I was interviewed for a podcast today by the enormously energetic Sanjana Hattotuwa, for his ICT for Peacebuilding blog. Sanjana’s overview of our broad-ranging discussion is here, and the podcast is here.
While we covered a lot of territory, including reputation systems, getting traditional media to adopt social media technologies, global innovation networks, and more, the heart of the conversation was about technology’s ability to support peace and a better world. This is a particularly pointed issue in Sri Lanka, where Sanjana is based, with violence now on the rise again. Certainly social media in particular gives us all access to a far broader range of views and opinions. Yet this doesn’t necessarily change people’s attitudes. The increasing polarization of the political debate in the US, and arguably globally, suggests that the rise of social media is not a universal panacea. Claims were made when both the telegraph and the telephone were introduced, that they would help bring about world peace. In fact, it can be easier to dehumanize people and opinions when discussion is intermediated by technology, thus creating more extreme expressions of disagreement or even hate. For decades it has been recognized that a key factor in people’s social networks is how diverse or similar their connections are (what Everett Rogers called heterophilous and homophilous networks). Certainly being exposed to more diverse people and views can help to temper views, yet this often has to be in a face-to-face context, where it is far harder to focus on abstract differences and to ignore people’s humanity. Unfortunately, I believe there are some aspects of humanity that mean it will not be soon before we stop killing each other. I also don’t doubt that much hate will continue to be expressed in the online world. Yet part of the evolution of humanity that we are increasingly exposed to other cultures and views. Most countries around the world have reached the stage where they are truly multi-cultural. From being exposed to people further afield primarily through mainstream media and entertainment, the shift is now to direct interpersonal communication, and accessing voices, writings, and videos created by an extraordinary assortment of individuals. Greater appreciation and tolerance is, in the long run, a fundamental outcome of this (without expecting world peace overnight…).