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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,"
(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?"
(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
(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.