Category: Uncategorized


Interview on The Agenda

I was on The Agenda with Steve Paikin a couple of weeks ago to talk digital technology, power and some Canadian foreign policy. We got into both my Disruptive Power and The World Won’t Wait books.

At the end though, I was asked about Trump. My answer relates to Brexit as well though.  The growing desire to burn down the house stems in part from a failure of governments to deliver on their promise & rhetoric to large segments of society. This, in turn, is because states have diminishing power to control citizens and events. Their monopoly over collective action is over. While much of the resulting nihilism is manifest in the right, this is a particular challenge for the left, who’s central proposition is deeply rooted in the role of the state.




Speech at Public Policy Forum Dinner

I recently received the Public Policy Forum’s Emerging Leader award. It was presented at their annual Testimonial Dinner, which brought together a pretty remarkable group of over a 1000 policy, business and media leaders. Below are the remarks that I gave:

The video is here:

Full text:

Thank you Premier MacLauchlan. It is an honour to receive this recognition from the Forum, and to be included amongst colleagues and friends who have received this award in the past. And I feel privileged to address this – somewhat intimidating – room.

I am particularly excited to be presented this honour from the acting and newly minted presidents of the Forum, my friends and mentors Larry Murray and Ed Greenspon. Over the years I have had the tremendous fortune to learn a great deal from them both.

The challenge I’m facing tonight, (they might say irony), is that as I have told them both many times I believe that our industrial-era institutions (our universities, governments, media organizations and think tanks – the places they have spent their remarkable careers running) are increasingly ill equipped for the 21st century.

It is this moment of transition, from what I would characterize as the analog world to a digital one, from a world of hierarchies to one of decentralized networks, an industrial era to a post-industrial age, that I want to spend a few minutes speaking about.                                                                          

I have spent the past decade studying how digital technologies are transforming the worlds of journalism, international affairs and public policy.

I would suggest that each of these once distinct spaces and communities of practice are now faced with a radically different operating environment.

One where power is shifting from large organizations to individuals and groups and where participation and authority are moving from the few to the many. A world ruled byinformation abundance rather than scarcity and where our public discourses are mitigated by Silicon Valley platforms rather than the traditional media. Where gatekeepers to power, influence and audience are dissolving (or being replaced by algorithms).

A policy space in which increasingly complex challenges are deliberated in an ever more fragmented and fluid media space. And where the practices, norms and cultures of journalism, scholarship and policy are blurring.

I would argue that this is an uncomfortable world for industrial-era institutions that were purpose-built to provide stability, certainty and continuity.

The reality is that command and control bureaucracies are just no longer needed to make large numbers of people do things. These institutions have simply lost their monopoly on collective action.

What’s more, individuals and groups that are successful in this new environment are empowered in ways that sit outside of, and in many ways challenge, the very legitimacy and relevance of our 20th century hierarchical organizations.

Even more problematic, efforts to enforce control and order in the digital space risk either failing (think paywalls), or worse, breaking the network itself.

For example, many of the things states are doing to stop what they perceive as negative actors online, also undermine the free expression and commerce that make the internet so beneficial.

It is a very difficult world for control freaks.

And herein lies the policy challenge, because it is in these legacy institutions that we as a society have embedded our social, ethical and political values.

So as these organizations evolve, decline, or in many cases just go bankrupt, a central governance challenge we face is how to transition the societal values they enabled into this new and evolving space.

And it is here that I want to suggest is the opportunity for think tanks such as CIGI and the CIC, where I am engaged, and indeed for the Public Policy Forum. We desperately need a new generation of think tanks that can serve at this intersection of technology, civil society and governance.

But in this current environment, a failure to adapt and innovate is leading many legacy think tanks to a fate worse than their death: their irrelevance. The days of back room briefings, printed reports and closed workshops are as obsolete as print newspapers.

New communication technologies and platforms, such as the one that I run, OpenCanada, play a role in this transition, but I want to propose that the need for change goes far deeper. The lesson of the digital age is that successful organizations actually structure themselves, and the ways in which knowledge is produced, disseminated and implemented, differently.

So as Ed takes over this institution, an organization which I say with the utmost respect, was built for the policy world of the 20th century, I think there is a tremendous opportunity to experiment confidently in this complex nexus of media, policy, scholarship, activism and governance, and to help us transition as a society to the 21st.

Thank you again for this honour.


New Book: The World Won’t Wait

9781442626973Roland Paris and I have a new edited volume out on Canadian Foreign Policy.  The World Won’t Wait: Why Canada Needs to Rethink its International Policies features analysis from a wonderful group of wicked smart colleagues and friends.  The abstract is below and the intro chapter from Roland and I is available here: ‘A Transforming World’

The need for an ambitious and forward-looking Canadian international strategy has never been greater. The worldwide changes that jeopardize Canadian security and prosperity are profound, ranging from the globalization of commerce, crime, and political extremism to the impact of climate change on the economy and environment. The reaction from Canada’s policymakers, at least so far, has been underwhelming.

In The World Won’t Wait, some of Canada’s brightest thinkers respond. Covering both classic foreign policy issues such as international security, human rights, and global institutions and emerging issues like internet governance, climate change, and sustainable development, their essays offer fresh and provocative responses to today’s challenges and opportunities. The proposals are striking and the contributors diverse: Toronto’s chief city planner makes the case that Canada needs a global urban agenda, while a prominent mining executive explains how to revitalize the country’s position as a world leader in the sector. Their essays are sure to spark the kind of debate that Canada requires if its international policy is to evolve into the twenty-first century.


New Report: Virtual Reality Journalism

I have recently released a report with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism on Virtual Reality Journalism.  I was embedded in the team that made the documentary, and was able to draw some lessons from the process on the promise and potential of doing journalism in virtual reality. The Executive Summary is below, the full report can be found here, and the accompanying Frontline virtual reality documentary can be seen in Google Cardboard here, and in Facebook 360 here.


Virtual Reality Journalism

After decades of research and development, virtual reality appears to be on the cusp of mainstream adoption. For journalists, the combination of immersive video capture and dissemination via mobile VR players is particularly exciting. It promises to bring audiences closer to a story than any previous platform.

Two technological advances have enabled this opportunity: cameras that can record a scene in 360-degree, stereoscopic video and a new generation of headsets. This new phase of VR places the medium squarely into the tradition of documentary—a path defined by the emergence of still photography and advanced by better picture quality, color, film, and higher-definition video. Each of these innovations allowed audiences to more richly experience the lives of others. The authors of this report wish to explore whether virtual reality can take us farther still.

To answer this question, we assembled a team of VR experts, documentary journalists, and media scholars to conduct research-based experimentation.

The digital media production company Secret Location, a trailblazer in interactive storytelling and live-motion virtual reality, were the project’s production leads, building a prototype 360-degree, stereoscopic camera and spearheading an extensive post-production, development process. CEO James Milward and Creative Director Pietro Gagliano helmed the Secret Location team, which also included nearly a dozen technical experts.

PBS’s Frontline, in particular Executive Producer Raney Aronson-Rath, Managing Editor (digital) Sarah Moughty, and filmmaker Dan Edge, led the editorial process and enabled our virtual reality experiment as it was shot alongside an ongoing Frontline feature documentary.

The Tow Center for Digital Journalism facilitated the project. The center’s former research director and current assistant professor at UBC, Taylor Owen, and senior fellow Fergus Pitt embedded themselves within the entire editorial and production process, interviewing participants and working to position the experiment at the forefront of a wider conversation about changes in journalistic practice.

This report has four parts.

First, it traces the history of virtual reality, in both theory and practice. Fifty years of research and theory about virtual reality have produced two concepts which are at the core of journalistic virtual reality: immersion, or how enveloped a user is, and presence, or the perception of “being there.” Theorists identify a link between the two; greater levels of immersion lead to greater levels of presence. The authors’ hypothesis is that as the separation shrinks between audiences and news subjects, journalistic records gain new political and social power. Audiences become witnesses.

Second, we conducted a case study of one of the first documentaries produced for the medium: an ambitious project, shot on location in West Africa with innovative technology and a newly formed team. This documentary was a collaboration between Frontline, Secret Location, and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. The authors have documented its planning, field production, post-production and distribution, observing the processes and recording the lessons, missteps, and end results.

Third, we draw a series of findings from the case study, which together document the opportunities and challenges we see emerging from this new technology. These findings are detailed in Chapter 4, but can be summarized as:

  • Virtual reality represents a new narrative form, one for which technical and stylistic norms are in their infancy.
  • The VR medium challenges core journalistic questions evolving from the fourth wall debate, such as “who is the journalist?” and “what does the journalist represent?”
  • A combination of the limits of technology, narrative structure, and journalistic intent determine the degree of agency given to users in a VR experience.
  • The technology requirements for producing live-motion virtual reality journalism are burdensome, non-synergistic, rapidly evolving, and expensive.
  • At almost every stage of the process, virtual reality journalism is presented with tradeoffs that sit on a spectrum of time, cost, and quality.
  • The production processes and tools are mostly immature, are not yet well integrated, or common; the whole process from capture through to viewing requires a wide range of specialist, professional skills.
  • At this point in the medium’s development, producing a piece of virtual reality media requires a complete merger between the editorial and production processes.
  • Adding interactivity and user navigation into a live-motion virtual reality environment is very helpful for journalistic output, and also very cumbersome.
  • High-end, live motion virtual reality with added interactivity and CGI elements is very expensive and has a very long production cycle.
  • This project’s form is not the only one possible for journalistic VR. Others, including immediate coverage, may be accessible, cheaper, and have journalistic value.

Finally, we make the following recommendations for journalists seeking to work in virtual reality:

Journalists must choose a place on the spectrum of VR technology. Given current technology constraints, a piece of VR journalism can be of amazing quality, but with that comes the need for a team with extensive expertise and an expectation of long-turnaround—demands that require a large budget, as well as timeline flexibility. Or, it can be of lower-production quality, quicker turnaround, and thereby less costly. If producers choose to include extensive interactivity, with the very highest fidelity and technical features, they are limiting their audience size to those few with high-end headsets.

Draw on narrative technique. Journalists making VR pieces should expect that storytelling techniques will remain powerful in this medium. The temptation when faced with a new medium, especially a highly technical one, is to concentrate on mastering the technology—often at the expense of conveying a compelling story. In the context of documentary VR, there appear to be two strategies for crafting narrative. The first is to have directed-action take place in front of the “surround” camera. The second is to adulterate the immersive video with extra elements, such as computer-generated graphics or extra video layers. The preexisting grammar of film is significantly altered; montages don’t exist in a recognizable way, while the functions of camera angles and frames change as well.

The whole production team needs to understand the form, and what raw material the finished work will need, before production starts. In our case, a lack of raw material that could be used to tell the story made the production of this project more difficult and expensive. While the field crew went to Africa and recorded footage, that footage only portrayed locations. Although those locations were important, the 360-degree field footage—on its own—was missing anything resembling characters, context, or elements of a plot. Journalists intending to use immersive, live-action video as a main part of their finished work will need to come back from the field with footage that can be authored into a compelling story, in the VR form. It is very hard to imagine this task without the field crew’s understanding of the affordances, limitations, and characteristics of the medium.

More research, development, and theoretical work are necessary, specifically around how best to conceive of the roles of journalists and users—and how to communicate that relationship to users. Virtual reality allows the user to feel present in the scene. Although that is a constructed experience, it is not yet clear how journalists should portray the relationship between themselves, the user, and the subjects of their work. The conclusions section lists many of the relevant questions and their implications. Journalists, theorists, and producers can and should review these ideas and start to develop answers.

Journalists should aim to use production equipment that simplifies the workflow. Simpler equipment is likely to reduce production and post-production efforts, bringing down costs and widening the swath for the number of people who can produce VR. This will often include tradeoffs: In some cases simpler equipment will have reduced capability, for example cameras which shoot basic 360-degree video instead of 360-degree, stereoscopic video. Here, journalists will need to balance simplicity against other desirable characteristics.

As VR production, authoring, and distribution technology is developed, the journalism industry must understand and articulate its requirements, and be prepared to act should it appear those needs aren’t being met. The virtual reality industry is quickly developing new technology, which is likely to rapidly reduce costs, give authors new capabilities, and reach users in new ways. However, unless the journalism industry articulates its distinct needs, and the value in meeting those needs, VR products will only properly serve other fields (such as gaming and productivity).

The industry should explore (and share knowledge about) many different journalistic applications of VR, beyond highly produced documentaries. This project explored VR documentary in depth. However, just as long-form documentary is not the only worthwhile form of television journalism, the journalism industry may find value in fast-turnaround VR, live VR, VR data visualization, game-like VR, and many other forms.

Choose teams that can work collaboratively. This is a complex medium, with few standards or shared assumptions about how to produce good work. In its current environment, most projects will involve a number of people with disparate backgrounds who need to share knowledge, exchange ideas, make missteps and correct them. Without good communication and collaboration abilities, that will be difficult.

At a time defined by rapid technological advances, it is our collective hope that this project can serve as the start of a thoughtful industry and scholarly conversation about how virtual reality journalism might evolve, and the wider implications of its adoption. In short, this project seeks to investigate what’s involved in making virtual reality journalism, to better understand the nonfiction storytelling potential of VR, to produce a good work of journalism that affords the audience with a new understanding of elements of the story, and to provide critical reflection on the potential of virtual reality for the practice of journalism.

What follows is our attempt to articulate a moment in the evolution of VR technology and to understand what it means for journalism—by creating a virtual reality film, as well as reflecting on its process, technical requirements, feasibility, and impact.

You can read the whole report here.


Disruptive Power

The Crisis of the State in the Digital Age



Anonymous. WikiLeaks. The Syrian Electronic Army. Edward Snowden. Bitcoin. The Arab Spring.

Digital communication technologies have thrust the calculus of global political power into a period of unprecedented complexity. In every aspect of international affairs, digitally enabled actors are changing the way the world works and disrupting the institutions that once held a monopoly on power. No area is immune: humanitarianism, war, diplomacy, finance, activism, or journalism. In each, the government departments, international organizations and corporations who for a century were in charge, are being challenged by a new breed of international actor. Online, networked and decentralized, these new actors are innovating, for both good and ill, in the austere world of foreign policy. They are representative of a wide range of 21st century global actors and a new form of 21st century power: disruptive power.

In Disruptive Power, Taylor Owen provides a sweeping look at the way that digital technologies are shaking up the workings of the institutions that have traditionally controlled international affairs. The nation state system and the subsequent multinational system were founded on and have long functioned through a concentration of power in the state. Owen looks at the tools that a wide range of new actors are using to increasingly control international affairs, and how their rise changes the way we understand and act in the world. He considers the bar for success in international digital action and the negative consequences of a radically decentralized international system. What new institutions will be needed to moderate the new power structures and ensure accountability? And how can governments and corporations act to promote positive behavior in a world of disruptive innovation? Owen takes on these questions and more in this probing and sober look at the frontier of international affairs, in a world enabled by information technology and increasingly led by disruptive innovators.

With cutting edge analysis of the fast-changing relationship between the declining state and increasingly powerful non-state actors, Disruptive Power is the essential road map for navigating a networked world.



“The 21st century state is using new technologies both to serve and protect citizens and also to control them. Citizens are using the same technologies to fight back. Taylor Owen’s analysis is the one you want to read on this battle and the way it will shape the 21st century.”

–Michael Ignatieff, Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice, Harvard Kennedy School

“Cyber technology has led to disruptive power in the form of hackers like Anonymous and crypto-currencies like Bitcoin. How should states respond? Taylor Owen offers a provocative analysis and recommendations.”

–Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Harvard University, author of The Future of Power

“In Disruptive Power, Owen gives us a tour of the digital challenges to the nation-state, from newly flexible protest groups like Occupy and Anonymous to the rise of algorithms as weapons, often in the hands of non-state actors and often targeting civilian life. He weaves these observations into a forcefully argued thesis: the model of a world governed by stable nation-states is in crisis, forcing most state-led institutions into a choice between adaptation and collapse.”

–Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations

“Taylor Owen gives us an incisive set of reflections on the ways in which the decentralized, collaborative, and resilient power of digital networks is undermining the state’s ability to govern. Even more disturbing is the resulting existential dilemma for democratic states: the best way to fight back is to become a surveillance state. Disruptive Power does not provide answers, but it poses important and unsettling questions.”

–Anne-Marie Slaughter, Professor Emerita of Politics and International Affairs, Princeton University, and Director of Policy Planning, U.S. State Department, 2009-2011


Media and Book Talks



The Violence of AlgorithmsForeign Affairs

Why the U.S. should but won’t partner with hactivists AnonymousSan Fransisco Chronicle 

Why governments must embrace the new global digital realityThe Globe and Mail

The promise and peril of digital diplomacyThe Globe and Mail

Bitcoin Is Dead — Long Live Bitcoin, Vice



More Data, More Problems: Surveillance and the Information Economy,  Review in Foreign Affairs

Rescuing Democracy in the Age of the Internet, Review in Ethics and International Affairs



CIGI Signature Lecture, Disruptive Power: The Crisis of the State in the Digital Age

World Affairs Council, San Fransisco: From Bitcoin to WikiLeaks: Shaping the World in the Digital Age

Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum, Plenary Session: Foreign policy in 140 Characters: How technology is redefining diplomacy

International Conference of Crisis Mappers: Historical Mapping and the US Bombardment of Cambodia

Highlights from a talk at USC Annenberg: Disruptive Power 


Chapter Summaries


Losing Control

Losing Control outlines how in a wide range of international areas of influence, the state is being challenged by new, digitally enabled actors. Grounded in the theory of disruption, this chapter explores the rise and power of the activist collective Anonymous, the paradox of dual use surveillance technologies, and the recent revelation on the extent of NSA surveillance.  The chapter serves as an introduction to the book.

Disruptive Power

Disruptive Power traces the development of the modern state and drawing on disruption theory, explores how the introduction of digital technology presents a crisis to state power.  The state began as a mechanism for centralizing and exercising power and over time became hierarchical, bureaucratic, and, in democratic states, accountable to the rule of law.  In a networked world, however, groups like Anonymous wield power by being decentralized, collaborative, and resilient.  These two models of power are fundamentally at odds and the resulting disruptive power threatens the institutions that have preserved the balance of power since the end of World War II.

Spaces of Dissent

Spaces of Dissent explores the rapidly evolving space of digital activism, or hacktivism, through the example of a group of hackers called Telecomix, who served as a form of tech support for the Arab Spring.  Such cyber activists have taken on a role of social and cultural provocateurs; they are dissenting actors in a culture that is increasingly hostile to protest. What’s more, they see, observe, and quickly react in ways that boggle the state and corporations – all of this instrumentalized by digital technology. This argument is grounded in an exploration of hactivism as a form of civil disobedience, though one that looks markedly different, and is potential more powerful, than the placards and megaphones of old. The chapter details how the state has responded to the perceived threat of online civil disobedience through its prosecutions against Chelsea Manning and Anonymous, and argues that their excessiveness stems form a paranoia over losing control. Finally, it explores the costs to society when we eliminate social deviancy.

New Money

New Money details how the rise of crypto-currencies such as Bitcoin represent a threat to the power the state derives from the control of currency. This chapter first outlines the history of the close connection between the control of currency and state power. It then details the rise of crypto-currencies, explain how they work, and their potential real-world benefits. Finally, it explores the potential challenge to state power posed by this decentralized and technologically enabled currency. I argue that if the use of Bitcoin were to proliferate, as it likely will, then the inability of the state to either collect revenue from, or regulate commercial activity, poses a threat to the control it currently holds over the international financial system.

Being There

Being There considers the evolution of international reporting news by juxtaposing the death of seasoned war corresponded Marie Colvin during the bombing of Homs, Syria with the new digital tools Syrian citizens used to document and stream the war to the world in real time.  In an age of live-streaming, citizen journalism, drone journalism and coming advances in virtual reality, do we even need foreign correspondents? What’s more, do these technological advances result in new forms of knowing and understanding international events, do they shift how we understand the traditional power of the media and their capability to control information, and are they ultimately affecting how we see, and act in, the world?

Saving the Saviors

Saving the Saviors looks at the impact of collaborative mapping and advances in satellite technology on humanitarian and development agencies. The world of aid, humanitarianism and development have long been dominated by state-based agencies and large international organizations. For nearly a century, organizations like the World Food Program, The Red Cross, USAID and Oxfam have attempted to lead a transfer of expertise and resources from the developed world to the developing world. But new models are emerging. In the first week following the 2010 Haiti earthquake 14,000 citizens used their cell phones to upload emergency information to a live online crisis map. How do we know if the information uploaded to a crisis map is real? How do we hold these projects to account, without the oversight that states and institutions once provided? Using examples of disruptive humanitarian actors and recent academic work assessing their impact, this chapter explores how aid and humanitarianism are being transformed from the ground up.

Diplomacy Unbound

Diplomacy Unbound explores the emerging practice of digital diplomacy. First, it outlines how we valued the efficacy and power of diplomacy before Twitter and Facebook and mesh networks by tracing the notion of diplomatic power. It then argues that we need to view digital diplomacy initiatives in two categories, those that simply expand the practice of public diplomacy into a new medium, and those that seek to fundamentally engage in the digital space, using the tools and capabilities outlined throughout this book. I argue that when the bounds of diplomacy are extended into influencing not just states, but also digital actors, then they overlap fundamentally with other foreign policy programs and objectives. And this invariably leads to conflicting methods and outcomes.  The undue negative costs associated with coercive digital diplomacy demonstrate the weakness of the state in a major realm of its foreign policy. And if the state can’t be effectively diplomatic in the digital space, then what does this tell us about the contemporary relevance of diplomacy itself? 

The Violence of Algorithms

The Violence of Algorithms looks at how advances in computational power and automation have produced military weapons and surveillance tools that blur the boundaries of the battlefield and the lines between domestic and international. While much of this book focuses on diminishing state power in the face of empowered actors, here I look at how the state is fighting back. What does it mean when the state extends the use of military technologies and tactics far beyond the battlefield? How should we view advances in automated warfare, and the power that these new technologies embed in complex and secretive algorithms? And for how long can we expect the state to have a monopoly on these news forms of pervasive violence? Put another way, where is the line between war and peacetime behaviour with the deployment of computation and surveillance based weaponry?

The Crisis of the State

The Crisis of the State outlines four challenges that together threaten the state’s traditional mechanisms of power and control, but that also might provide models for 20th century international institutions seeking to adapt— if they are structurally capable of transformation or meaningful reform.  This crisis of the state has at least four key components: democratic legitimacy, reversing the surveillance state, algorithmic accountability, and internet governance.  Solving any one of them, will not prove a panacea to this crisis, nor is this list exhaustive; there are many more innovations being developed and important questions being addressed. But luckily in each, there are individuals and groups experimenting on new models and proposing potential solutions.  This is the new landscape in which the state must constructively engage.


Towards a new Liberal foreign policy (Part 1/n: Ideology)

Over the coming weeks, on, I will be exploring the challenges and opportunities for a new Canadian foreign policy. Ideas for this series are based partly on the 2014 Ottawa Forum, a conference of next-generation foreign policy leaders organized with Roland Paris. Our book on this topic, due out in December, is The World Won’t Wait: Why Canada Needs to Rethink Its International Policies. In the interim though, what follows will be a series of posts on the unique moment that we are now presented with a post-baby boomer leader with a majority mandate to reform Canada’s role in the world.  What should a new, 21st century Liberal foreign policy look like?

One of the more fascinating aspects of watching the Liberal platform unfold over the past year has been the tension between its intentional underlying liberalism and the politics of opposition and election policy making.

After many years of Liberal Party handwringing over its identity — Who are we? What do we stand for? — Justin Trudeau and his team used a distinctly liberal approach to shape the platform, an approach markedly different from former Liberal leaders Jean Chretien, Paul Martin and even Michael Ignatieff (full disclosure, I participated in Ignatieff’s policy process). For more than two decades, Liberals had mostly eschewed liberal ideology for a centrist pragmatism. This works well when you are in, or close to, power, but it is less helpful when rebuilding a party, let alone trying to build a movement.

Through this kind of liberalism we get moderate deficits to be used not on national daycare, but family tax cuts and low interest rate deficit spending. We get an uncompromising individual rights based approach to abortion and the niqab. We get a province-up climate strategy. We get democratic reform and a move towards open government. These policies certainly don’t please everyone, but they all fit nicely within a modern liberal construct.

But what does a liberal foreign policy look like, and did Trudeau set one out in his platform?

The particular challenge in the international domain is that in the years since the Liberals were in power the world has changed in some significant ways. While a victorious Trudeau announced to the world that ‘Canada was back,’ this is going to require more than returning to past Liberal policies.  It will mean re-imagining a liberal international agenda suited to the 21st century.

Since the end of the Second World War, the foreign policies of most developed western countries have been dominated by the concepts, or ideology, of liberal internationalism: a rules-based, open and transparent global system, whose goal is to protect and enhance the freedom of the individual.

For most of its seven decades, this goal was actualized through state-based multilateral organizations that made liberal internationalism largely synonymous with the big postwar institutions like the UN, World Bank and IMF, and the ICC. While the ideal of liberal internationalism is to protect the rights of individuals, the solutions for over half a century have been decidedly statist. And so to address the problem of landmines we get the Mine Ban Convention, to protect citizens against gross human rights abuses we get the Responsibility to Protect, to stop war crimes, we developed norms of humanitarian intervention. While the challenge of liberal internationalism is individualistic, the solutions for over half a century have been state-based.

Despite many successes in its early years, the past decade has in many cases exposed the inability of these postwar institutions and norms to fulfill the very mandates they were built to advance. The list of recent multilateral policy failures is sobering: Afghanistan, Iraq, Kyoto, non-proliferation, and any number of macro development initiatives.

The reality is the multilateral framework is increasingly out of step with a world where technological proliferation has made power more diffuse, and empowered individuals and non-state groups both to protect, and to harm, themselves. As a result, increasingly Liberal Party internationalism is trapped between liberalism’s core mandate of protecting individual rights and a traditional nation-state approach that can no longer take for granted its traditional primacy.

Because of this new reality, for a renewed Liberal Party foreign policy to be effective, it must imagine a 21st century internationalism, rather than fall back on an idealized worldview of old. Put another way, what does an open, rules-based approach to protecting individual rights and freedoms look like in a world of ISIS, Wikileaks, Snowden, and climate change?

Despite Trudeau’s rhetorical emphasis on renewing Canada’s multilateral presence (which in my view is a very positive first step away from the Harper foreign policy approach), we have yet to see a cohesive articulation of his foreign policy approach.

What do we know about Trudeau’s foreign policy?

On the decision to cease airstrikes against ISIS, while an argument can be made to shift our engagement, it is entirely possible — indeed likely — that a Liberal government would have supported them, as they have supported similar campaigns in previous conflicts.

On Bill C-51, the Liberal position was developed to buttress an anticipated nasty conservative attack should they have voted against it. Even with the proposed amendments, central challenges of cross department and international data sharing are problematic for an open, rules based and individually focused liberal agenda (more on this in a later post in this series).

On the Saudi arms deal, Trudeau’s position was that he wouldn’t cancel it but would review and be more transparent about future deals.

On F-35s, he would cancel and replace them with a potentially cheaper alternative.

On the Syrian refugee crisis, a proposal to accept more, and faster.

On pipelines, a mix of supporting some and not others that ultimately will lead to expansion of oilsands development, while at the same time committing to renew Canada’s contribution to global climate talks.

Perhaps the biggest nod to liberal internationalism has been Trudeau’s qualified support of the TPP, a deal that has unified the America left in opposition. So much so that one of its architects, Hillary Clinton, has actually come out against it in order to solidify the nomination.

Whether or not each of these positions is sound, what’s clear is that there is not an underlying philosophy to bind them together.  This is completely understandable when running an election.  But frameworks can help when building a governing agenda.

Perhaps the crux of this challenge to find a meaningful modern foreign policy philosophy is found in Trudeau’s strong support of foreign service rejuvenation and renewed multilateral participation. Relative to the Harper government, these are positive adjustments. But simply re-engaging in international organizations that are in dire need of reform is a necessary but not sufficient step in rebuilding our role in the world.

Meaningful renewal requires not just returning to active participation in a 20th century multilateralism, but taking on the principal question for liberal internationalism today: how do the states that built the postwar international system continue to promote and protect the individual in a world where states have diminishing power?

This foreign policy challenge may be daunting, but if taken seriously it would also open a new era of possibility in which the state works to protect the networks on which individuals empower themselves.

The unique opportunity of this Liberal foreign policy moment is to re-imagine liberal internationalism, by figuring out what a rules-based global system for securing individual freedoms looks like in a world that is radically more open, and where power is more diffuse, than when Liberals were last in power. This is the Canada the world needs.

In subsequent posts, I will explore elements of this opportunity further.



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.


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 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.