Media

What the Tesla Affair Tells us About Data Journalism

Consider for a moment two scenarios.

One, a malicious energy reporter tasked with reviewing an electric car decides he is going to fake the review. Part of this fictional narrative, is that the car needs to run out of battery power sometime in the review. He arrives at one of the charging stations, and instead of plugging in, spends a few minutes circling the parking lot trying to drain the battery.

Second, an energy reporter is tasked with reviewing the potential of a new electric car charging network. He arrived at one of the charging location in the dark, and can’t find the charging station. He drives around the parking lot several times looking for it, before finding it and charging his car.

Here is the thing. As Craig Silverman recently pointed out to me, we actually have no idea, based on the interpretation of the review data released by Tesla, which narrative is true. All the data shows is a car driving around a parking lot. And here in lies the principle lesson from the whole Tesla affair: Data is laden with intentionality, and cannot be removed from the context in which it was derived. We do not know, from these data alone, what happened in that parking lot.

David Brooks touched on this very issue in a recent (somewhat overly maligned in my opinion) column on the limits to big data. While his Italian banking analogy felt misplaced, there is actually a large amount of research backing up his general themes. And his point that data struggles with context, is directly relevant to the Tesla dispute:

Data struggles with context. Human decisions are not discrete events. They are embedded in sequences and contexts. The human brain has evolved to account for this reality. People are really good at telling stories that weave together multiple causes and multiple contexts. Data analysis is pretty bad at narrative and emergent thinking, and it cannot match the explanatory suppleness of even a mediocre novel.

In the case of the Tesla review, it is this context that was both poorly recorded by Broder, and which is missing from the Tesla data analysis. This does not mean the analysis is wrong.  But it does mean it’s incomplete.

A couple of further points about the role data played in this journalistic dispute.

First, the early triumphalism against the New York Times in the name of both Telsa and data transparency, were premature. In Tesla’s grand rebuttal, Musk clearly overplayed his rhetorical hand by arguing that the review was faked, but he also overstated both the case he could make with the data, as well as the level of transparency that he was actually providing. Tesla didn’t release the data from the review. Telsa released their interpretation of the data from the review. This interpretation took the form of the graphical representation they choose to give it, as well as the subjective write-up they imposed on it.

What is interesting is that even with this limited and selective data release (ie, without the raw data), entirely different narrative interpretations could be built. Broder and his New York Times team presented one. But Rebecca Greenfield at the Atlantic  provided an even more detailed one. There are likely elements of truth scattered across these three interpretations of the data.  But they are just that – interpretations.

Second, the only person who can provide the needed context to this data is Broder, the reviewer himself. And the only way he can convey this information is if we trust him. Because of his “problems with precision and judgement,” as the New York Times’ Public Editor Margaret Sullivan put it, his trust was devalued. So the missing journalistic piece to this story is lost. Even in a world of data journalism, trust, integrity and journalistic process still matter. In fact, they matter all the more.

Finally, we can’t lose sight of the outcome Tesla wanted from this. They wanted PR for their new vehicle. So amongst all of the righteous indignation, it is worth noting that journalistic principles are not their core objective – good stories about their products are. These may or may not be aligned. This is why, for example, Broder was given significant support and access during his review trip (some of which ultimately proved to be misguided).

An example of this discrepancy surrounds the one clear reality about the Model S (and presumably electric cars in general) that was revealed in the review – they lose significant charge when not plugged in during cold weather. Now, Tesla would rather this fact had not emerged in the review. But it did. And as Steven Johnson pointed out, this has significant implications, specifically for city drivers. For one, it makes parking the Tesla S on the street in the winter (what many urban dwellers would have to do), largely impractical.

So, to recap. The Tesla Affair reinforces that: data does not equal fact; that context matters enormously to data journalism; that trust and documentation are even more important in a world of data journalism; and that companies will continue to prioritize positive PR over good journalism in reviews of their products.

Crossposted on the Tow Center for Digital Journalism blog

Digital Technology, International Affairs

The Surveillance Arms Race

There is a new arms race emerging between people who want to communicate freely and securely and governments that want to monitor and limit this communication. In democratic countries, this government interference ranges from the mass monitoring of telecoms to flirtations with cutting off social media flows and shutting down cell towers in protest areas. When autocratic countries face crisis and conflict, however, the battle for control over communication is more troublesome and the risks are more acute.

Linking the interference being run by governments in democratic and autocratic countries is the technologies being deployed by both. And therein lies a paradox: The tools that enable autocratic governments to monitor and control their citizens are produced by western technology companies.

Much like the arms trade, this often creates an awkward scenario in which western countries end up supporting opposition movements that are fighting against technology bought from western countries. Sometimes this collusion backfires in provocative and potentially controversial ways. For example, in Syria, American journalist Marie Colvin and French photographer Rémi Ochlik were killed by a mortar attack that was most likely carried out by targeting their satellite phones. It is widely held that this technology was provided by western companies.

There are many recent examples of this phenomenon, especially within the context of the Arab Spring. High profile technology companies such as Gamma (UK) and FinSpy offered surveillance services to regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain, and Syria. Google Engineers discovered contract proposals between Gamma and the Mubarak regime – €250,000 worth of spy technology  that would “enable them [Egypt] to intercept dissidents’ emails, record audio and video chats, and take copies of computer hard drives.”  The SpyFiles operation by Wikileaks and Privacy International further revealed 287 documents indicating that these surveillance companies such French arms dealer, Amesys, sold both spyware and malware technologies (including Trojans) to the Gaddafi regime.

The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto has uncovered a wide range of examples of complicity between western companies and authoritarian regimes. Most recently, it showed that devices manufactured by Blue Coat Systems, a California-based hardware company, were in use by 61 countries, with histories of human rights abuses. In 2011, it detailed how Syria used Blue Coat software to both censor the Internet and root out particular activities linked to pro-democracy activists.

Western governments use this same type of commercial filtering and monitoring technology to monitor and restrict the online behaviour of their employees. This means that western governments could very well be implicitly supporting private companies that develop technologies that assist the oppressive regimes the oppose.

Indeed, if one were to attend a trade show for such technologies, as a Washington Post journalist recently did, one would find more than 35 United States federal agencies buying the very same technologies as the autocrats. As reported in the Atlantic, Jerry Lucas, who runs a trade show called ISS world, which is known as the “Wiretapper’s Ball”  was asked by the Guardian whether he would be comfortable with Zimbabwe and North Korea buying technology at his trade shows.  He responded, “That’s just not my job to determine who’s a bad country and who’s a good country. “That’s not our business, we’re not politicians … we’re a for-profit company. Our business is bringing governments together who want to buy this technology.”

The U.S. State Department, which has spent $70 million promoting internet freedom abroad, is part of a government that has few regulations on the trade of the technology that prevents such freedom. A bill has been before the United States Congress to prevent the sale of this technology to “Internet-restricting countries” since 2006, but the bill faces implementation challenges, as the list of countries in question now includes most nation states.  And there are other real limits to what western governments can do, due to both the scale of the industry, estimated at $5 billion a year globally, and the limits of contemporary international law.

There have been some positive steps: Last year a U.S. congressional subcommittee passed the Global Online Freedom Act (GOFA), “creating a new transparency standard for Internet companies listed on U.S. stock exchanges and operating in countries that substantially censor or control the Internet.”  The GOFA would force U.S. companies listed on the U.S. Stock exchange to release information on their human rights due diligence.

Of course, these technologies have the potential to be used for both positive and negative impact (they are dual-use). This poses a particular challenge to governments trying to use these technologies for good. For example, the U.S. government is funding Commotion Wireless, a sophisticated hacking project that seeks to enable activists by undermining internet censorship in countries such as Syria and Iran, however the FBI recently warned that these same anonymizing and encryption tools might be “indicators of terrorist activities.”

The question for policymakers, then, is whether anything beyond challenging regulatory measures can be done to overcome the dual-use dilemma, or whether it is simply a fact of life in a radically open operating environment. Whatever the reply, a relatively simple place to start would be to support the development of technologies that empower individuals, rather than enabling the production and trade of tools used for surveillance and oppression.

For example, a Swedish research team recently developed a new tool that allows Tor communication (a tool that anonymizes internet use) to be cloaked within services like Skype in order to circumvent recent changes to the Chinese “firewall” that had compromised those who used those services. Similarly, a team at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, in partnership with Stanford Computer Science, has built an app called Dispatch that allows for secure communication between journalists and their sources in areas of conflict. Another app, Silent Circle, allows users to send encrypted files of up to 60 megabytes via text message. These are tools that our governments should support. One can even imagine a virtual embassy incentivizing such projects. Too often, however, these surveillance-evading tools ruffle the feathers of autocratic and democratic governments alike.

What we are ultimately seeing is an arms race between oppressive governments and their citizens. It is high time that our democratically elected governments cease supporting, either tacitly or explicitly, the technologies enabling government surveillance.

Crossposted on OpenCanada.org

Canadian Politics

Liberal Baggage

David Eaves and I have a review of Peter C Neman’s When the Gods Changed, in this month’s Literary Review of Canada.  We use it to continue to explore the theme of progressive politics that has now been the basis of many joint articles, opeds and a forthcoming book. Our initial piece on this topic was also in the LRC, three years ago, called Progressivisms End.

A few key graphs from the Newman review, titled Liberal Baggage: The Party’s Greatest Burden May be its Past Success are below, but the whole thing is here:

Newman seems intent on forcing the Liberal Party’s troubles into a narrative of psychological disrepair. And it is certainly true that the cocksure certainty of governance among party faithful takes time to dissipate. But an author who spends years looking at the world through the eyes of his or her subjects can fall victim to a type of biographical determinism—a view of history that places far too much weight on the actions of those being written about. Herein lies the central problem with this book. Newman wants to see the recent decline of the Liberal Party exclusively through the thoughts and actions of his subjects, Michael Ignatieff and a few “kingmakers” around him.

The Liberal Party’s real baggage is not psychological; it is institutional. Over the course of a century, the party built a series of social institutions designed for an industrial world. As the information age has fundamentally changed citizens’ challenges and expectations, Liberals have been left defending the existence of institutions, some now broken or in disrepair, over the progressive values they were originally intended to promote.

While Davey is dismissive of his efforts to reform the party, the reality is that both he and Ignatieff brought a wide range of new people, energy and ideas into the Liberal fold. But these people will need to move beyond a rearticulation of 20th-century ideas, presented through a modernized campaign. They will need to rethink the place of liberal politics in Canadian society. Newman is right: a 21st-century Liberal party may not look anything like the 20th-century juggernaut. But that would be a good thing.

Canadian Politics

For the Liberals, it’s time for the path not taken

A short essay for the Ottawa Citizen a few weeks ago:

Before becoming leader of the Labour Party, Tony Blair wrote a pamphlet for the august thinktank of the British left, The Fabian Society, in which he questioned the socialist pillar of his party’s constitution. Adopted in 1918, Clause IV tied the Labour Party to a goal of nationalizing the means of production, distribution and exchange. At the time, this clause reflected a modern vision for the industrialization of 20th-century Britain. Eighty-five years later, it was a millstone around the neck of a party seeking to reinvent itself for a post-industrial world.

In his leadership acceptance speech a year later, Blair challenged the party to abolish Clause IV and to build with him a New Labour, one that embraced markets, technology and globalization. In one act, he redefined both the vision and structure of his party, took on the once intransigent party establishment, and made it clear that the Labour Party was to become a 21st-century institution, rather than a 20th-century one.

It is hard to look at the Liberal Party of Canada and not think that they too need a Clause IV moment. At the base of most of their problems, and there are many, lies a similar core challenge that once faced Labour: the Liberal party is an institution that has failed to modernize. In structure, operation, policy and vision, it is a 20th-century party in a 21st-century Canada.

While there has been much premature prognosticating of the Liberals’ demise, it is certainly worth keeping the party’s very real challenges front of mind.

First, the structure of the party remains laden with bureaucracy, committees, and entrenched interests. Over time (and despite much success) it has simply become bloated. More critically, lines of authority have been blurred. On any issue, it is unclear whether the leader, their staff and advisers, the party executive, regional leadership, MPs, riding associations, committees or party members have legitimate agency or control. This leads to endless internal tension. This may have been acceptable in an era where the party was in power, with lots of jobs to fill and flush funds. It is profoundly illsuited for a lean period of rebuilding and innovation.

Second, operationally, the party remains out of date. Voter identification has only recently been digitized, fundraising is built around a low volume/big donor model that no longer exists, the membership system is easily corruptible, the volunteer structure draws only on the most strident party faithful, and there is no network of like-minded organizations and think-tanks. How can this party expect to compete with a conservative political machine that has rebuilt itself from the bottom up?

Third, on the policy front, the party is stalled. It is stuck in a vision of Canada successfully implemented in the late 20th century, but which hasn’t kept up with the rapidly changing world. Simply put, the party has prioritized the defence of the progressive institutions and programs that it built, over the outcomes they were intended to enable.

Canadians know – as health care threatens to eat up 50 per cent of provincial budgets and service levels remain mixed – that their healthcare system is broken.

Young Canadians don’t trust that a pension system will exist for them. Anyone can see that traditional peacekeeping cannot solve today’s international conflicts. Where are the bold progressive policy ideas on health care, drug policy, inequality, climate change and education? All are ripe for a rethinking that prioritizes progressive outcomes rather than dated 20th-century progressive processes.

Finally, the party does not have an overarching vision that resonates in a 21st-century Canada. Liberals are not alone. At the heart of the challenge facing the emergence of a new Liberal vision is a paradox plaguing centre-left parties around the world. Voters see a system of government built for a different age, one far less effective at delivering services than any other institution in their lives. Conservatives have an easy answer to this inefficiency – get rid of government. The Liberal challenge is far more difficult; they must present a convincing argument for reforming rather than dismantling government.

It is through the lens of these challenges that next week’s party convention should be viewed. While non-leadership party conventions hold limited expectations, this is no ordinary time for the Liberal party. It is fair to ask: do the proceedings of this event lay the groundwork for revolutionary rather than evolutionary change?

There are three areas in which we can look for indicators: the proposed policy resolutions, the proposed constitutional amendments, and the candidates running for the party presidency.

First, while true that party platforms are rarely made on the tangled convention floor, anyone looking for a new vision of Canada in the list of policy resolutions is sure to be disappointed. There are the usual general calls for national programs and strategies (post-secondary education, child care, anti-poverty, a national energy grid, national pharmacare, increased research funding, universal broadband). There is a proposal for (yet another) Renewal Commission, a suggestion to ban the penny, a call to oppose Bill C-11 (the government’s copyright legislation) and another to reinstate the long-form census. None of the health-care resolutions address the underlying structural challenges, and only one of the foreign policy proposals, a resolution on corporate international responsibility, offers more than platitudes to “be better.”

There are two exceptions to this rather bland list, both proposed by the Young Liberals: the requisite call to legalize marijuana and a resolution to cut ties with the monarchy. The time has surely come for national conversations on each, and both have a cross partisan constituency. Irrespective of their individual merit, these are the type of policy explorations than will need to come out of a party in renewal. A hundred more bold ideas and we’d have a real policy conversation.

Second, while most of the proposed procedural constitutional amendments represent minor adjustments, two are significant, and while flawed, will signal the party members’ appetite for real structural change.

The first proposal is to create a new category of party member, called a supporter, who can register to vote in the party leadership. This is what is being called the “primary model” and the intention is to bring more Canadians into the leadership selection process. As many have pointed out, this is a big idea, and one with lasting consequence, but it may not pass due to a failure to spell out the specifics in the resolution.

The second, related resolution will allow these supporters to participate in riding candidate nominations. This idea is modelled on the “open nomination” trials that David Cameron successfully conducted in the lead-up to the last British election, and are meant to break away from entrenched party member control of candidate selection.

While imperfect (true open nominations freed from incumbency and party membership would go significantly further than either resolution), and perhaps unlikely to pass in their current form, the intent of both of these proposed reforms gets at one of the core challenges facing the party, namely, how to attract and entice both riding and leadership candidates from outside of the party ecosystem. Together, they reflect a recognition that the party needs new blood if it’s going to survive.

Finally, the election of the new party president has turned into a symbolic initial marker of the party’s reform. Rightly or wrongly, Mike Crawley has emerged as the reform candidate and Sheila Copps as the leader from the past. Copps has strong links to the old left of the party, and is even proposing a national tour of former Liberal MPs to reinvigorate the party. Crawley on the other hand has successfully captured the support, if not yet imagination, of the next generation of the party. For this reason, his likely victory will be at the least a symbolic win for advocates of substantive reform.

Liberal renewal has been largely empty rhetoric ever since Paul Martin’s 2006 election loss. Up until now, entrenched party interests and actors have won out over real reform. Attempts to shake up policy, to bring in new big ideas, have been vigorously fought off by the party establishment. There hasn’t been a Clause IV moment; no one has even tried.

But the reality is that there is opportunity in the current electoral landscape. On the right is a Conservative party that, at its core, doesn’t believe in the federal government. Its appeal is the offer to dismantle the parts of the system that are broken, but in so doing it will leave behind many of those who are protected and enabled by the government.

On the left is a party whose vision is to return Canada to the 1960s. It’s a world of a strong national government, of an even bigger health-care system, social safety net and welfare state. The conservatism of the left means protecting what is unsustainable.

There is room in between for a re-imagined progressive federal vision. One that is built around the political axes of the 21st century: open vs. closed systems; evidence-based policy vs. ideology; meritocratic governance vs. patronage; open and fair markets vs. isolationism; sustainability vs. disposability, and emergent networks vs. hierarchies.

The question now is whether the threat of extinction is sufficient to spur the innovation of ideas, people and structures needed to turn the broken-down 20thcentury jalopy that is the current Liberal party into a state-of-the-art vehicle purpose-built for a 21st-century progressive vision.

International Affairs

Conferencing in Halifax while Rome Burns?

Cross-posted on CIC Dispatch Blog

Billed as the Davos for Security, the Halifax International Security Forum – funded by the Department of National Defence (DND) – sought and accomplished to court the security elite. Last weekend’s lavish affair was attended by nearly 20 defence ministers, top global security analysts, beltway security consultants, international affairs journalists, and a handful of security academics. As at Davos, it’s hard to fault the execution, and the host, Peter Mackay, deserves a lot of credit.

Throughout the event, though, I couldn’t help asking whether this was the right group of people having the right conversation at the right time. With deeply troubled military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, attention increasingly turning to Asia and the BRICs, and much of the world embroiled in an uprising against concentrated political and financial power, what is the value proposition of a largely Euro-Atlantic, NATO-focused confab of security-sector leaders?

This feeling was magnified by the subject matter on the agenda. For two days, debate swirled around the purchasing of F35s, the potential invasion of Syria and bombing of Iran, and the western security implications of Arab revolutions. Throughout, military actions were discussed in an unproblematic way, as part of a natural escalation of engagement.

This was not entirely surprising, as the event was, for all intents and purposes, a military conference. But even for a military conference, this discourse seemed limited. There was no discussion of the abyss of the war in Afghanistan, the very real problems with the Libya mission (beyond the easy success of bombing fixed, undefended targets), or the dilemma that no one wants to put troops on the ground in NATO missions.

Talking about this with a sage colleague, I was reminded that the Security and Defence Forum (SDF) program, also funded by the DND, was recently cut. Over four decades, the SDF program financed a wide range of Canadian academic work on security. There are rumours that the program was cut not just for budgetary reasons, but because its policy utility was questioned – what use is critical academic work to the running of a defence policy? Interestingly, the budget of the SDF was similar to the rumoured budget of the Halifax forum – around two million dollars.

There is, of course, no reason to suggest a direct connection between the two programs, but it is worth discussing what we are losing and acquiring with this amount of money. Is it more valuable to fund an academic program on security or a two-day event that brings together the global power brokers? What are the trade-offs between a conversation you cannot control and one you diligently curate?

The SDF program, for all its faults, funded a wide range of security thinking and conversation. While some of this was classical defence studies, it also involved theoretical, practical, and political critiques of security policy. In so doing, the SDF fostered a community of academics engaged in the Canadian security discussion, and the openness of the program supported a very diverse range of security perspectives.

It is a trope in international relations to say that the world of security changed “after the end of the cold war.” The Economist magazine even bans articles that start with those words. But it is certainly true: The security conversation now rightly involves any number of auxiliaries to military affairs, including development, human rights, the environment, public health, local violence, and so on. The SDF program encouraged this broad view of security.

This critical perspective was virtually nowhere to be seen in Halifax. Save for regular interventions from Anne-Marie Slaughter and Ambassador Swanee Hunt, the discussion was almost exclusively centred on the military and global economic sides of security. Participants and speakers often came across as too aligned – too in agreement about the primary security threats and the necessary responses. The downside of controlled discourse, of course, is groupthink. And groupthink can be dangerous.

If there is one lesson we learned from the financial crisis, it’s that those in charge were not as smart as they thought they were. Left unchecked, the financial elite put a global system at risk by seeking, at every step, to maximize their interests. There was no balance at the global decision-making table, so one perspective – one worldview and set of interests – ran amok.

Such can also be the case with security policy. Does talk among decision-makers of bombing Iran, left unchecked by criticism, make bombing more likely to occur? Quite possibly. Do self-oriented discussions among militaries perpetuate the failures of Afghanistan, in which militaries sought and got “quick victories” but completely missed the larger purposes and goals involved? Probably. Does glorifying the John McCain approach to U.S. foreign policy make Canada more likely to act in this mould? Maybe. Does having a security conversation dominated by the military, with little engagement from diplomatic and development departments, lead to a more militarized foreign policy? Almost certainly.

With Canada and NATO continuing to sing the praises of whole-of-government and comprehensive approaches to intervention and nation-building, surely the conversation in Halifax should have been broader.

On the economic front, the discussion was tainted by a notable condescension towards the Occupy movement – condescension that betrayed detachment to the security concerns raised by the increasing disconnect between a rising popular concern about inequality, and the political and financial elite’s focus on debt-cutting and austerity. Surely, a security discussion should have shown more awareness of the potential for increasingly exacerbated social divides to lead to animosity and instability, both within countries and between them.

We need to recognize that controlled conversations, if they are not broadened to include critical, uncomfortable, and diverse views, risk perpetuating siloed solutions. The military is almost always more likely to advocate military solutions over development, humanitarian, and diplomatic ones – which is why the military doesn’t control foreign policy.

I am not suggesting that the Halifax forum should be cancelled. In fact, I personally found it stimulating and engaging. The format of the conference, based around interview-style plenaries, was perhaps the best I have ever seen, and the calibre of participants and speakers was exceptionally high. I was glad that Canada put on an event of this scale. But when discussing and debating war, in which the costs are so immensely high, we have to be incredibly careful not to fall into groupthink and the prescribed policies of self-reinforcing communities. Doing so invariably leads to the type of path dependency that we saw in the lead-up to the Iraq war and financial crisis.

Herein lies the value of the SDF program and the academic discourse it enabled: It fostered engagement and critical thinking in a space prone to secrecy and control. The direct benefit of this kind of discourse to policy-making is difficult to calculate, but it is nevertheless a benefit.

In the end, foreign and security policy is about balancing worldviews. The field of security studies, once the purview of the military, has moved on to include many more perspectives and actors. So, too, must the elite debate.

International Affairs

The Risks of Building the Afghan Army

Below is an oped that appeared in the Globe and Mail.

The regional military training centre in Herat is a desolate and harsh place. On the outskirts of an Afghan city bustling with commerce and construction, the vast training grounds extend out into the desert and high into the mountains.

We were at this training facility to see a live-fire exercise, intended as a demonstration of what is now the primary pillar of the International Security Assistance Force mission: forging the Afghan army into a force capable of securing the country and keeping the national government together as NATO draws down.

After winding through dozens of marching drills and shooting ranges, we arrived at the edge of the facility and a line of six young Afghan soldiers, each with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher on their shoulder. They were aiming at three burned-out Russian tanks. One by one, they fired at the tanks, most missing wildly.

[stream provider=youtube flv=http://youtu.be/JMr9N6XjEBE embed=false share=false width=640 height=360 dock=true controlbar=over bandwidth=high autostart=false /]

After this somewhat chilling demonstration, we were taken to meet the commander of Regional Command West; he will ultimately take control of one of five regional armies. His message was blunt: He had fought for themujahedeen, the Russians, the Taliban and now for NATO. While he appreciated our support, he had no doubt it would be fleeting.

It would be difficult to find a better distillation of the challenges NATO faces in Afghanistan than what we saw at this training facility. But such is the current state of the mission. With eight years of fighting having mostly failed, the NATO mission is in a process of transition, with security being transferred to Afghan forces between now and 2014. Training, which began in earnest only in November of 2009, is at the centre of this strategy.

Canada may no longer be fighting in Kandahar, but this new mission is nonetheless a daunting and risky task.

The police training process, for example, involves only three weeks of very basic security and language training (85 per cent of the recruits are illiterate). As one German colonel who is part of the mentoring program put it, we are training them to be checkpoint guards, not police officers.

This has real consequence for our counterinsurgency strategy. In the north, the Afghan National Police has proved incapable of patrolling and securing villages; immediately after NATO soldiers leave, the insurgents simply return. The village is then taken again and those who assisted NATO are punished. Each time this happens, more civilians are killed. The villagers then stop pointing out the whereabouts of IEDs, thereby increasing NATO casualties.

In the past year, there hasn’t been a single village held by the Afghan National Police in the north. The insurgents always come back.

Also of concern is the fact that the departing Americans are meant to be replaced by these new Afghan recruits. For example, the 30,000 U.S. soldiers who are being withdrawn over the next 18 months are supposed to be replaced by 50,000 to 70,000 new Afghan National Army troops. While there’s something to be said for the argument that an Afghan soldier can be more effective than a Western one, the lack of training, organization, leadership and equipment, combined with corruption, make one seriously question NATO’s math.

Training is also incredibly expensive. NATO support for training now costs $11-billion a year, mostly paid by the Americans. After 2014, the security sector is expected to require a continual $4-billion a year of external financial assistance, in a country with a GDP of $15-billon. It’s extremely unlikely that this level of financial and logistical assistance will be politically and economically sustainable by Western countries tired of war and teetering on the edge of yet another recession.

Ultimately, the questionable quality of the forces being trained, combined with the unsustainability of NATO support, presents potential strategic peril. As we put $11-billion a year of arms and training into the security sector, the civilian governance structures continue to falter amidst corruption and diminishing authority. Are we paving the way for a military-run Afghanistan?

One thing is clear: Our participation in this training process, while likely the best course of action in a very challenging situation, simply adds to both the moral responsibility we owe Afghanistan and the strategic corner we have backed ourselves into. If we build this army, we had better be willing to fund it and support it long into the future. This will be added to the long-term development and humanitarian engagement we also have rightly committed to and have the obligation to maintain. Afghans, of course, have been taught to shoot RPGs before.

Media

How the New Yorker Goes Viral

Crossposted at opencanada.org’s Dispatch blog

For years I have read The New Yorker as a non-US print subscriber. This meant that somewhere between a few days and a week after an issue was published, it arrived in the mail. The uncertainty of its arrival is fun, and the novelty of flipping through the Goings on About Town to find the Tables for Two has never really worn off. Every once in a while a story would reach me in a different way – a Hirsch piece during the Bush administration, for example, would get wide engagement online. But for me, The New Yorker was principally a solitary print experience.  Such was its charm.  So the online transition path for the magazine has never been obvious.  Recently though, I have been engaging with the magazine in two new ways – on Twitter, and using their exceptional iPad app. The ways in which the magazine has transitioned to both are a model for a struggling form and fit into a wider shift in the international affairs conversation that the CIC site seeks to engage.

Take last weekend, for example. Over the weekend, a pre-release of Nicholas Schmidle’s expose of the Bin Laden raid went viral on Twitter. Virtually all of the 100 or so foreign policy specific handles I follow posted it immediately, and it then crossed into most other online conversations. Instead of reading it online, I checked the New Yorker iPad app, and there was Monday’s issue ready to be downloaded. The New Yorker’s iPad app does something quite remarkable.  Leveraging the iPad’s elegance and engagement features, the app perfectly balances its focus on writing, journalism and style in a way that lets the magazine breathe. Each week, a new issue pops up in the app, and it takes a satisfying minute or two for the whole 140mb of issue to download. Last week, the New York Times outlined the success of the app in a piece that also got a lot of attention.

So on a lazy Sunday morning, I tucked into Schmidle’s article in this great reader-centric format. The piece itself was astounding in both its detail and style. A decision had clearly been made in the Pentagon or White House to provide the definitive account of the raid to The New Yorker, and that account will surely become the basis for movies and books.

But because The New Yorker pushes content aggressively and effectively online, the reach and life of the piece extended far beyond a limited number of solitary reading indulgences. The New Yorker has now, somewhat unexpectedly, become a hub in the international affairs conversation and can position pieces cleanly and effectively in the international debate.  It is no longer simply the rag of the elite and well-bred. It is fuel in a community of international affairs journalism, being spread and multiplied by innovative websites, Twitter and diverse networks of engaged readers.

Take two examples. Foreign Policy Magazine has in the past few years transformed itself from an austere print publication skimmed in airports, to a leader in pushing diverse content online. This has meant changing both how they write, who writes for them, and where and by whom the content is seen. I would argue they are significantly more influential now than they ever were in their limited and isolated print days. They are certainly more interesting.

Second, consider three emergent international affairs leaders on Twitter. Covering the Arab uprisings for the New York Times, Chris Chivers (@cjchivers) has demonstrated a best in practice use of Twitter for the foreign correspondent.  At times, when connections were poor, he would literally file in real time via Twitter. But he goes further. Because Twitter is a two way conversation, followers can pose a question to him, about a particular rebel group he was embedded with, for example, and often get replies. If blogs personalized the journalist and author and allowed readers to comment, Twitter has moved engagement into real time.  Again, this is a case of an at times austere publication, the New York Times, becoming more influential not by isolating itself in hallowed halls but by experimenting and engaging.

Andy Carvin (@acarvin), a reporter with NPR, has literally created his job description – Twitter curator for international affairs. When the uprisings were breaking in Egypt, there was a flood of tweets documenting the events on the ground. Carvin filled a need for a filter and served as the go-to hub to make sense of this massive flow of information.

Finally, Anne-Marie Slaughter (@SlaughterAM), back at Princeton after time as Director of Policy Planning at the State Department, where she led the Obama Administration’s social media outreach to the middle eastern uprisings, has become a figure head of sorts for the emergent online international affairs community. She mentored and enabled two young social media leaders at State, @JaredCohen (now at Google Ideas) and @AlecJRoss, has begun a new project with the Atlantic Monthly to capture the paradigm shifts happening in the practice, scholarship and communication of international affairs, and has become a champion and curator of these conversations on Twitter.

These examples are simply to point out that the conversation has moved online, and that the organizations and publications that are currently the most effective, influential and interesting are those making innovative use of the medium.

So back to The New Yorker and the “Getting Bin Laden” story. Over the course of the week, the article was built on, added to, debated, challenged, promoted and celebrated in countless online spaces. It became the focus of an international conversation in a manner that would have proved impossible with a New Yorker piece even five years ago. Because the magazine has pushed content online, via the web, Twitter and a brilliantly conceived app, it remains at the center of the journalism game.

I take a number of lessons from this. As a neophyte professor in a school of journalism, it provides a shining success story of leveraging one’s assets into the online space. It is of course idiosyncratic – it’s The New Yorker after all. As the Financial Times’ and the New York Times’ pay walls are ill-suited to most papers, the particular New Yorker model will not be the solution for most magazines. But it is nonetheless well-conceived, and shows that no one online model will work for all.

As the editor of the CIC site, the lesson I take is that constant innovation from day one, is the only viable model. This means, as Emily Bell, formerly of the Guardian, now at Columbia Journalism, has said, being first and foremost “of the web, not on the web”. It means rethinking the site, and evolving constantly – we are, for example, re-launching in September with new features, adjusting what hasn’t worked, building on what has. Finally, it means thinking of the site as part of an emerging and rapidly changing international discourse , one which includes the top policy makers, journalists and academics in the world, and is radically democratized by the form it is taking. It has never been a more exciting time to be in this business.

Uncategorized

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.

Uncategorized

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.

Uncategorized

Notes from Mazar e Sherif: Tactical Challenges, Strategic Quagmire

Crossposted at opencanada.org’s Dispatch blog

I am writing this on my phone from a c160 flying from mazar e sharif to herat where we have spent the past 48hrs. This morning, we awoke to the news that last night insurgents struck an international hotel in Kabul.  This felt a world away, and frankly, neither surprises me, nor tells us very much about the state of the war.  The briefings we have received in our first Regional Command (RC) visit, however, point to some real challenges. Challenges that frankly make me question the integrity of the transition, which as I mentioned in my previous post, is the singular focus of ISAF at the moment.

The main base in northern Afghanistan, RC-N, is run by the Germans, and is meticulous. The bunks are clean, the roads and paths nicely paved, there is a beer garden and night club. What we heard though, is of a war effort disjointed from the strategic narrative being pushed by Kabul. Two specific tactical challenges point to potential fundamental flaws in the transition plan.

The strategy, as outlined by HQ, sounds reasonable and feasible. Over the next three years build the Afghan army and police so that they can take over the security role vacated by ISAF forces. This is supposed to happen in a series of tranches, whereby control of governance and security are transferred.  In RC-N here is how that is to work in reality: the Afghan National Army (ANA) supported by ISAF, takes a village, forcing out the insurgents.  The Afghan National Police (ANP) then holds the village, while a comprehensive approach is applied to the village, mainly focusing on governance reforms. As we draw down, we will have ideally left secure communities, policed and governed by Afghans, with some operational support and long term development assistance continuing. Take, hold, build.

Here are two problems as recounted by a German Colonel and his team who run the mentoring program for RC-North.  First, the ANP is incapable of holding villages once ISAF and the ANA have departed. The police force, intended to grow to 170,000 by transition, gets approximately 4 weeks of training.  They are largely illiterate, and they are principally trained to act as checkpoint guards. They are incapable of patrolling and securing villages so immediately after forces leave, the insurgents simply return. The village is then taken again.  Each time this happens, more civilians are killed, and the population stops informing on the whereabouts of IEDs, increasing ISAF casualties. In the past year, there has not been a single village held by the ANP.  This is worth repeating.  In the words of the Colonel, speaking abouf RC-N, the insurgents always come back, there have been no successful hold phases in the past year.

The second challenge is related to the governance component of the comprehensive approach. Simply put, we don’t have close to enough resources to implement the governmace reforms required. As the same ISAF Colonel put it to us,  the comprehensive approach is a headline. At a macro level, the resource imbalance is astounding. The military resources present here represent a remarkable logistical feat. Civilians, however, are almost nowhere to be seen. At a tactical level, what this means is that we don’t have the resources to mentor administrators, lawyers and judges in the communities we are trying to hold. This leads to few of the reforms that we have promised Afghans and which we have determined are required for strategic success. They see the same corruptions and abuses of power that they have lived with for so long. In short, implementing the comprehensive approach will require both additional military resources to hold the villages ourselves, but also more importantly, a massive civilian increase that we are simply unequiped to provide.

Ultimately, we are able to take villages, which is not surprising given the scale and sophistication of our force deployment. But we are unable to either hold or build. Simply put, there is a structural imbalance in our comprehensive approach strategy.

What this means in the North (and a big caveat that these observations are only based on what we have been briefed on in this part of the country, though a part that is supposed to be amoungst the most secure), is the following. A comprehensive approach is required to nationbuild, ie to achieve the overarching objectives of the transition of providing governance reforms and basic development. If we are not willing or able to provide the correct kind and magnitude of deployment, we are likely going to leave a country with wide areas back in the control of the only groups able to provide security, governance and jobs – the various warlords, and criminal groups that make up the insurgency. We can likely keep the Taliban out of power in Kabul, and al-Qaeda out of most of Afghanstan, and we will have done a lot of good throughout the country, but nationbuilding by force is tough business, and I remain unconvinced that we have proven able to accomplish it.

Disruptive Power

The Crisis of the State in the Digital Age

Cover

 

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.

 

Endorsements

“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

 

Articles:

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

 

Reviews:

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

 

Videos:

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.

Twitter


About

By way of an intro, currently:Version 4

My PhD was on the concept of human security, exploring how mapping and spatially analyzing local vulnerability data can help us better understand the nature of extreme insecurity.  My current personal research, however, now focuses on the intersection of digital technology and international relations.  I am interested in how ubiquitous digital technology challenges the institutions, systems and norms that control the broadly defined space of international affairs. At Columbia, I designed and led a research program studying the impact of digital technology on the practice of journalism, and I continue to work closely with them.

I use this site as a contact point and as an aggregator of my academic work and broader writing.

 

A bit more officially:

Taylor Owen is Assistant Professor of Digital Media and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia, a Senior Fellow at the Columbia Journalism School and the founder and Editor of OpenCanada.org. He was previously the Research Director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University where he designed and led a program studying the impact of digital technology on the practice of journalism, and has held research positions at Yale University, The London School of Economics and The International Peace Research Institute, Oslo where his work focuses on the intersection between information technology and international affairs. His Doctorate is from the University of Oxford and he has been a Trudeau and Banting scholar, an Action Canada and Public Policy Forum Fellow, the 2016 Public Policy Forum Emerging Leader, and sits on the Board of Directors of the Center for International Governance Innovation (CIGI). He is the author, most recently, of Disruptive Power: The Crisis of the State in the Digital Age (Oxford University Press, 2015) and the co-editor of The World Won’t Wait: Why Canada Needs to Rethink its Foreign Policies (University of Toronto Press, 2015, with Roland Paris), Journalism After Snowden: The Future of the Free Press in the Surveillance State (Columbia University Press, 2017, with Emily Bell) and The Platform Press: How Silicon Valley Re-enginnered Journalism (Tow Center 2017, with Emily Bell), His work can be found at www.taylorowen.com and @taylor_owen.

Contact

Email: taylor (dot) owen (at) gmail (dot) com

Twitter: @taylor_owen

Warning: I have been largely defeated by email flow, so please feel free to send reminders and nudges when needed.

Publications

 

Selected writing (Full list below)

On technology and foreign affairs:

On journalism innovation:

On Canadian politics and foreign policy:

On the bombing of Cambodia:

On Human Security:

On the future of think tanks:

 

Full(ish) List

Books and Manuscripts

  • Disruptive Power: The Crisis of the State in the Digital Era. March 2015, Oxford University Press, New York (About, Amazon)
  • The World Won’t Wait: Why Canada Needs to Rethink its Foreign Policies, Forthcoming December 2015, (ed with Roland Paris), University of Toronto Press, Toronto (Amazon)
  • Journalism After Snowden, Columbia University Press (ed with Emily Bell and Jennifer Henrichson), Forthcoming February 2017. (CUP)
  • The New Global Journalism: Foreign Correspondence in Transition. Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Columbia University, 2014 (ed with Ann Cooper) pdf
  • Human Security.  Sage Major Work, Four-Volume Set. London, UK. 2013. Link
  • The Handbook of Human Security, Routledge Press, 2013 (ed., with Mary Martin) Link
  • Operationalizing Human Security: From Local Vulnerability to International Policy, DPhil Thesis, The University of Oxford, July 2010.

Peer Reviewed Academic

  • Owen, Taylor, “The Networked State and the End of 20th Century Diplomacy,” Global Affairs, Vol 2 No 3, 2016.
  • Burgess, P, Owen, T and Uttam Kumar Sinha, “Securitizing Water: A Case Study of the Indus Water Basin” Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 25(4).
  • Owen Taylor and Mary Martin, 2010. “The Second Generation of Human Security: Lessons from the UN and EU Experiences?” International Affairs, 85:1.
  • Travers, Patrick and Taylor Owen, 2008. Canada in Afghanistan: Between Metaphor and Strategy. International Journal, Sept/Oct 2008. (winner, Canadian International Council Gelber Prize)
  • Owen, Taylor, 2008. The Critique that Doesn’t Bite: A Response to David Chandler’s “Human Security: The Dog that didn’t Bark” Security Dialogue, 39(4), April/June 2008.
  • Aldo Benini, Harvard Rue, Taylor Owen, 2008. “A Semi-Parametric Spatial Regression Approach to Post-War Human Security: Cambodia, 2002-2004”, Asian Journal of Criminology, Volume 3, no 2, September 2008.
  • Liotta, P.H & Taylor Owen, 2006. “Why Human Security?” Whitehead Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations Vol VII, No. 1: 37-55.
  • Liotta, P.H., & Taylor Owen, 2006. “Symbolic Security: The EU Takes on Human Security”. Parameters. The Journal of the US Army War College. Vol 36, No. 3: 85-102.
  • Gleditsch, NP; Owen, T; Furlong, K & Bethany Lacina, 2006. ‘Conflicts over Shared Rivers: Resource Wars or Fuzzy Boundaries?’ Political Geography. Vol. 25. No. 4: 361382.
  • Owen, Taylor & Olav Slaymaker, 2005. “Human Security in Cambodia: a GIS Approach”. AMBIO. The Journal of the Human Environment. No. 6, Vol. 34.
  • Owen, Taylor, 2005. ‘Consciously Absent?: Why the Secretary General used Human Security in all but Name’ St. Anthony’s International Review. Vol. 1, Issue 2.
  • Owen, Taylor, 2004. “Human Security – Conflict, Critique and Consensus: Colloquium Remarks and a Proposal for a Threshold-Based Definition”. Security Dialogue, vol. 35, no. 3, September 2004. Special Section on Human Security, co-edited by Peter Burgess and Taylor Owen.
  • Owen, Taylor. 2003. “Security Mapping: A New View of Cambodian Insecurity”. Cambodian Development Review, Vol. 7, Issue 2.

Book Chapters

  • Owen, Taylor, “Global Media Power”, in The Sage Handbook of Digital Journalism Handbook, edited Tamara Witschge, Chris W. Anderson, David Domingo and Alfred Hermida. Sage, London, 2016.
  • Owen, Taylor and Ben Kiernan, 2010. The Costs of the US Bombing of Cambodia. In Pavlick, Mark ed, US War Crimes in Indochina: Our Duty To Truth. Common Courage Press, 2010.
  • Owen, Taylor and Emily Paddon, 2010. “Beyond Humanitarians: Canadian Development Policy in Afghanistan.” In Ben Perrin (ed), Edges of Conflict, UBC Press: Vancouver.
  • Owen, Taylor and David Eaves, 2010. “Missing the Link: How the Internet is Saving Journalism.” In, The New Journalist, Edmund Montgomery Press: Toronto.
  • Owen, Taylor, 2008. In All but Name: The Uncertain Future of Human Security in the UN. In Rethinking Human Security, Blackell Press: Oxford.
  • Owen, Taylor, “Measuring Human Security: Methodological Challenges and the Importance of Geographically-Referenced Determinants.” In Peter Liotta ed, Environmental Change and Human Security: Recognizing and Acting on Hazard Impacts. Springer NATO Science Series, 2008.
  • Owen, T, & P.H. Liotta, 2006. “Europe Takes on Human Security” in Tobias Debiel/Sascha Werthes (Eds.): Human Security on Foreign Policy Agendas: Changes, Concepts and Cases. Duisburg: Institute for Development and Peace, University of Duisburg-Essen (INEF Report, 80/2006).

Non-Peer Reviewed Academic

  • Owen, Taylor, Fergus Pitt, Raney Aronson, James Milward, Virtual Reality Journalism, Report for the Tow Centre for Digital Journalism, Columbia University, 2015.
  • Owen, Taylor, 2012,  Disruption: Foreign Policy in a Networked World.  Trudeau Foundation Position Paper. PDF
  • Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan, 2010. The U.S. Bombing of Afghanistan and the Cambodian Precedent, The Asia Pacific Journal June 2010. Republished in The Asia Times.
  • Travers, Patrick and Taylor Owen, 2007. Peacebuilding While Peacemaking: The Merits of a 3D Approach in Afghanistan. UBC Center for International Relations Security and Defense Forum Working Paper #3.
  • Owen, Taylor, 2006. “In all but Name: the Uncertain Future of Human Security in the UN”. Commissioned UNESCO publication.
  • Owen, Taylor, 2004. ‘Are we really secure?: Challenges and opportunities for defining and measuring human security’ Disarmament Forum. Issue 2, June 2004.
  • Owen, Taylor. 2003. “Measuring Human Security: Overcoming the Paradox”. Human Security Bulletin. October, Vol.2 No. 3.
  • Owen, Taylor. 2002. “Body Count: Rationale and Methodologies for Measuring Human Security”. Human Security Bulletin. October, Vol.1 No. 3. pdf

Magazine Articles

  • Owen, Taylor, 2016, Can Journalism be Virtual, The Columbia Journalism Review
  • Owen, Taylor 2016, Quantum Leap, Foreign Affairs
  • Owen, Taylor 2015, The Violence of Algorithms, Foreign Affairs
  • Owen, Taylor, 2016, Coin Toss: Will blockchain undermine or buttress state power? Literary Review of Canada
  • Owen, Taylor, 2010. A World Turned Upside Down. The Literary Review of Canada. link
  • Owen Taylor and David Eaves, 2008. Progressivism’s End. The Literary Review of Canada. September, Vol 17, No 7. (Winner of national New Voices competition)
  • Liberal Baggage: The national party’s greatest burden may be its past success, Literary Review of Canada, May 2012.
  • Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan, “Bombs Over Cambodia. The Walrus Magazine. November, 2006. (Finalist for National Magazine Award)
  • Taylor Owen and Emily Paddon, 2008. Zakaria, Kurdish Nationbuilder, The Walrus Magazine, December 2008.
  • Owen, Taylor and Ben Kiernan, 2008. Iraq Another Vietnam, Try Cambodia? Japan Focus. May, 2007. Reprinted in Outback Magazine.
  • Owen, Taylor & Patrick Travers, 2007. 3D Vision. The Walrus Magazine. July/August 2007.

Policy Reports

  • Owen, Taylor, 2012. Taylor Owen and Alexandre Grigsby. In Transit: Guns, Gangs and Trafficking in Guyana. A Working Paper of the Small Arms Survey, Geneva.
  • Owen, Taylor 2012. Media, Technology and Intelligence, a Report to the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service, March 2012.
  • Jackson, T., N. Marsh, T. Owen, and A. Thurin, 2005. “Who Takes the Bullet: The Human Cost of Small Arms”. Oslo: Norwegian Church Aid.
  • Owen, Taylor & Aldo Benini, 2004. ‘Human Security in Cambodia: A Statistical Analysis of Large-Sample Sub-National Vulnerability Data’. Report written for the Centre for the Study of Civil War at the International Peace Research Institute Oslo.

Selected Opeds

  • Owen, Taylor “Why governments must embrace the new global digital reality” The Globe and Mail, April 10, 2015
  • “Why the U.S. should but won’t partner with hactivists Anonymous” San Fransisco Chronicle, May 1, 2015 link
  • Owen, Taylor “The promise and peril of digital diplomacy” The Globe and Mail, January 9, 2015
  • Owen Taylor, “Drones don’t just kill. Their psychological effects are creating enemies” The Globe and Mail, March 13, 2013
  • Taylor Owen and Rudyard Griffiths, 2010 “Let a commission, not broadcasters, call the shots” Globe and Mail.
  • Owen, Taylor and Robert Muggah, “With think tanks on the ropes, Canada is losing its bark and bite” Globe and Mail, October 10, 2013
  • Review of The Canadian Century, Brian Crowley, Jason Clemens and Niels Veldhuis, The Globe and Mail, August 10th, 2010.
  • Owen, Taylor, “Afghan army: If you build it, who will come?” Globe and Mail, Sept 6, 2011.
  • Taylor Owen, 2010. Why Wikileaks will Lead to More Secrecy, not Less. Macleans Magazine, November 29th, 2010.
  • Taylor Owen, 2010. Five reasons David Cameron’s coalition government is not a harbinger for Canada, The Globe and Mail, May 14, 2010.
  • Taylor Owen and Rudyard Griffiths, 2010. Learning from Britain’s Three Election Debates, The National Post, April 30, 2010.
  • Taylor Owen and Rudyard Griffiths, 2010. Let the Debate Begin, The National Post, April 16, 2010.
  • Taylor Owen and Adrian Bradbury, 2009. The Rhetoric of Foreign Policy. The Mark News, Dec 1 2009.
  • Taylor Owen, 2008. One Step Closer to an Obama-Ignatieff Continent, The Prospect Magazine, December 2008.
  • Taylor Owen and David Eaves, 2008. Real Liberal Renewal. The Toronto Star, November 20, 2008
  • Travers, Patrick, Taylor Owen, 2008. 2011 is a date, not a goal. The Toronto Star, April 5th 2008.
  • Taylor Owen and David Eaves, 2007. Failed strategy connects Afghan fields, city streets, The Toronto Star, December 7th, 2007.
  • Taylor Owen and David Eaves, 2007. Kandahar deal breakers: The Afghan poll is not a blank cheque, The Globe and Mail, November 2nd, 2007
  • Taylor Owen and David Eaves, 2007. Africa is Not a Liberal Idea, Embassy Magazine, October 3rd, 2007
  • Taylor Owen and David Eaves, 2007. Iraq Suddenly Appears on Canada’s Radar Screen. Toronto Star August 29th, 2007
  • Taylor Owen and David Eaves, 2007. How the internet humbled the NYT, The Tyee, October 10th, 2007
  • Taylor Owen and David Eaves, 2007. Blogosphere at Age 10 is Improving Journalism, The Toronto Star, July 30th, 2007
  • David Eaves and Taylor Owen, 2007. Prime Ministerial Power Stifling Decision Making. Toronto Star, June 28th, 2007
  • Taylor Owen and David Eaves, 2007. Getting Back On Track in Afghanistan. Toronto Star, February 23rd, 2007
  • David Eaves and Taylor Owen, 2007. Beyond Vimy Ridge: Canada’s Other Foreign Policy Pillar. Globe and Mail, April 18th, 2007.