Technology is revolutionising our capacity to communicate with one another. The fact that vast connectivity gaps remain in some parts of the world is less relevant than the fact that these gaps are closing daily: while ‘only’ two billion people are online today, five billion will be by 2021.
Admittedly, humanity has a track record of using the technologies that should bring people together as tools of war. The twentieth century arrived with breakthroughs in travel and communications — the telephone, automobile and airplane — which were almost immediately deployed to wage war in what became the bloodiest century in human history.
But they also fuelled the dawning of unprecedented global connectivity and collective consciousness reflected in the establishment of the United Nations and the emergence of global movements to advance human rights, environmental protection and poverty eradication.
“Virtual exchanges provide a way to interrupt a toxic cycle of violence and fear.”
Shamil Idriss, Search for Common Ground
If technology is enabling an ever-increasing capacity for people to communicate directly with one another across our divides, how can this be anything but positive for peacebuilding which, at its core, is about facilitating human relationships?
Exchanges equal empathy
Consider the emerging field of virtual exchange. Defined as “technology-enabled, sustained, facilitated people-to-people education programmes”, virtual exchanges make it possible for anyone with internet connectivity to have a meaningful cross-cultural experience as part of their education through various formats including videoconferencing.
Although physical exchanges also build cross-cultural empathy and international cooperation, less than two per cent of young people participate in programmes that rely on travel. And the largest proportion of those — being between the United States and Western Europe — do not bridge the largest cultural divides.
Pioneers in virtual exchange have refined their programming over the last two decades to work with children and young people to produce profound results that lay the foundations for peace.
One example is the non-profit organisation Soliya, which I led in recent years. Through a research partnership with the Saxelab Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States, Soliya demonstrated that engaging young US and European adults with their peers in Muslim-majority countries consistently produces significant leaps in participants’ cross-cultural empathy, communication and collaboration skills (the results are pending publication).
Soliya’s eight-week virtual exchange programme in early 2013 coincided with the Boston Marathon bombing by Muslim extremists and the highly publicised 24-hour manhunt that followed. As the events unfolded, Saxelab researchers were able to test the impact on US citizens’ views that “Islam is inherently violent” and that “Muslims are dangerous”.
Virtual exchange participants rejected these generalised statements at a level that was statistically significant compared with the control group of US citizens and this gap persisted months after the programme concluded.
“If we invest in developing and deploying new technologies for the purpose of building peace, truly historic breakthroughs in citizen-led peacebuilding await.”
Shamil Idriss, Search for Common Ground
Moreover, research into the impact of virtual exchanges challenges the assumption that they are — at best — a diluted version of physical exchanges. These programmes enable ‘spaced learning’ (repeated exposure to an educational experience, such as an in-depth, facilitated, cross-cultural dialogue each week), which has documented advantages over those that require ‘massed learning’ (concentrated exposure in one continuous period, such as leaving home to experience another culture for an intensive week). Put simply, spaced learning takes longer, but its lessons endure, and can be assimilated more easily.
Inoculation against violence
In today’s age of highly publicised terror attacks intended to turn entire communities against one another, consider the value of scalable programmes that can inoculate populations against the tendency to generalise the violent actions of a few against the entire identity groups they purport to represent.
Societies around the world are as threatened by fear-based reactions to terror attacks as they are by the attacks themselves. Virtual exchanges provide a way to interrupt a toxic cycle of violence and fear.
In conflict resolution, contact theory — which says that interaction between members of different groups can improve inter-group relations more broadly — has long come under attack. This is because it can be difficult to demonstrate a link between a limited number of interpersonal breakthroughs and the state of inter-group relations writ large.
But breakthroughs in interpersonal relationships at scale have not been tested, because conducting exchanges at scale has never been possible. New technologies are changing this, and — in the process — are presenting exciting new possibilities for peacebuilders. This promise is what prompted President Barack Obama’s announcement in 2015 of the world’s first dedicated fund for virtual exchanges. And it is what inspired the European Union, last month, to unveil its plans to support virtual exchanges in 2017.  The stated goal of the fund Obama announced is to enable one million virtual exchanges between the United States and the Arab world within five years — a goal that would be impossible for physical exchanges.
And scaling up interpersonal relationship building is only one narrow slice of a much broader range of experimentation and possibility in tech-enabled peacebuilding. Data-aggregating early-warning systems are saving lives in war zones, and young developers are taking matters into their own hands to reduce violence — such as 13-year-old girls from a Mumbai slum who developed a mobile app to prevent gender violence by sounding an alarm that alerts friends and family to their location when they feel threatened. The combination of technology and human nature will not necessarily produce a more peaceful world. But early indications are that, if we invest in developing and deploying new technologies for the purpose of building peace, truly historic breakthroughs in citizen-led peacebuilding await.
Shamil Idriss is president of the non-profit organisation Search for Common Ground, a member of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders and winner of the Open Society Foundation’s New Executive Award in 2015. He was previously deputy director of the UN Alliance of Civilizations, senior advisor at the World Economic Forum and CEO of Soliya. He can be contacted at [email protected]
This article is part of our Spotlight on Technology for peace.