the field, and prefaced the set with an introduction article. The book is meant for libraries.
The second is the Routledge Handbook on Human Security, which I edited to Mary Martin. This one is made of up new articles on human security from some of the top statesmen and academics in the field, including: Amartya Sen, Mary Kaldor, Lloyd Axworthy, Javier Solana and Sadako Ogata.
Consider for a moment two scenarios.
One, a malicious energy reporter tasked with reviewing an electric car decides he is going to fake the review. Part of this fictional narrative, is that the car needs to run out of battery power sometime in the review. He arrives at one of the charging stations, and instead of plugging in, spends a few minutes circling the parking lot trying to drain the battery.
Second, an energy reporter is tasked with reviewing the potential of a new electric car charging network. He arrived at one of the charging location in the dark, and can’t find the charging station. He drives around the parking lot several times looking for it, before finding it and charging his car.
Here is the thing. As Craig Silverman recently pointed out to me, we actually have no idea, based on the interpretation of the review data released by Tesla, which narrative is true. All the data shows is a car driving around a parking lot. And here in lies the principle lesson from the whole Tesla affair: Data is laden with intentionality, and cannot be removed from the context in which it was derived. We do not know, from these data alone, what happened in that parking lot.
David Brooks touched on this very issue in a recent (somewhat overly maligned in my opinion) column on the limits to big data. While his Italian banking analogy felt misplaced, there is actually a large amount of research backing up his general themes. And his point that data struggles with context, is directly relevant to the Tesla dispute:
Data struggles with context. Human decisions are not discrete events. They are embedded in sequences and contexts. The human brain has evolved to account for this reality. People are really good at telling stories that weave together multiple causes and multiple contexts. Data analysis is pretty bad at narrative and emergent thinking, and it cannot match the explanatory suppleness of even a mediocre novel.
In the case of the Tesla review, it is this context that was both poorly recorded by Broder, and which is missing from the Tesla data analysis. This does not mean the analysis is wrong. But it does mean it’s incomplete.
A couple of further points about the role data played in this journalistic dispute.
First, the early triumphalism against the New York Times in the name of both Telsa and data transparency, were premature. In Tesla’s grand rebuttal, Musk clearly overplayed his rhetorical hand by arguing that the review was faked, but he also overstated both the case he could make with the data, as well as the level of transparency that he was actually providing. Tesla didn’t release the data from the review. Telsa released their interpretation of the data from the review. This interpretation took the form of the graphical representation they choose to give it, as well as the subjective write-up they imposed on it.
What is interesting is that even with this limited and selective data release (ie, without the raw data), entirely different narrative interpretations could be built. Broder and his New York Times team presented one. But Rebecca Greenfield at the Atlantic provided an even more detailed one. There are likely elements of truth scattered across these three interpretations of the data. But they are just that – interpretations.
Second, the only person who can provide the needed context to this data is Broder, the reviewer himself. And the only way he can convey this information is if we trust him. Because of his “problems with precision and judgement,” as the New York Times’ Public Editor Margaret Sullivan put it, his trust was devalued. So the missing journalistic piece to this story is lost. Even in a world of data journalism, trust, integrity and journalistic process still matter. In fact, they matter all the more.
Finally, we can’t lose sight of the outcome Tesla wanted from this. They wanted PR for their new vehicle. So amongst all of the righteous indignation, it is worth noting that journalistic principles are not their core objective – good stories about their products are. These may or may not be aligned. This is why, for example, Broder was given significant support and access during his review trip (some of which ultimately proved to be misguided).
An example of this discrepancy surrounds the one clear reality about the Model S (and presumably electric cars in general) that was revealed in the review – they lose significant charge when not plugged in during cold weather. Now, Tesla would rather this fact had not emerged in the review. But it did. And as Steven Johnson pointed out, this has significant implications, specifically for city drivers. For one, it makes parking the Tesla S on the street in the winter (what many urban dwellers would have to do), largely impractical.
So, to recap. The Tesla Affair reinforces that: data does not equal fact; that context matters enormously to data journalism; that trust and documentation are even more important in a world of data journalism; and that companies will continue to prioritize positive PR over good journalism in reviews of their products.
Crossposted on the Tow Center for Digital Journalism blog
By way of an intro, currently:
- I am Assistant Professor of Digital Media and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia
- I am the Research Director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at the Columbia School of Journalism. Here I coordinate a research program on digital technology and journalism.
- I founded and now edit an international affairs media platform called OpenCanada.org. This site is an experiment in building a community at the intersection of research, journalism and public policy.
- I direct a research project called the International Relations and Digital Technology Project. Through this project, based at UBC and the CIC, we are exploring the theoretical and practical impact of digital technology on the field of international relations.
- I have a book coming out with Oxford University Press, titled Disruptive Power: The Crisis of the State in the Digital Age, being released in February 2015.
- I am leading a new research project on the use of virtual reality for journalism for the Tow Center and the Knight Foundation.
My PhD was on the concept of human security, exploring how mapping and spatially analyzing local vulnerability data can help us better understand the nature of extreme insecurity. My current personal research, however, now focuses on the intersection of digital technology and international relations. I am interested in how ubiquitous digital technology challenges the institutions, systems and norms that control the broadly defined space of international affairs. Through my position at Columbia, I also write about and coordinate a research program on the evolving space of digital media and journalism.
I use this site as a contact point and as an aggregator of my academic work and broader writing. I crosspost writing from the Tow Center, OpenCanada, the IRDTP, as well as other media.
A bit more officially:
Taylor Owen is Assistant Professor of Digital Media and Global Affairs at the Graduate School of Journalism and the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia and the Research Director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at the Columbia School of Journalism. He is the Founding Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian International Council’s international affairs platform OpenCanada.org, the Director of the International Relations and Digital Technology Project, an international research project exploring the intersection of information technology and international affairs, and the Research Director of the Munk Debates. His Doctorate is from the University of Oxford where he was a Trudeau Scholar.
He was previously a Banting Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of British Columbia, a Fellow in the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University, a Research Fellow at the Center for Global Governance at the London School of Economics and a Researcher at the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo. His research and writing focuses on the intersection between information technology and international affairs. Taylor Owen’s publications can be found at www.taylorowen.com and can be followed at @taylor_owen.
Email: taylor (dot) owen (at) gmail (dot) com
Warning: I have been largely defeated by email flow, so please feel free to send reminders and nudges when needed.
Books and Manuscripts
- Disruptive Power: The Crisis of the State in the Digital Era. Forthcoming, February 2015, Oxford University Press
- Journalism After Snowden, Forthcoming 2015, Columbia University Press (ed with Emily Bell and Jennifer Henrichson)
- Canada and Global Transformation: Rethinking Our Foreign Policy, Forthcoming April 2015, (ed with Roland Paris), University of Toronto Press, Toronto
- The New Global Journalism: Foreign Correspondence in Transition. Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Columbia University, 2014 (ed with Ann Cooper) pdf
- Human Security. Sage Major Work, Four-Volume Set. London, UK. 2013. Link
- The Handbook of Human Security, Routledge Press, Forthcoming 2013 (ed., with Mary Martin) Link
- Operationalizing Human Security: From Local Vulnerability to International Policy, DPhil Thesis, The University of Oxford, July 2010.
Peer Reviewed Academic
- Burgess, P, Owen, T and Uttam Kumar Sinha, “Securitizing Water: A Case Study of the Indus Water Basin” Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 25(4).
- Owen Taylor and Mary Martin, 2010. “The Second Generation of Human Security: Lessons from the UN and EU Experiences?” International Affairs, 85:1.
- Travers, Patrick and Taylor Owen, 2008. Canada in Afghanistan: Between Metaphor and Strategy. International Journal, Sept/Oct 2008. (winner, Canadian International Council Gelber Prize)
- Owen, Taylor, 2008. The Critique that Doesn’t Bite: A Response to David Chandler’s “Human Security: The Dog that didn’t Bark” Security Dialogue, 39(4), April/June 2008.
- Aldo Benini, Harvard Rue, Taylor Owen, 2008. “A Semi-Parametric Spatial Regression Approach to Post-War Human Security: Cambodia, 2002-2004″, Asian Journal of Criminology, Volume 3, no 2, September 2008.
- Liotta, P.H & Taylor Owen, 2006. “Why Human Security?” Whitehead Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations Vol VII, No. 1: 37-55.
- Liotta, P.H., & Taylor Owen, 2006. “Symbolic Security: The EU Takes on Human Security”. Parameters. The Journal of the US Army War College. Vol 36, No. 3: 85-102.
- Gleditsch, NP; Owen, T; Furlong, K & Bethany Lacina, 2006. ‘Conflicts over Shared Rivers: Resource Wars or Fuzzy Boundaries?’ Political Geography. Vol. 25. No. 4: 361382.
- Owen, Taylor & Olav Slaymaker, 2005. “Human Security in Cambodia: a GIS Approach”. AMBIO. The Journal of the Human Environment. No. 6, Vol. 34.
- Owen, Taylor, 2005. ‘Consciously Absent?: Why the Secretary General used Human Security in all but Name’ St. Anthony’s International Review. Vol. 1, Issue 2.
- Owen, Taylor, 2004. “Human Security – Conflict, Critique and Consensus: Colloquium Remarks and a Proposal for a Threshold-Based Definition”. Security Dialogue, vol. 35, no. 3, September 2004. Special Section on Human Security, co-edited by Peter Burgess and Taylor Owen.
- Owen, Taylor. 2003. “Security Mapping: A New View of Cambodian Insecurity”. Cambodian Development Review, Vol. 7, Issue 2.
- Owen, Taylor and Ben Kiernan, 2010. The Costs of the US Bombing of Cambodia. In Pavlick, Mark ed, US War Crimes in Indochina: Our Duty To Truth. Common Courage Press, 2010.
- Owen, Taylor and Emily Paddon, 2010. “Beyond Humanitarians: Canadian Development Policy in Afghanistan.” In Ben Perrin (ed), Edges of Conflict, UBC Press: Vancouver.
- Owen, Taylor and David Eaves, 2010. “Missing the Link: How the Internet is Saving Journalism.” In, The New Journalist, Edmund Montgomery Press: Toronto.
- Owen, Taylor, 2008. In All but Name: The Uncertain Future of Human Security in the UN. In Rethinking Human Security, Blackell Press: Oxford.
- Owen, Taylor, “Measuring Human Security: Methodological Challenges and the Importance of Geographically-Referenced Determinants.” In Peter Liotta ed, Environmental Change and Human Security: Recognizing and Acting on Hazard Impacts. Springer NATO Science Series, 2008.
- Owen, T, & P.H. Liotta, 2006. “Europe Takes on Human Security” in Tobias Debiel/Sascha Werthes (Eds.): Human Security on Foreign Policy Agendas: Changes, Concepts and Cases. Duisburg: Institute for Development and Peace, University of Duisburg-Essen (INEF Report, 80/2006).
Non-Peer Reviewed Academic
- Owen, Taylor, 2012, Disruption: Foreign Policy in a Networked World. Trudeau Foundation Position Paper. PDF
- Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan, 2010. The U.S. Bombing of Afghanistan and the Cambodian Precedent, The Asia Pacific Journal June 2010. Republished in The Asia Times.
- Travers, Patrick and Taylor Owen, 2007. Peacebuilding While Peacemaking: The Merits of a 3D Approach in Afghanistan. UBC Center for International Relations Security and Defense Forum Working Paper #3.
- Owen, Taylor, 2006. “In all but Name: the Uncertain Future of Human Security in the UN”. Commissioned UNESCO publication.
- Owen, Taylor, 2004. ‘Are we really secure?: Challenges and opportunities for defining and measuring human security’ Disarmament Forum. Issue 2, June 2004.
- Owen, Taylor. 2003. “Measuring Human Security: Overcoming the Paradox”. Human Security Bulletin. October, Vol.2 No. 3.
- Owen, Taylor. 2002. “Body Count: Rationale and Methodologies for Measuring Human Security”. Human Security Bulletin. October, Vol.1 No. 3. pdf
- Owen, Taylor, 2010. A World Turned Upside Down. The Literary Review of Canada. link
- Owen Taylor and David Eaves, 2008. Progressivism’s End. The Literary Review of Canada. September, Vol 17, No 7. (Winner of national New Voices competition)
- Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan, “Bombs Over Cambodia. The Walrus Magazine. November, 2006. (Finalist for National Magazine Award)
- Taylor Owen and Emily Paddon, 2008. Zakaria, Kurdish Nationbuilder, The Walrus Magazine, December 2008.
- Owen, Taylor and Ben Kiernan, 2008. Iraq Another Vietnam, Try Cambodia? Japan Focus. May, 2007. Reprinted in Outback Magazine.
- Owen, Taylor & Patrick Travers, 2007. 3D Vision. The Walrus Magazine. July/August 2007.
- Jackson, T., N. Marsh, T. Owen, and A. Thurin, 2005. “Who Takes the Bullet: The Human Cost of Small Arms”. Oslo: Norwegian Church Aid.
- Owen, Taylor & Aldo Benini, 2004. ‘Human Security in Cambodia: A Statistical Analysis of Large-Sample Sub-National Vulnerability Data’. Report written for the Centre for the Study of Civil War at the International Peace Research Institute Oslo.
- Taylor Owen, 2010. Why Wikileaks will Lead to More Secrecy, not Less. Macleans Magazine, November 29th, 2010.
- Taylor Owen, 2010. Five reasons David Cameron’s coalition government is not a harbinger for Canada, The Globe and Mail, May 14, 2010.
- Taylor Owen and Rudyard Griffiths, 2010. Learning from Britain’s Three Election Debates, The National Post, April 30, 2010.
- Taylor Owen and Rudyard Griffiths, 2010. Let the Debate Begin, The National Post, April 16, 2010.
- Taylor Owen and Adrian Bradbury, 2009. The Rhetoric of Foreign Policy. The Mark News, Dec 1 2009.
- Taylor Owen, 2008. One Step Closer to an Obama-Ignatieff Continent, The Prospect Magazine, December 2008.
- Taylor Owen and David Eaves, 2008. Real Liberal Renewal. The Toronto Star, November 20, 2008
- Travers, Patrick, Taylor Owen, 2008. 2011 is a date, not a goal. The Toronto Star, April 5th 2008.
- Taylor Owen and David Eaves, 2007. Failed strategy connects Afghan fields, city streets, The Toronto Star, December 7th, 2007.
- Taylor Owen and David Eaves, 2007. Kandahar deal breakers: The Afghan poll is not a blank cheque, The Globe and Mail, November 2nd, 2007
- Taylor Owen and David Eaves, 2007. Africa is Not a Liberal Idea, Embassy Magazine, October 3rd, 2007
- Taylor Owen and David Eaves, 2007. Iraq Suddenly Appears on Canada’s Radar Screen. Toronto Star August 29th, 2007
- Taylor Owen and David Eaves, 2007. How the internet humbled the NYT, The Tyee, October 10th, 2007
- Taylor Owen and David Eaves, 2007. Blogosphere at Age 10 is Improving Journalism, The Toronto Star, July 30th, 2007
- David Eaves and Taylor Owen, 2007. Prime Ministerial Power Stifling Decision Making. Toronto Star, June 28th, 2007
- Taylor Owen and David Eaves, 2007. Getting Back On Track in Afghanistan. Toronto Star, February 23rd, 2007
- David Eaves and Taylor Owen, 2007. Beyond Vimy Ridge: Canada’s Other Foreign Policy Pillar. Globe and Mail, April 18th, 2007.
- Review of The Canadian Century, Brian Crowley, Jason Clemens and Niels Veldhuis, The Globe and Mail, August 10th, 2010.
- Review of: Michael Byers’ Intent for a Nation in Embassy Magazine, October 10th, 2007
- Jeffrey Sachs. The End of Poverty. The Journal of Peace Research 43(1) Jan 2006.
- Blix, Hans. Disarming Iraq: The Search for Weapons of Mass Destruction. The Journal of Peace Research. 42(5) Sept 2005.
- Ehrlich, P., and Anne Ehrlich. One with Nineveh: Politics Consumption and the Human Future. The Journal of Peace Research. 42(4) July 2005.
- Najam, Adil. Ed. Environment, Development and Human Security: Perspectives from South Asia. The Journal of Peace Research. 41(5) Sept 2004.
- Monbiot, George. The age of consent : a manifesto for a new world order. The Journal of Peace Research, 41(5) Sept 2004.
- Schell, Jonathan. The Unfinished Twentieth Century: The Crisis of Weapons of Mass Destruction. The Journal of Peace Research. 41(4) July 2004.