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Article in Foreign Affairs

I have an article in Foreign Affairs on the governance challenge posed by algorithmic decision making: The Violence of Algorithms

The Violence of Algorithms

In December 2010, I attended a training session for an intelligence analytics software program called Palantir. Co-founded by Peter Thiel, a techno-libertarian Silicon Valley billionaire, Palantir is a slick tool kit of data visualization and analytics capabilities marketed to and widely used by the NSA, the FBI, the CIA, and other U.S. national security and policing institutions.

The training session took place in Tyson’s Corner, in Washington, D.C., at a Google-esque office space complete with scooters, a foosball table, and a kitchen stocked with energy drinks. I was taking the course to explore the potential uses of the tool for academic research.

We spent the day conducting a demonstration investigation. We were first given a range of data sets and, one by one, we uploaded them into Palantir. Each data set showed us a new analytic capability of the program: thousands of daily intelligence reports were disaggregated to their core pieces of information and correlated with historical data; satellite images were overlaid with socio-economic, air strike, and IED data. And in this process, the promise of Palantir was revealed: with more data comes greater clarity. For analysts who spend their days struggling to interpret vast streams of data, the Palantir demo was an easy sell.

In our final exercise, we added surveillance data detailing the planned movements of a suspected insurgent. Palantir correlated the location and time of these movements with the planned movements of a known bomb maker. And there the training ended. It was quite obvious that the next step, in “real life,” would be violent. The United States would send in a drone or Special Forces team. We in the demo, on the other hand, just went home.

This program raises many challenging questions. Much of the data used was inputted and tagged by humans, meaning that it was chock full of human bias and errors. The algorithms on which the system is built are themselves coded by humans, so they too are subjective. Perhaps most consequentially, however, although the program being demonstrated was intended to inform human decision-making, that need not be the case. Increasingly, such tools, and the algorithms that power them, are being used to automate violence.

Palantir, which takes its name from the legendary “seeing stone” in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, is just the latest iteration of the age-old myth of an all-knowing crystal ball. That myth underlies both the rapid expansion of state surveillance and the increasing use of algorithms and artificial intelligence to fight and to govern. For governments, the promise is control over a digital space that is increasing decentralized and complex. But it may come at the cost of the very legitimacy on which we give the state its power.

THE AUTOMATED STATE

Palantir is a window into the state’s thinking about technology. Threatened by the increasing power of perceived nefarious digital actors, Western states have sought to control the network itself—to as they claim in documents leaked by Edward Snowden, “Collect it All; Process it All; Exploit it All; Partner it All; Sniff it All; Know it All.”

The problem, of course, is that digital omniscience is incredibly difficult to accomplish. To even aspire to it, one needs two things: a huge amount of data and the tools to give these data meaning.

First, the massive amount of data. From the Snowden leaks, we know that the U.S. government is tapping into the backbones of our communications systems, servers, and transatlantic wires. It is sniffing wireless signals in cities and implementing broad online and telecoms data mining activities. But this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Wide-area surveillance tools are capable of recording high-resolution imagery of vast areas below them. Starting in 2004, the United States has deployed 65 Lockheed Martin blimps in Afghanistan that provide real-time video and audio surveillance across 100 square kilometers (just over 38 square miles) at a time. These Persistent Threat Detection Systems can record activity below them for periods of up to 30 days. Meanwhile on the ground, vast networks of cameras in our cities are being networked together in police databases and control centers, such as the NYPD Real-Time Crime Center, which processes data from over 6,000 surveillance cameras, as well as license plate readers which provide real-time tracking of vehicle movement.

And, of course, Silicon Valley is in the mix. A company called Planet Labs has recently deployed a network of 100 toaster-sized satellites that will take daily high-resolution images of everywhere on earth. The goal is to launch thousands—a persistent near-real-time surveillance tool, available to anyone online. They call these satellites Doves. A driverless Google car collects nearly 1 GB of data a second about the world around it, and the Internet of things is bringing data collection into our homes. A warning came with a recent Samsung smart TV about discussing “personal or other sensitive information” in its vicinity, as it could be transferred to a third party.

What we are in the process of building is a vast real-time, 3-D representation of the world. A permanent record of us.

But where does the meaning in all this data come from? For this, one needs ever more complex algorithms, automation, machine learning, and artificial intelligence. Such technologies are powering a wide range of new governance tools that can trace and record movements of people, detect patterns, and ascribe risk to behaviors outside of programmed norms, to predicting future events.

And increasingly, such algorithms are used to kill. Russia guards five ballistic missile installations with armed one-ton robots, able to travel at speeds of 45 kilometers (about 28 miles) per hour, using radar and a laser range-finder to navigate, analyze potential targets, and fire machine guns without a human pulling the trigger. The Super Aegis 2 automated gun tower can lock onto a human target up to three kilometers (almost two miles) away in complete darkness and automatically fire a machine gun, rocket launcher, or surface-to-air missile. Unmanned aerial vehicles, ranging from autonomous bombers to insect-sized swarm drones, are increasingly able to collect and process data and kill on their own.

The pretense is that these capabilities are reserved for war zones. But the pervasive nature of these tools, combined with the expanding legal mandates of the war on terrorism, means that battlefield capabilities are creeping into domestic policing and governance, often in the legal gray areas of borders. For example, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security tethered a wide area surveillance blimp 2,000 feet above the desert in Nogales, Arizona. On its first night in use, the system identified 30 suspects who were brought in for questioning. There are now calls to redeploy the 65 surveillance blimps used in Iraq and Afghanistan to U.S. Customs and Border Protection to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border.

The consequence of the growing capabilities for algorithmic governance and violence are significant. First, acts of war have become spatially and conceptually boundless. The once legally and normatively established lines between war and peace and between domestic and international engagement are disappearing.

Second, digital representation, and the biases, values, and ambiguities that are built into it, are becoming acts of governance and violence themselves, rather than simply contributors to them. This is leading us to a place of predictive governance, based on unaccountable and often unknowable algorithms. Although the United States currently has a directive that humans must be a part of any fatal decision in war, this ignores all of the algorithm-based decisions that lead up to this ultimate point. If they are biased, flawed, or based on incorrect data, then the human will be just as wrong as the machine.

Third, spaces of dissent in society are being eroded. Those pushing the bounds of what is deemed acceptable behavior are increasingly caught within the grasp of algorithms meant to identify deviancy. We are already seeing changes in behavior among investigative journalists and activists. At a recent Columbia School of Journalism event in a series called “Journalism After Snowden,” the editors of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Politico detailed the challenges of protecting sources in an environment of increasing state surveillance and the effect it has on their ability to do accountability reporting. Acts of digital civil disobedience are increasingly being targeted and prosecuted not as protest but as terrorism. When punishments are vastly disproportionate to crimes, then an important democratic function is lost.

Finally, as author Daniel Suarez argues, a combination of automated remote force deployment and artificial intelligence could allow the state to kill preemptively and anonymously. This is a path to automated war, and a harbinger of a recentralization of power. A path that requires us to have a serious conversation about the power and accountability of algorithms deployed by both state and corporate actors.

THE PERILS OF ALGORITHMIC GOVERNANCE 

The modern state system is built on a bargain between governments and citizens. States provide collective social goods, and in turn, via a system of norms, institutions, regulations, and ethics to hold this power accountable, citizens give states legitimacy. This bargain created order and stability out of what was an increasingly chaotic global system.

If algorithms represent a new ungoverned space, a hidden and potentially ever-evolving unknowable public good, then they are an affront to our democratic system, one that requires transparency and accountability in order to function. A node of power that exists outside of these bounds is a threat to the notion of collective governance itself. This, at its core, is a profoundly undemocratic notion—one that states will have to engage with seriously if they are going to remain relevant and legitimate to their digital citizenry who give them their power.

 

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Article in San Fransisco Chronicle

The following was in the San Fransisco Chronicle, on May 1

Why the U.S. should but won’t partner with hactivists Anonymous

For a barbaric movement grounded in early Islamic apocalyptic prophecies, what is perhaps most striking about the rapid rise of the Islamic State has been its use of modern technology. Leveraging the open nature and global reach of platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, Islamic State has used social media to recruit young would-be jihadis, to build a global network of sympathetic followers, and to intimidate Western audiences with its brutality.

The scale of this digital propaganda network is vast. A recent study by the Brookings Institution found that in late 2014 there were at least 46,000 Twitter accounts used by Islamic State supporters, with an average of 1,000 followers each.
But why has the United States, which has at its disposal vast cyberwar capabilities, an ever-expanding surveillance state and significant leverage over, and goodwill of, the American companies that are hosting this content, proved unable to quiet the online reach of this network of insurgents?

One answer is that the open nature of the Internet, combined with the constraints that democratic states face engaging effectively within it, has limited the capability of the United States to fight back. And this tells us a tremendous amount about the shifting nature of power in the digital age.

In the absence of effective state action against the Islamic State online, Anonymous has taken up the digital war. Already this ad hoc network of hackers and activists has downed scores of Web pages and hacked into dozens of Twitter accounts that allegedly belong to Islamic State members. Much like in the early days of the Arab Spring, where hackers provided online assistance and offered protection to activists, Anonymous is stepping in where the state has limited capacity.
This has recently led to calls for the United States to partner with Anonymous to launch cyberattacks against the Islamic State, and even paying hactivists in bitcoin. This sounds audacious, but plausible. Western governments have long collaborated with unsavory actors with the aim of larger strategic goals — as it is said, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
In theory, such a partnership could allow the Defense and State departments to overcome the constraints of their slow-moving, hierarchical, command-and-control systems. It could allow them to act more like a nimble startup than a legacy industrial corporation.

And it could be effective — we know that Anonymous hackers have been successful taking on a wide range of both established and emerging powers. In practice, however, there is substantial risk. As the failure of the clandestine USAID program to build a fake version of Twitter in Cuba to foster dissent demonstrates, states often stumble when they step into the murky world of online power.

But I would suggest there are other, more fundamental reasons, why the U.S. will never partner with Anonymous. This is because, at its core, Anonymous is different than the other perceived bad actors that government is more than willing to collaborate with. Anonymous represents a new form of decentralized power that challenges the very foundations of the state system.

First, the power structures that Anonymous embodies represent a fundamental threat to state dominance in the international system. The challenges that the state system were designed to solve — a lack of structure, instability, decentralized governance, loose and evolving ties — are precisely what makes groups like Anonymous powerful.

Legitimizing the type of decentralized, collaborative and anonymous power that Anonymous represents, therefore poses a threat to the hierarchical and state-led international system that the nation state depends on. This new form of power scares governments — so much so that they are willing to exert significant control over the network itself. As was revealed in the Snowden National Security Agency documents, the government wanted to collect it all, process it all, exploit it all, partner it all, sniff it all, know it all.

Second, over the course of modern history, we have placed tremendous power in the state. Whether it be through the justice system, the social welfare state or the military, government has been the primary enabler of collective action in our society. In exchange, we have put in place systems of accountability and laws to hold this power to account. For states seeking to fight new online powers, these norms of behavior make functioning effectively online at best difficult, and at worst counter to the expectations and laws governing their activities.

Third, the state is ultimately faced with a paradox — that the very attributes of the Internet that enable the Islamic State also enable the free enterprise and expression that make it arguably the most liberating technology in human history. The very real risk governments face is that in seeking to stop perceived nefarious actors online, they will also shut down the positive ones. Efforts by the NSA to break encryption, for example, won’t just help it fight illegal crypto-currencies, or Islamic State fighters using secure networking tools, but would also threaten the security of the online commerce sector. These efforts risk breaking the Internet.

For the U.S. government, partnering with Anonymous and legitimizing its structure is simply a bridge too far. And this limitation represents a crisis for state power in the digital age: One that curtails its ability to fight the online propaganda of a barbaric jihadist movement taking to Twitter to build its caliphate.

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Why governments must embrace the new global digital reality

The essay below was in the Globe and Mail on April 10th.

On Jan. 28, 2011, in the middle of a popular uprising, the president of Egypt turned off the Internet. This striking display of state power is well known. Less well known is how the Internet was turned back on.

Around the world, hackers and activists who belong to a collective known as Telecomix began to re-establish network connections in Egypt. They arranged with a hacker-friendly French Internet service to provide hundreds of dial-up modem lines, sought out amateur-radio enthusiasts to broadcast short logistical messages, faxed leaflets to university campuses and cyber cafés explaining how to get around the blackouts, and used the same tactic to get news out of Egypt.

Telecomix is one of a new breed of actor taking part in international conflict. When the Arab Spring moved to Syria, this new breed included hackers from Anonymous who took down government infrastructure, crisis mappers who crowd-sourced the analysis of tank locations, citizens who streamed the bombardment of cities to YouTube, and networks of amateur experts who used these videos to trace the origins of munitions.

These groups do not fit comfortably in traditional categories: They are not nation-states, formal institutions or rogue individuals. Instead, they share characteristics and capabilities that are fundamentally technology-enabled.

They are formless. You can’t join them, because they are not organizations; you can’t lead them, because there is no leader; and most engage while cloaked in encryption and pseudonyms. All this stands in direct contrast with the hierarchical structures that give traditional institutions strength.

So how are we to understand those who have strength without structure? First, by realizing that they gain power because of, rather than in spite of, being decentralized and non-hierarchical.

Also, in a networked model, new actors require no one else to attain status – action, not affiliation, produces credibility and authority. Their identities derive from what they do and from the impact they have. As Swedish academic Jenny Sunden puts it, on the Internet, one “types oneself into being.”

We are so used to equating organization with hierarchy that it comes as a surprise that disparate groups are even capable of joint ventures. But new forms of ad hoc governance are emerging to regulate collective behaviour, including the Pirate Party’s notion of liquid democracy and the way in which Anonymous uses chat rooms to mobilize and co-ordinate its members.

In fact, the way power is exercised in the digital space presents a crisis for the state. First, states no longer have a monopoly on the ability to shape the behaviour of large numbers of people.

Second, while governments have all the legacy burdens of other hierarchical 20th-century institutions (lethargy, waste, layers of bureaucracy, slow adaptation), unlike private companies, they cannot simply go bankrupt. When Tesla disrupts Ford, we may end up with better cars, but when governments are challenged, we risk losing the collective social goods they were built to ensure.

Third, because groups like Anonymous are empowered by lack of structure and other “problems” the modern nation state was designed to overcome, the result is a misalignment of the norms and institutions that govern the international system and the mechanisms that increasingly create power.

Finally, what empowers digital players that are perceived to be nefarious is the same as what leads free expression, knowledge creation and economic development to flourish online. By targeting the Internet and digital networks, states also risk shutting down all the positive benefits that they allow: They risk breaking the network itself.

One of the central challenges of this century will be determining whether the norms of behaviour, democratic processes and mechanisms of accountability through which we give the state legitimacy will thrive in this new international ecosystem. This will require leadership from governments themselves.

Our current global institutions were designed by, built for and are run by those who had power in the 20th century. But what would an international organization look like that included those with power in the digital world, such as Anonymous and Telecomix?

States also must work to protect the notion of a single Internet. The social and economic good that comes from an open, secure and free Internet far outweighs the actions of perceived enemies. This means scaling back the rapidly growing surveillance state and rethinking actions that threaten the very capacity of the online system, such as efforts to break encryption. Rather than treating the Internet as a battlefield it must control, the state should be working to support the very technologies that empower and protect so many.

This will entail accepting new norms of self-regulation and network governance and determining effective ways of bringing the values of the democratic nation-state into these new processes, rather than seeking to control them.

There remains an alternate temptation, however: seeking absolute control of the digital ecosystem. This mentality underlies much of the Canadian government’s proposed counterterrorism law, Bill C-51. By giving sweeping new surveillance powers to both security services and domestic police, these policies not only threaten the network infrastructure that benefit so many, but risk suffocating the spaces for dissent on which social and political progress are built.

The Treaty of Westphalia, signed in 1648, ended almost a century of instability and conflict between disparate empires. Once absolute ruling powers, these empires were losing control over both their territory and their citizens. By legitimizing the state rather than the crown as the primary sovereign unit, the treaty created order out of chaos.

We face a similar moment today. Yet to be seen is whether a digitally enabled world can undergo a similar restructuring without the loss of the chaos, messiness and disorder that generate its power.

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The promise and peril of digital diplomacy

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.

 

The Promise and Peril of Digital Diplomacy

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.

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New Virtual Reality Journalism Project

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 Go-Pros mounted in a 3D printed brace.

Twelve GoPros mounted in a 3D printed brace.

The 360° stereoscopic camera, with directional microphone.

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.

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Twitter as public space, and related problems

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.

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Two books on Human Security

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.

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Have the Taliban Changed their Tune on Women’s Rights?

Crossposted at opencanada.org’s Dispatch blog

I find that the subject of women’s rights in Afghanistan is a difficult one to engage with. To some, the shocking standard to which women were treated under the Taliban represents a key reason for our presence there. To others, the goal of gender equality is a PR front for the actual reasons we intervened. To still others, modest improvements are a positive bi-product of a complex mission.

While on my trip in Afghanistan, we had five briefings that focused on women and gender issues. Each left me with a different feeling, from disgust to frustration to awe. There is no doubt that the lives of many have been improved by our presence. And as I felt in Northern Iraq several years ago, it is tremendously difficult to argue with the logic of someone who has been liberated. But the fact that one group in one region has been freed, should not blind us to the consequences of this liberation for others. With this in mind, these were my five encounters.

First, one evening we had a formal dinner at the Serena hotel, one of the few international hotels in Kabul. Our group was seated along one side of a long table, and a delegation of various Afghan think tankers and university professors were on the other. Seated across from me were an Afghan woman and a young male Afghan, who worked for NATO HQ. For the first half hour or so, the woman was very quiet. Her English was not very good, and the men around her, particularly one who was a cousin of Karzai, were dominating. But when we figured out a way for the young Afghan man beside her to translate, she opened up, and her story was incredible. She was 20 when Taliban fell. Until then, she had spent her teenage years being taught in secret schools for girls. One of her teachers had been killed by the Taliban. In 2001, she went to law school, got the best marks in the school and now is a law professor at Kabul University. I’m sure there are many women with similar stories, and I feel somewhat hesitant recalling it, as if I’ve been had by NATO TOLA planners, but she really was nothing short of remarkable. Watching and listening to her and the young guy both helping to translate and telling his own story, which was impressive in its own right, I saw pretty clearly that there is a new generation waiting in the wings in Afghanistan. They are frustrated, impatient and when they get a chance, it’s hard to see how they will not do better than the current crowd in charge. I only wish we could empower them sooner.

Second, when we were in Mazar e Sharif, we had a meeting with the Gender Engagement Team. Led by a young female Swedish soldier, the team was made up of three Afghan women in their twenties. It’s hard to overstate how courageous these women were. They are essentially conducting psi-ops for RC-N, coming in and out of the base on a daily basis and reporting on what people think about ISAF. What is particularly amazing is that their friends and family now know that they work for ISAF. As insurgent violence picks up in the north, they are at significant risk. At one point during our two hours with them, they got very angry with the German and American commanders in the room over the night raids. I will post on this issue separately, but the strength with which they rebuked the ISAF line that night raids are essential because they reduce civilian casualties was remarkable. Even if the raids do reduce casualties, the team argued, they also are a humiliating experience. Men descend on their villages at night, breaking down doors, and see them, particularly the women, at their most vulnerable. The disconnect between the cold rationalism of the ISAF argument and the aggressive push back from those actually affected was bracing.

Third, in Herat, we met with two Provincial Councilors, both of whom were female. The meeting was clearly intended to demonstrate the progress being made in local governance, in particular the mandated 50% female quota. What we got was both tragically and wonderfully different. With the Italian PRT contingent watching on, and the more jingoistic members of our party somewhat disgruntled, the two women clearly and articulately disagreed with virtual every assessment we had heard of Herat to date. For two hours they made it abundantly clear that, while considered the most secure and developed region of the country by ISAF, the west has a very long way to go. They spoke of villages that support the insurgents in order to get NATO aid (if considered safe, they are ignored), of the problems with narcotics trafficking, particularly the widows created by arrested or killed husbands who took up trafficking to make a living, of the rising violence levels, of how even elected women remain shut out, and of the power of the mullahs. They were confident and impressive. I was left hoping but doubting that the rest of the councilors compared.

Fourth, immediately following the meeting with the councilors, we were escorted to the Italian PRT’s signature project in Herat, a women’s center. When we pulled up to the modern three story building, we were greeted by a shocking display of Italian military force (I know there is a joke here). There were three armored trucks each with a high caliber gunner on top, a couple of dozen fully kitted out soldiers, and our escorts, another half dozen men. They had closed part of the street, the heavy guns were pointed at the neighbouring buildings, and there were soldiers guarding the door of the center. We were rushed into the building to find 20 or so visibly stunned Afghan women. For the next hour, we were paraded around what can only be called a model of tokenism. The women were selling textiles and saffron in a series of brand new shops. It was entirely unclear who might shop there, other than PRT guests, as there are few tourists in Herat, and surely locals don’t need a gift mall to buy Afghan textiles. In fairness, the center does function as a community center of sorts for women, with a gym, and classrooms. But there was no mistaking the reason we were there, and it made me sick.

Finally, on our last day in Kabul, we had a fascinating and wide-ranging conversation with a senior UNAMA official. When asked about the status of women in the country, he got visibly frustrated. The idea that women lead significantly better lives in most of the country, he said, needs to be dismissed. Afghanistan remains a deeply conservative Islamic state. It has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. And in wide swaths of the country, women are treated in a brutally oppressive fashion. The Taliban, he argued, were particularly appalling, because they codified this treatment, but it is still occurring on a widespread scale.

Coming back to the future, and to the Taliban, the same UN official made an interesting point, which I hadn’t heard before. The Taliban, he stated, have recently softened their position on women. More politically savvy than when they were in power, many Taliban leaders now recognize the political importance the international community places on the rights of women, and wanting to be part of the political process, their views are evolving. This is a fascinating quirk in what is too often portrayed in a simplistic narrative – the Taliban are bad because of their treatment of women. Now this softening of doctrine may not be true, but if we are welcoming them back into positions of power, as our reconciliation policy would suggest, then let’s hope the Taliban find it politically expedient to treat women in a less brutal fashion. In many ways, these small victories may become big markers of the mission’s lasting impacts.

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More on the Integrity of the Comprehensive Approach

Crossposted at opencanada.org’s Dispatch blog

I just had a conversation regarding my last post with a NATO Public Diplomacy official. In short, my argument was that in RC-N the ANP appear incapable of holding villages so that the building can take place, and that there are vastly more resources focused on the military component on the mission.

The response I received was that NATO itself is neither nation-building nor implementing all aspects of the comprehensive approach. What is really meant by the comprehensive approach, I was told, is that NATO is a participant in the comprehensive approach with other organizations who are doing the governance and development components. As an example of this, the point was rightly made that NATO countries have refused to task the alliance with a rule of law mandate, as member states feel that this would go beyond their military focus.

This, however, is simply not how we have been briefed over the past week, nor how the mission is explained to domestic publics, at least in Canada. Some of the PRTs are clearly part of the NATO mandate, while others are member country run, and at virtually every briefing we have received, we have been told of the importance and details of governance and development projects. Indeed, the briefings we have received from Senior Civilian Representatives (SCRs) at all levels, have focused exclusively on non military NATO tasks. Here is where I agree, though. I don’t think NATO should be doing all of these tasks, but as states participating in this conflict we have not properly equipped and funded the orgs that should be– i.e., the IOs, NGOs and local groups who should be doing way, way more.

Perhaps the military should be doing the initial targeted tactical assistance during the hold phase of COIN, but this absolutely must transition to a civilian project almost immediately. This civilian operation would need security, but this should likely be done by Afghan and/or private security. If civilian orgs as currently constituted aren’t willing to take this risk, then I think we may need not rethink either the rules governing government civilian orgs, or whether we should be attempting these tasks at all.

I suppose I don’t blame NATO, they have come a long way since McChrystal dragged them into a COIN strategy. And in the absence of other major actors able or willing to do the development, they are stepping up to some degree. Instead I blame NATO member states who have failed to adequately fund the orgs that they should know full well should be doing the governance and development. For example, we met a WFP official who said they are $220 million short to fulfill basic food needs this year. This is in a country in which the US alone is spending a $100 billion a year.

Until we are honest about these parts of the project – parts wee claim are required for success – then we are not being serious about the comprehensive approach.

There is of course another very simple potential explanation for this, one being pushed by one of my trip mates – viz, the comprehensive approach is not actually required to meet our objectives, because our objectives are are actually far more modest than we are politically willing to admit.

It is quite likely that we are hoping to at best leave an Afghan state structure that is capable of staying roughly together, in which case, we need to secure as many villages as possible in the two and a half years remaining, hope that Karzai’s governors can hold their provinces together and leave some special forces, trainers and operational support here for a decade after. Our mission is then not one of nation building, but of basic nation stabilization. Needless to say, I am increasingly skeptical. But I’m meeting with both Petraeus and Gass in the next couple days, so maybe they will make it all make sense.