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One of the most compelling consequences of the information revolution is the way that technology makes distance less relevant. Satellite television, fax machines, cellular telephones, videocassettes, and the Internet all facilitate communication across distance, and the costs of doing so are continuing to fall.
Many interested in resolving conflict around the world have looked with optimism toward the new media.(1) They hope that they can employ the technology to bridge gaps between groups that are often more psychological than philosophical, and to consolidate gains made through face-to-face interactions. The early results appear to me mixed on this score, although much more work and subsequent evaluation need to be done.

Hope from the Internet

Much hope has been focused on the Internet, which has dramatically changed the form of communication in the United States and Western Europe in the last decade. E-mail is a rapid but asynchronous mode of communication, meaning that it can be sent instantaneously but the receiver does not have to actively receive it at the same moment. The author of an e-mail is thus not getting the kinds of verbal or visual clues that one gets from face-to-face or even phone contact. Messages themselves tend to be longer than those transmitted in uninterrupted oral conversation, but shorter than those typically communicated in traditional letters. The effect of this is often to provoke a certain frankness in e-mail discussions that would be unusual in face-to-face meetings or via a conventional letter.(2)
It is this frankness that gives so much hope to those working for peace in the region. They hope that the courage that people feel when freed from face-to-face communication, combined with the immediacy of the Internet, will contribute to reducing tensions among adversarial communities.
A further hope for the Internet is that it will facilitate communication between those who have met face-to-face in people-to-people programs, or through so-called Track II initiatives, which bring together informed but unofficial individuals to discuss issues of mutual concern. Because the marginal cost of sending an e-mail message is lower than a fax or a phone call, people can stay in touch with a wide variety of colleagues easily and cheaply. In addition, so-called "listserves" or electronic mailing lists can circulate information of common interest to hundreds (or thousands) of people around the world, instantaneously and at low cost. Such circulation creates a community of sorts as well, and several efforts of that nature are underway around the world.(3)
So far, the Internet's promise has not been realized fully. There are currently few "bulletin boards" or "chat rooms" that seek to bring antagonists together, and those that exist often have a hard time eliciting participation. It is easier to establish a service or a site than encourage people to visit the site regularly. Perhaps even more common are sites intended for one community or the other which often carry inciting comments about the other community rather than those directed at reconciliation.
Anecdotally, one hears reports of more success stemming from efforts to keep participants in contact after a face-to-face meeting. Although few studies have been executed in a scientific way, participants often report that e-mail contact is significant after face-to-face meetings. The Peres Center, which runs a young professionals program for Israelis and their regional neighbors, maintains an area on its website for participants to chat and stay in touch.(4) Seeds of Peace, which targets English-speaking teenagers from Israel and the Arab world (and also runs programs for Cypriots), operates a "Seeds Talk Network" off their web site.(5)

Shared Interests

One of the greatest obstacles to broad-based participation in e-mail-based dialogue is the lack of access, especially in poorer societies. For reasons of technical training, literacy, or economics, maintaining e-mail contact may be beyond the capabilities of many.(6) Even more fundamentally, antagonists may not share a language in common that will allow meaningful dialogue. While we may be able to look forward to a future in which machine translation makes differences in language irrelevant, that time has not yet come.
However, there are other technologies that can often aid in reconciliation. In particular, satellite television and videocassettes can open up new vistas for parties in conflict. Documentaries and feature films can humanize former enemies and help break down the walls of distrust. Even the mere act of watching the television station of a former enemy can be a step toward normalizing relations with another party. The act of watching underlines the fact that the parties share interests in common, that the parties are both human, and that the parties can in some way communicate.
I was recently at a meeting in New York that brought together Arabs and Israelis who worked in the film and television businesses. Participants screened examples of their work, and the effect was electric. Arabs raptly watched Israeli documentaries that seemed to understand their perspectives. Accustomed to seeing Israeli society as a stone wall that denied their views and concerns, they found themselves moved by what some of the Israelis had done. For their own part, several of the Israelis were deeply moved by some of the Arabs' work, and they were amazed by the freedom now exercised by Arab newscasters working on satellite channels. Long used to seeing the Arab media as a somnolent beast that parrots the views of its leaders, they found an active medium where people challenged each other and their leaders with tough questions that demanded answers. Conflict remains, to be sure, but for these deeply creative individuals, they saw connections and common work that they had not seen before.

The Information Marketplace

Technology also has a dark side, however. Information technology can be used to incite and undermine the processes of reconciliation. The World Wide Web, for example, is content-neutral, and can just as easily communicate a message from Nazi skinheads as from those who desire peaceful coexistence.(7) The Internet can transmit encoded messages that even elite security agencies have a difficult time deciphering.(8) Fax machines can distribute messages of hatred and mobilize extremist forces almost instantaneously, and they can do so from off shore. Satellite broadcasts can carry messages of hatred or recalcitrance, and they can carry sharp criticisms of those who have taken decisive steps toward peace.
Most fundamentally, television more generally carries what people want to watch, and is especially driven to do so in a crowded information marketplace. In that marketplace, violence and conflict sell. It has better visuals, clearer story lines, and it engages people's attention.(9)
The challenge facing those who wish to use technology to further peace and reconciliation is to attract interest to often complex and muddy issues in a crowded information marketplace. A consequence of technological change is that the amount of information reaching people is increasing exponentially. Ever more so, people have to ration their time, select their outlets, and get their information quickly. News competes with entertainment, and if American broadcast content is any guide, entertainment is winning.
Peace is, by its nature, hard to sell. It is often partial, it is hard to explain, and it is surrounded by critics who sought additional concessions from the other side in order to meet their concerns. The language of peace is arcane, it is technical, and it is long. Peace, in other words, is hard work.
The degree to which advocates of peace and reconciliation can make the work of peace attractive will be in large measure the degree to which peace can be achieved. Economic opportunity will certainly draw the attention of some, and technology's ability to facilitate economic cooperation may be a powerful boost to peace as well. There is no simple answer and no simple outcome, but some of the new tools that technology offers bear exploring.


(1) See, for example, Eric Bachman, "Digital Communication Via the Internet in a War Zone: Conflict Resolution and the Internet", http://www.isoc.org/inet96/proceedings/h2/h2_2.htm. A more cautious view is expressed in Nils Zurawski, "What Can the Internet Do? Possibilities and Limits of Negotiating Ethnicity and Resolving Ethnic Conflicts on the Internet," http://www.iias.nl/host/ccrss/cp/cp1/cp1-What.html.
(2) A good overview of e-mail vs. other kinds of communication can be found in Edward J. Delaney and Gunter Krumme, "What Have We Learned from Our Electronic Mail Experience in the Classroom?" http://faculty.washington.edu/~krumme/projects/jghevers.html.
(3) One such community is that created by the Gulf 2000 project at Columbia University, which concerns developments in the Persian Gulf. Gulf 2000 operates a public web site (http://gulf2000.columbia.edu), as well as a private web site and listserve for members of the on-line community.
(4) See http://youngleaders.netvision.net.il/chat.html.
(5) See http://www.seedsofpeace.org.
(6) See Jon B. Alterman, "The Middle East's Information Revolution," Current History, January 2000, p. 22.
(7) See http://www.fwbo.org/articles/to_be_practiced.html
(8) FBI Director Louis Freeh said in July 1997, "Law enforcement is in unanimous agreement that the widespread use of robust non-key recovery encryption ultimately will devastate our ability to fight crime and prevent terrorism." Statement before the Senate Judiciary Committee, http://www.fas.org/irp/congress/1997_hr/s970709f.htm.
(9) This point was made forcefully by Gadi Wolfsfeld in a presentation on April 29, 2000, at the U.S. Institute of Peace entitled "The Inherent Contradiction between Media and Peace." Publication from the Institute is forthcoming.

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