These remarks were delivered by Helena Puig Larrauri, Director and Co-founder of Build Up, at the opening of Build Peace Borderlands: Dividing and Bridging Communities With Technology, Storytelling, and Arts, a cross-border conference in San Diego and Tijuana from November 14–16.
This is the sixth edition of the Build Peace conference, and every year the theme and inquiry that we propose emerges from the conversations we’ve had in previous years. At the core of all our themes is an overarching question: what is the relationship between digital technologies and peace? This question about the emergent challenges to and opportunities for peace in the digital era is also at the heart of Build Up’s mission.
So why focus on borders this year?
Those of you who were at Build Peace 2018 might remember that last year, in the opening remarks, I suggested that we challenge an assumption often held by those of us working in peacetech or civic tech: that technology is just a tool, and what matters is how we choose to use it. That digital technologies are essentially neutral.
Instead, I suggested that we start to think about how digital technology is tooling us, how it is altering the human experience, and how that is relevant to conflict and peace. I think the key to understanding this is to look at how digital technology is altering our incentives and affecting how we construct discourse. From personal incentives to strive for online approval to the polarization of political discourse, digital technologies are changing how we form our identities.
And what are identities if not borders? The ultimate borders, the thing that drives, fuels and explains so many of the conflicts we all work on.
I want to be clear that I don’t think digital technologies necessarily have a net negative effect on conflict. I just don’t think we should conceive of them as tools, but rather as part of our human experience. It provides a richer frame to understand how they interact with conflict.
When it comes to borders — digital, physical, and social borders — technologies offer opportunities for contestation and opportunities for coercion, and we need to be aware of both as we understand the context of a conflict and the opportunities for peace.
This is perhaps clearest with the base technology for physical borders: maps. Maps are definitely not tools. They have reshaped our experience of space significantly. The philosopher Alfred Korzybski famously wrote that “the map is not the territory”, and many others from Robert Pirsig to Borges to Lewis Carrol have explored this idea that an abstraction derived from something is not the thing itself, but changes our experience of that thing.
I’m personally very interested in the interaction between Geographic Information Systems and peace. The first peacetech project I ever worked on was in Sudan, and involved the use of digital maps to help a local peace committee better understand and manage inter-tribal conflicts. I have a vivid memory of opening a community meeting on the border between Darfur and Western Kordofan — an especially volatile area — by projecting a map we had drawn with the community. We had also included the government approved state borders, and were promptly informed by one of the local chiefs that his tribe was armed and ready to defend that this was not in fact where the border should be. We turned the conversation around by showing how the digital map could be edited, adding details of the story between tribal boundaries, problematizing the state border. The digital map changed the way space was experienced: it was seen as an instrument of coercion, but it also offered opportunities for contestation.
I’ve often wondered about our fascination with maps (digital or otherwise), and recently came across a poem by Yesenia Montilla called “Maps” that captures some of this fascination:
because what is a map but
a useless prison? We are all
so lost & no naming of blank
spaces can save us. & what
is a map but the delusion of
safety? The line drawn is always
in the sand & folds on itself
before we’re done making it.
What is a map but the delusion of safety. Maps are safe because they tell us who is in and who is out. Us and them. Mine and other. Maps are intrinsically linked to identity.
And as I said before, I think identity is the ultimate place where we are seeing how digital technologies shape conflict and peace. Much has been written over the past 2 or 3 years about the processes of identity formation online. If I had to summarise what I’ve learned from reading others and from the work we do at Build Up, I’d say there are three axis to consider: fragmentation / voice, power / truth, and polarisation / activism
Here are the opportunities for contestation. Digital technologies allow for more people to have direct access to the production and diffusion of information, bringing out more voices. This means that prevalent narratives, the hegemony of truth as held by the powerful, is breaking down. It means that more intersectional perspectives are entering our conversations. Activism is strengthened, we can build a more plural and inclusive world in which more people have a say in how we live together. That is critical to peace.
Here are the opportunities for coercion. The visibility of more identities makes polarisation more likely, and many of the recommender algorithms that drive our digital technologies are built to help us experience more of the same, to push us towards the poles. Conversations on digital platforms are also short, immediate and publicly recorded — making quickly identifying with positions more attractive than slowly parsing out common needs. And what’s more the fragmentation of narratives makes it easier for some to devalue truth, and put forth simplified and baseless positions. These are all drivers of conflict.
I’m ultimately an optimist, so I tend to think that more voices, more activism and more challenges to power are on balance a good thing. That it’s worth the risk of polarisation and fragmentation to build a truly plural and inclusive society.
But then… sometimes I forget technology is tooling me too. Something happened recently that brought that home for me. I love poetry, and though I’m no expert, it seems to me that digital media has made more voices, and especially more intersectional voices, available in poetry. There are insta-poets, blogs, online magazines — and on a personal level, people whatsapp me poetry all the time. A few months ago, someone sent me a poem by Imtiaz Dharker called “She Must Be From Another Country” that I loved. Here’s an excerpt:
Maybe there is a country
where all of us live,
all of us freaks
who aren’t able to give
our loyalty to fat old fools,
the crooks and thugs
who wear the uniform
that gives them the right
to wave a flag,
puff out their chests,
put their feet on our necks,
and break their own rules.
But from where we are
it doesn’t look like a country
it’s more like the cracks
that grow between borders
behind their backs.
That’s where I live.
The cracks that grow between borders behind their backs. Yes! That’s definitely where I live.
I sent it on to several others, including Michaela — Build Up’s other director and co-founder. And she said hang on — what is this really saying? The entire poem is pitting us against them. It is combative. And she is right to question this. Of course there is so much about this poem that I love, it speaks to me, it soothes me. And it should be spoken, this truth. But it is also polarising. It is affirming my identity as other, and leveraging that to create a border — it is telling me I am right.
And I am, right? Through this poem, I stand for human rights. And yet I know that when I stood on the border between Darfur and Western Kordofan, we built a broad tent through a digital map that made space for perpetrators of violence and victims of violence to define a common territory. To find each other’s humanity.
You know this tension between human rights activism and peacebuilding is something we’ve puzzled over at Build Up with our intervention in online spaces in the USA — a project called The Commons that you’ll be hearing more about in the short talks. For many people, the polarisation of political discourse on social media is a way of taking a stand against what is wrong and for what is right. Depolarising is giving in.
And maybe there’s some truth to that, some giving in is needed to make room for dialogue. One thing that I know social media has done to our discourse is made it harder to foster complexity, to change position, to be vulnerable. It’s made our social borders harder.
I’d hate to be a teenager now and have my evolving ramblings about what I thought the world was like or should be like recorded for all to see. I’m sure I said some things I would not stand by now. Didn’t you? And weren’t you glad to have to space to change?
In the USA people talk about being woke — and like Dharker’s poem, that’s often music to my ears. Yes, please recognise your privilege and remind me to see mine. But I recently read an article by Rebecca Solnit where she reminds us that if you’re woke, it’s because someone woke you.
So remember who woke you — and pass it on. Remember the person who made your reflect rather than feel shame. Remember those who listened and extended their empathy before they asked for your understanding. All borders were made to be crossed, and it helps when someone gives you a hand over a new border.
Sometimes I think that peacebuilding is essentially a way of being with others. It has much more to do with how we approach our fellow people. Do we respect them? Do we acknowledge their dignity? Do we identify our needs with theirs? In short, do we love them? In “Song of Myself”, Walt Whitman writes:
Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son
Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding
No sentimentalist, no stander above men and women or apart from them,
No more modest than immodest.
Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!
Whoever degrades another degrades me,
And whatever is done or said returns at last to me.
That last line, it seems to me, strikes the delicate border between rights and dialogue that I think we’re trying to walk as peacebuilders. So we have a tradition at Build Peace conferences: we always have a conference slogan, which encapsulates how we hope to all approach conversations in this space. I’d like to propose we make this our 2019 slogan:
“Whoever degrades another degrades me, and whatever is done or said returns at last to me.”
I look forward to a rich conversation on peace, conflict and resilience along borders, and how technology can both create and bridge divides.