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
There is a new arms race emerging between people who want to communicate freely and securely and governments that want to monitor and limit this communication. In democratic countries, this government interference ranges from the mass monitoring of telecoms to flirtations with cutting off social media flows and shutting down cell towers in protest areas. When autocratic countries face crisis and conflict, however, the battle for control over communication is more troublesome and the risks are more acute.
Linking the interference being run by governments in democratic and autocratic countries is the technologies being deployed by both. And therein lies a paradox: The tools that enable autocratic governments to monitor and control their citizens are produced by western technology companies.
Much like the arms trade, this often creates an awkward scenario in which western countries end up supporting opposition movements that are fighting against technology bought from western countries. Sometimes this collusion backfires in provocative and potentially controversial ways. For example, in Syria, American journalist Marie Colvin and French photographer Rémi Ochlik were killed by a mortar attack that was most likely carried out by targeting their satellite phones. It is widely held that this technology was provided by western companies.
There are many recent examples of this phenomenon, especially within the context of the Arab Spring. High profile technology companies such as Gamma (UK) and FinSpy offered surveillance services to regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain, and Syria. Google Engineers discovered contract proposals between Gamma and the Mubarak regime – €250,000 worth of spy technology that would “enable them [Egypt] to intercept dissidents’ emails, record audio and video chats, and take copies of computer hard drives.” The SpyFiles operation by Wikileaks and Privacy International further revealed 287 documents indicating that these surveillance companies such French arms dealer, Amesys, sold both spyware and malware technologies (including Trojans) to the Gaddafi regime.
The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto has uncovered a wide range of examples of complicity between western companies and authoritarian regimes. Most recently, it showed that devices manufactured by Blue Coat Systems, a California-based hardware company, were in use by 61 countries, with histories of human rights abuses. In 2011, it detailed how Syria used Blue Coat software to both censor the Internet and root out particular activities linked to pro-democracy activists.
Western governments use this same type of commercial filtering and monitoring technology to monitor and restrict the online behaviour of their employees. This means that western governments could very well be implicitly supporting private companies that develop technologies that assist the oppressive regimes the oppose.
Indeed, if one were to attend a trade show for such technologies, as a Washington Post journalist recently did, one would find more than 35 United States federal agencies buying the very same technologies as the autocrats. As reported in the Atlantic, Jerry Lucas, who runs a trade show called ISS world, which is known as the “Wiretapper’s Ball” was asked by the Guardian whether he would be comfortable with Zimbabwe and North Korea buying technology at his trade shows. He responded, “That’s just not my job to determine who’s a bad country and who’s a good country. ”That’s not our business, we’re not politicians … we’re a for-profit company. Our business is bringing governments together who want to buy this technology.”
The U.S. State Department, which has spent $70 million promoting internet freedom abroad, is part of a government that has few regulations on the trade of the technology that prevents such freedom. A bill has been before the United States Congress to prevent the sale of this technology to “Internet-restricting countries” since 2006, but the bill faces implementation challenges, as the list of countries in question now includes most nation states. And there are other real limits to what western governments can do, due to both the scale of the industry, estimated at $5 billion a year globally, and the limits of contemporary international law.
There have been some positive steps: Last year a U.S. congressional subcommittee passed the Global Online Freedom Act (GOFA), “creating a new transparency standard for Internet companies listed on U.S. stock exchanges and operating in countries that substantially censor or control the Internet.” The GOFA would force U.S. companies listed on the U.S. Stock exchange to release information on their human rights due diligence.
Of course, these technologies have the potential to be used for both positive and negative impact (they are dual-use). This poses a particular challenge to governments trying to use these technologies for good. For example, the U.S. government is funding Commotion Wireless, a sophisticated hacking project that seeks to enable activists by undermining internet censorship in countries such as Syria and Iran, however the FBI recently warned that these same anonymizing and encryption tools might be “indicators of terrorist activities.”
The question for policymakers, then, is whether anything beyond challenging regulatory measures can be done to overcome the dual-use dilemma, or whether it is simply a fact of life in a radically open operating environment. Whatever the reply, a relatively simple place to start would be to support the development of technologies that empower individuals, rather than enabling the production and trade of tools used for surveillance and oppression.
For example, a Swedish research team recently developed a new tool that allows Tor communication (a tool that anonymizes internet use) to be cloaked within services like Skype in order to circumvent recent changes to the Chinese “firewall” that had compromised those who used those services. Similarly, a team at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, in partnership with Stanford Computer Science, has built an app called Dispatch that allows for secure communication between journalists and their sources in areas of conflict. Another app, Silent Circle, allows users to send encrypted files of up to 60 megabytes via text message. These are tools that our governments should support. One can even imagine a virtual embassy incentivizing such projects. Too often, however, these surveillance-evading tools ruffle the feathers of autocratic and democratic governments alike.
What we are ultimately seeing is an arms race between oppressive governments and their citizens. It is high time that our democratically elected governments cease supporting, either tacitly or explicitly, the technologies enabling government surveillance.
Crossposted on OpenCanada.org
David Eaves and I have a review of Peter C Neman’s When the Gods Changed, in this month’s Literary Review of Canada. We use it to continue to explore the theme of progressive politics that has now been the basis of many joint articles, opeds and a forthcoming book. Our initial piece on this topic was also in the LRC, three years ago, called Progressivisms End.
A few key graphs from the Newman review, titled Liberal Baggage: The Party’s Greatest Burden May be its Past Success are below, but the whole thing is here:
Newman seems intent on forcing the Liberal Party’s troubles into a narrative of psychological disrepair. And it is certainly true that the cocksure certainty of governance among party faithful takes time to dissipate. But an author who spends years looking at the world through the eyes of his or her subjects can fall victim to a type of biographical determinism—a view of history that places far too much weight on the actions of those being written about. Herein lies the central problem with this book. Newman wants to see the recent decline of the Liberal Party exclusively through the thoughts and actions of his subjects, Michael Ignatieff and a few “kingmakers” around him.
The Liberal Party’s real baggage is not psychological; it is institutional. Over the course of a century, the party built a series of social institutions designed for an industrial world. As the information age has fundamentally changed citizens’ challenges and expectations, Liberals have been left defending the existence of institutions, some now broken or in disrepair, over the progressive values they were originally intended to promote.
While Davey is dismissive of his efforts to reform the party, the reality is that both he and Ignatieff brought a wide range of new people, energy and ideas into the Liberal fold. But these people will need to move beyond a rearticulation of 20th-century ideas, presented through a modernized campaign. They will need to rethink the place of liberal politics in Canadian society. Newman is right: a 21st-century Liberal party may not look anything like the 20th-century juggernaut. But that would be a good thing.
A short essay for the Ottawa Citizen a few weeks ago:
Before becoming leader of the Labour Party, Tony Blair wrote a pamphlet for the august thinktank of the British left, The Fabian Society, in which he questioned the socialist pillar of his party’s constitution. Adopted in 1918, Clause IV tied the Labour Party to a goal of nationalizing the means of production, distribution and exchange. At the time, this clause reflected a modern vision for the industrialization of 20th-century Britain. Eighty-five years later, it was a millstone around the neck of a party seeking to reinvent itself for a post-industrial world.
In his leadership acceptance speech a year later, Blair challenged the party to abolish Clause IV and to build with him a New Labour, one that embraced markets, technology and globalization. In one act, he redefined both the vision and structure of his party, took on the once intransigent party establishment, and made it clear that the Labour Party was to become a 21st-century institution, rather than a 20th-century one.
It is hard to look at the Liberal Party of Canada and not think that they too need a Clause IV moment. At the base of most of their problems, and there are many, lies a similar core challenge that once faced Labour: the Liberal party is an institution that has failed to modernize. In structure, operation, policy and vision, it is a 20th-century party in a 21st-century Canada.
While there has been much premature prognosticating of the Liberals’ demise, it is certainly worth keeping the party’s very real challenges front of mind.
First, the structure of the party remains laden with bureaucracy, committees, and entrenched interests. Over time (and despite much success) it has simply become bloated. More critically, lines of authority have been blurred. On any issue, it is unclear whether the leader, their staff and advisers, the party executive, regional leadership, MPs, riding associations, committees or party members have legitimate agency or control. This leads to endless internal tension. This may have been acceptable in an era where the party was in power, with lots of jobs to fill and flush funds. It is profoundly illsuited for a lean period of rebuilding and innovation.
Second, operationally, the party remains out of date. Voter identification has only recently been digitized, fundraising is built around a low volume/big donor model that no longer exists, the membership system is easily corruptible, the volunteer structure draws only on the most strident party faithful, and there is no network of like-minded organizations and think-tanks. How can this party expect to compete with a conservative political machine that has rebuilt itself from the bottom up?
Third, on the policy front, the party is stalled. It is stuck in a vision of Canada successfully implemented in the late 20th century, but which hasn’t kept up with the rapidly changing world. Simply put, the party has prioritized the defence of the progressive institutions and programs that it built, over the outcomes they were intended to enable.
Canadians know – as health care threatens to eat up 50 per cent of provincial budgets and service levels remain mixed – that their healthcare system is broken.
Young Canadians don’t trust that a pension system will exist for them. Anyone can see that traditional peacekeeping cannot solve today’s international conflicts. Where are the bold progressive policy ideas on health care, drug policy, inequality, climate change and education? All are ripe for a rethinking that prioritizes progressive outcomes rather than dated 20th-century progressive processes.
Finally, the party does not have an overarching vision that resonates in a 21st-century Canada. Liberals are not alone. At the heart of the challenge facing the emergence of a new Liberal vision is a paradox plaguing centre-left parties around the world. Voters see a system of government built for a different age, one far less effective at delivering services than any other institution in their lives. Conservatives have an easy answer to this inefficiency – get rid of government. The Liberal challenge is far more difficult; they must present a convincing argument for reforming rather than dismantling government.
It is through the lens of these challenges that next week’s party convention should be viewed. While non-leadership party conventions hold limited expectations, this is no ordinary time for the Liberal party. It is fair to ask: do the proceedings of this event lay the groundwork for revolutionary rather than evolutionary change?
There are three areas in which we can look for indicators: the proposed policy resolutions, the proposed constitutional amendments, and the candidates running for the party presidency.
First, while true that party platforms are rarely made on the tangled convention floor, anyone looking for a new vision of Canada in the list of policy resolutions is sure to be disappointed. There are the usual general calls for national programs and strategies (post-secondary education, child care, anti-poverty, a national energy grid, national pharmacare, increased research funding, universal broadband). There is a proposal for (yet another) Renewal Commission, a suggestion to ban the penny, a call to oppose Bill C-11 (the government’s copyright legislation) and another to reinstate the long-form census. None of the health-care resolutions address the underlying structural challenges, and only one of the foreign policy proposals, a resolution on corporate international responsibility, offers more than platitudes to “be better.”
There are two exceptions to this rather bland list, both proposed by the Young Liberals: the requisite call to legalize marijuana and a resolution to cut ties with the monarchy. The time has surely come for national conversations on each, and both have a cross partisan constituency. Irrespective of their individual merit, these are the type of policy explorations than will need to come out of a party in renewal. A hundred more bold ideas and we’d have a real policy conversation.
Second, while most of the proposed procedural constitutional amendments represent minor adjustments, two are significant, and while flawed, will signal the party members’ appetite for real structural change.
The first proposal is to create a new category of party member, called a supporter, who can register to vote in the party leadership. This is what is being called the “primary model” and the intention is to bring more Canadians into the leadership selection process. As many have pointed out, this is a big idea, and one with lasting consequence, but it may not pass due to a failure to spell out the specifics in the resolution.
The second, related resolution will allow these supporters to participate in riding candidate nominations. This idea is modelled on the “open nomination” trials that David Cameron successfully conducted in the lead-up to the last British election, and are meant to break away from entrenched party member control of candidate selection.
While imperfect (true open nominations freed from incumbency and party membership would go significantly further than either resolution), and perhaps unlikely to pass in their current form, the intent of both of these proposed reforms gets at one of the core challenges facing the party, namely, how to attract and entice both riding and leadership candidates from outside of the party ecosystem. Together, they reflect a recognition that the party needs new blood if it’s going to survive.
Finally, the election of the new party president has turned into a symbolic initial marker of the party’s reform. Rightly or wrongly, Mike Crawley has emerged as the reform candidate and Sheila Copps as the leader from the past. Copps has strong links to the old left of the party, and is even proposing a national tour of former Liberal MPs to reinvigorate the party. Crawley on the other hand has successfully captured the support, if not yet imagination, of the next generation of the party. For this reason, his likely victory will be at the least a symbolic win for advocates of substantive reform.
Liberal renewal has been largely empty rhetoric ever since Paul Martin’s 2006 election loss. Up until now, entrenched party interests and actors have won out over real reform. Attempts to shake up policy, to bring in new big ideas, have been vigorously fought off by the party establishment. There hasn’t been a Clause IV moment; no one has even tried.
But the reality is that there is opportunity in the current electoral landscape. On the right is a Conservative party that, at its core, doesn’t believe in the federal government. Its appeal is the offer to dismantle the parts of the system that are broken, but in so doing it will leave behind many of those who are protected and enabled by the government.
On the left is a party whose vision is to return Canada to the 1960s. It’s a world of a strong national government, of an even bigger health-care system, social safety net and welfare state. The conservatism of the left means protecting what is unsustainable.
There is room in between for a re-imagined progressive federal vision. One that is built around the political axes of the 21st century: open vs. closed systems; evidence-based policy vs. ideology; meritocratic governance vs. patronage; open and fair markets vs. isolationism; sustainability vs. disposability, and emergent networks vs. hierarchies.
The question now is whether the threat of extinction is sufficient to spur the innovation of ideas, people and structures needed to turn the broken-down 20thcentury jalopy that is the current Liberal party into a state-of-the-art vehicle purpose-built for a 21st-century progressive vision.
Cross-posted on CIC Dispatch Blog
Billed as the Davos for Security, the Halifax International Security Forum – funded by the Department of National Defence (DND) – sought and accomplished to court the security elite. Last weekend’s lavish affair was attended by nearly 20 defence ministers, top global security analysts, beltway security consultants, international affairs journalists, and a handful of security academics. As at Davos, it’s hard to fault the execution, and the host, Peter Mackay, deserves a lot of credit.
Throughout the event, though, I couldn’t help asking whether this was the right group of people having the right conversation at the right time. With deeply troubled military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, attention increasingly turning to Asia and the BRICs, and much of the world embroiled in an uprising against concentrated political and financial power, what is the value proposition of a largely Euro-Atlantic, NATO-focused confab of security-sector leaders?
This feeling was magnified by the subject matter on the agenda. For two days, debate swirled around the purchasing of F35s, the potential invasion of Syria and bombing of Iran, and the western security implications of Arab revolutions. Throughout, military actions were discussed in an unproblematic way, as part of a natural escalation of engagement.
This was not entirely surprising, as the event was, for all intents and purposes, a military conference. But even for a military conference, this discourse seemed limited. There was no discussion of the abyss of the war in Afghanistan, the very real problems with the Libya mission (beyond the easy success of bombing fixed, undefended targets), or the dilemma that no one wants to put troops on the ground in NATO missions.
Talking about this with a sage colleague, I was reminded that the Security and Defence Forum (SDF) program, also funded by the DND, was recently cut. Over four decades, the SDF program financed a wide range of Canadian academic work on security. There are rumours that the program was cut not just for budgetary reasons, but because its policy utility was questioned – what use is critical academic work to the running of a defence policy? Interestingly, the budget of the SDF was similar to the rumoured budget of the Halifax forum – around two million dollars.
There is, of course, no reason to suggest a direct connection between the two programs, but it is worth discussing what we are losing and acquiring with this amount of money. Is it more valuable to fund an academic program on security or a two-day event that brings together the global power brokers? What are the trade-offs between a conversation you cannot control and one you diligently curate?
The SDF program, for all its faults, funded a wide range of security thinking and conversation. While some of this was classical defence studies, it also involved theoretical, practical, and political critiques of security policy. In so doing, the SDF fostered a community of academics engaged in the Canadian security discussion, and the openness of the program supported a very diverse range of security perspectives.
It is a trope in international relations to say that the world of security changed “after the end of the cold war.” The Economist magazine even bans articles that start with those words. But it is certainly true: The security conversation now rightly involves any number of auxiliaries to military affairs, including development, human rights, the environment, public health, local violence, and so on. The SDF program encouraged this broad view of security.
This critical perspective was virtually nowhere to be seen in Halifax. Save for regular interventions from Anne-Marie Slaughter and Ambassador Swanee Hunt, the discussion was almost exclusively centred on the military and global economic sides of security. Participants and speakers often came across as too aligned – too in agreement about the primary security threats and the necessary responses. The downside of controlled discourse, of course, is groupthink. And groupthink can be dangerous.
If there is one lesson we learned from the financial crisis, it’s that those in charge were not as smart as they thought they were. Left unchecked, the financial elite put a global system at risk by seeking, at every step, to maximize their interests. There was no balance at the global decision-making table, so one perspective – one worldview and set of interests – ran amok.
Such can also be the case with security policy. Does talk among decision-makers of bombing Iran, left unchecked by criticism, make bombing more likely to occur? Quite possibly. Do self-oriented discussions among militaries perpetuate the failures of Afghanistan, in which militaries sought and got “quick victories” but completely missed the larger purposes and goals involved? Probably. Does glorifying the John McCain approach to U.S. foreign policy make Canada more likely to act in this mould? Maybe. Does having a security conversation dominated by the military, with little engagement from diplomatic and development departments, lead to a more militarized foreign policy? Almost certainly.
With Canada and NATO continuing to sing the praises of whole-of-government and comprehensive approaches to intervention and nation-building, surely the conversation in Halifax should have been broader.
On the economic front, the discussion was tainted by a notable condescension towards the Occupy movement – condescension that betrayed detachment to the security concerns raised by the increasing disconnect between a rising popular concern about inequality, and the political and financial elite’s focus on debt-cutting and austerity. Surely, a security discussion should have shown more awareness of the potential for increasingly exacerbated social divides to lead to animosity and instability, both within countries and between them.
We need to recognize that controlled conversations, if they are not broadened to include critical, uncomfortable, and diverse views, risk perpetuating siloed solutions. The military is almost always more likely to advocate military solutions over development, humanitarian, and diplomatic ones – which is why the military doesn’t control foreign policy.
I am not suggesting that the Halifax forum should be cancelled. In fact, I personally found it stimulating and engaging. The format of the conference, based around interview-style plenaries, was perhaps the best I have ever seen, and the calibre of participants and speakers was exceptionally high. I was glad that Canada put on an event of this scale. But when discussing and debating war, in which the costs are so immensely high, we have to be incredibly careful not to fall into groupthink and the prescribed policies of self-reinforcing communities. Doing so invariably leads to the type of path dependency that we saw in the lead-up to the Iraq war and financial crisis.
Herein lies the value of the SDF program and the academic discourse it enabled: It fostered engagement and critical thinking in a space prone to secrecy and control. The direct benefit of this kind of discourse to policy-making is difficult to calculate, but it is nevertheless a benefit.
In the end, foreign and security policy is about balancing worldviews. The field of security studies, once the purview of the military, has moved on to include many more perspectives and actors. So, too, must the elite debate.
- 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 am currently writing a book for Oxford University Press, titled Disruptive Power: How Digital Technology is Reshaping International Affairs, due out in 2014.
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: How Digital Technology is Reshaping International Affairs . In contract, Oxford University Press
- 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.