Imagery analyst Allison Puccioni – who recently participated in a special event by QF’s Doha Debates on whether technology can pave the way to world peace – speaks about how we can ‘navigate the Wild West’ of the information age.
The increasingly open access to technology is democratizing information — and I believe that this could ultimately lead to a more equitable world and even facilitate peace.
In my 27-year career, I've worked with intelligence and reconnaissance systems that had long been relegated solely to the government gatekeepers of a very small handful of countries. These systems were built at enormous expense and used for decades to secretly monitor strategic activity throughout the world. After the end of the Cold War, some reconnaissance systems began to serve new and different missions.
My first job as an imagery analyst was to monitor activity in the Balkans: Bosnia in the mid-1990s, then Kosovo in 1999. There was atrocity and heartbreak in that region during that decade: tens of thousands people died or were displaced during the wars and the genocides. Ask the people in the region who survived that decade, or an International Forces veteran who witnessed the Balkan wars, or even the imagery analysts who merely witnessed and catalogued the damage and destruction from the safety of their remote operating bases; they will have, as I have), a difficult time recounting the details of the endeavor.
But it was during the 1990s where many governments discovered how useful military reconnaissance systems were for public tasks like war crimes tribunal case-making and disaster response.
That very same decade, governments including the European Union and the United States began sponsoring increased access and supporting commercial reconnaissance systems in the open world - in our world. As a result, today we can access from our smartphones the kinds of reconnaissance that was relegated to the most clandestine echelons of elite intelligence agencies only a few decades ago.
This data has given us agency. We have access to satellite imagery that comes from space-based commercial imaging platforms. In the research and academic communities, we apply this data to promote human safety, to monitor government activity and hold state actors accountable for their actions, and to voice our opinions on an unprecedented scale.
We can use this information to better inform ourselves about events that affect and shape our lives.
We can use this information to better inform ourselves about events that affect and shape our lives, like mass human displacement throughout the Middle East and Africa, purposeful manipulation of information by governments and nuclear weapons proliferation in media-blackout countries like North Korea.
Throughout the 20th Century, the most avant-garde technological advancements were being developed by and for governments, many for military purposes. But it is now the commercial sector driving technological evolution like rocket and space travel, machine-learning-assisted research, space-based Earth observation and computing technology. For-profit enterprise hardly equates to open access, but commercially available technology is a step out of the confines of full government regulation and toward the democratization of advanced systems.
In December 2019, I had the honor of spending a week in Doha with the United Nations’ Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs' Innovation Cell, where thought-leaders within the UN met with academics, journalists and investigative researchers to exchange ideas on how to use technology to facilitate the mission of peacebuilding. We explored using satellite imaging to improve water security, behavioral insight analysis to transparently incentivize people to vaccinate their children and sophisticated social media analytical tools to more accurately reflect the sentiment of people that the United Nations serves.
We should treat emerging global technology the way we treat significant activity like war convention or human rights.
I also took place in a Doha Debates event, where I discussed how technology affects peace with world-renowned ethicist Subbu Vincent and autonomous weapons expert Ariel Conn. In this debate, I maintained that emerging technology enfranchises a larger global population, while Ariel warned of severe drawbacks of rapidly emerging technology outpacing international norms, and Subbu posited that technology in itself will neither facilitate nor hinder peacebuilding but rather reflect the intent of those who develop it. Though we differed in our initial views, we reached a quick consensus that technology affects us — for good and for bad — across borders in unprecedented ways, and technology must therefore be regulated on an international level.
We now live in a world where one nation can affect the outcome of another nation’s election, advance genetic modification without comprehending the consequences or dictate an unmanned aerial vehicle to precisely strike a target thousands of miles away. Our ability to invent and design new technologies that affect us all may have indeed outpaced our species-wide ability to create and agree to a set of standards regarding how we use technology on ourselves and on each other.
We should therefore treat emerging global technology the way we treat significant activity like war convention or human rights: by seeking an agile, multilateral set of standards that will enhance our collective ideals while hindering the worst characteristics of human nature.
One would be forgiven for cynicism towards such a sweeping international charter during today’s political climate, but — as with dire issues like climate change — we simply have no choice but to forge ahead with what optimism we can muster. We must pragmatically and soberly navigate this new Wild West of informational advancement.
It will not be straightforward. But in the right hands, in enough hands, with prudence and regulation, emerging technology will provide tools, a voice and a platform for more of us to become a bigger part of our global narrative of peace-building.