Description of the session
“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with
the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no
different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and
the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the
carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data
banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind
us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage,
ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
Arundhati Roy: ‘The pandemic is a portal’, Financial
Covid-19 is a Ctrl-Alt-Del moment for the world as we knew
it a few weeks ago, resetting assumptions but resettling
prejudice, restoring hope yet also reaffirming old
anxieties. There is no tabula rasa at the end of lockdown.
We will continue to harvest what we have sown for decades,
albeit differently to what was planned and perhaps even
quicker, in circumstances unimaginable at the start of 2020
and still impossible to predict. This is a planetary black
swan event. The legacy of decisions and choices, made before
Coronavirus was a household name, will inform progress
around an agenda for change, or result in the restoration of
the unjust, polluting, autocratic and violent. The fear is
around the seamless transition to the latter, while the
former is buried under emotive rhetoric linked to pandemic
response as the altar upon which liberty must be sacrificed.
But for how long? The immediate response requires big
government, but once expanded, can it ever shrink?
Epidemiological surveillance is vital today, but how can we
stop pandemic panopticons, where contact tracing morphs into
mass surveillance at hitherto unseen scope and scale? Is it
fashionable or even possible to ask these questions today?
I come from a country where at the best of times, social
media is often a Petri dish inciting hate and violence.
Today, with automated content review almost completely
supplanting human oversight at Google, Facebook, Twitter and
other companies because of shelter at place directives in
Silicon Valley, countries with a democratic deficit are
those now most at risk from algorithms that don’t understand
context, culture or community, deleting blindly, yet blind
to what really should be deleted. What will be the result of
misinformation’s seed and spread, amidst record-breaking
unemployment and populism’s new footholds?
Technology’s role in conflict transformation was always to
augment the work of peacebuilders. Yet as social media – for
the first time in history – now almost completely replaces
real life’s rich physical, kinetic interactions, can
peacebuilding evolve at pace? The UN loves to debate
‘frontier issues’ and ‘over-the-horizon’ scenarios, but the
approach to and definitions of both will need to be
radically revised post-Coronavirus. A future never planned
for is already here. PKO addressing regional conflict now
competes with global exigencies around peace and security.
Systemwide, UN will face drastic funding cuts unprecedented
in its history which begs the question, will it become a
virtual platform more than a physical presence? The
compression of time and acceleration of unintended outcomes
shapes new realities that have completely outpaced existing
insight, insurance, and investment.
However, wicked problems can also inspire novel responses.
Pandemic effects are stochastic. Our analytical and response
models need to change at pace. What we do now and who we
choose to become matters. The pervasive new attention
economy around morbidity and mortality blinds us to the
study of key trends that will shape the post-Covid19 world.
The presentation will through select frames of on-going
doctoral research pose challenges of coronavirus as a vector
of violence. But the presentation also hopes to spark
discussion on how the future of work in PKO, peacebuilding
and politics have shifted in ways unimaginable a couple of
months ago, and how to avoid, as Shakespeare’s Sonnet 59
timelessly captures it, the challenge of approaching
something entirely new with a vocabulary grounded only in
what is already known or done.
If there be nothing new, but that which is
Hath been before, how are our brains beguil’d,
Which, labouring for invention, bear amiss
The second burthen of a former child!
Overview of the presentation
Sanjana approached Covid-19 as a wicked
problem, noting that the solutions in response to it at
local, regional and international levels, from medicine to
politics and policies, added to the complexity of the
pandemic and its aftermath. Looking at 7 key vectors of
violence, Sanjana noted that the pandemic had essentially
amplified structural drivers of conflict which predated it.
infamous video juxtaposed with the ground
realities in India after a countrywide lockdown was
suddenly issued, Sanjana flagged the violence arising from a
disconnect between those who used hashtags like #WeAreOne
and those who suffered the brunt of lockdowns.
Anchored to his doctoral research, Sanjana captured in a
single slide developments around, inter
alia, governance, human rights, democracy,
disinformation, propaganda, Islamophobia, the weaponisation
of social media and surveillance as harbingers of populism
and authoritarianism’s entrenchment, post-Coronavirus. He
flagged that this was a danger not only in the Global South,
usually associated with a democratic deficit, but the
rollback of liberal democracy even in the Global North. In
several slides looking at a historically unprecedented
phenomenon – a context in Sri Lanka where and elsewhere,
content mediated through online vectors now provide the sole
(not just primary) frames of news & information – Sanjana
explored what could be the physical and kinetic impact of
what is digitally consumed and engaged with. Noting
contemporary challenges around disinformation, anchored
to the Global South, Sanjana highlighted the inadvertent
consequences of automated or algorithmic review.
The next slides dealt with disturbing mission-creep that
Sanjana said was built-into, or could be silently and at
scale, easily retrofitted onto epidemiological
contact-tracing and surveillance apps. Framing the pandemic
as an opportunity for the rapid deceleration of democratic
gains, Sanjana flagged some of the very real dangers of
syndromic surveillance morphing into systemic surveillance –
what he called ‘pandemic panopticons’.
Calling for a new vocabulary to deal with the challenges in
the long-shadow of Coronavirus, Sanjana referred to the
Greek notion of time as Kairos,
and the importance of seizing the moment to shape a new Overton
window that could be used, by the UN and others, to
project and promote a radically different worldview. There
was no going back to a “normal” that existed before the
pandemic. To this end, the principles of swarm
dynamics or murmuration were
posited as those that could both aid in the understanding of
the Coronavirus challenges and institutional response(s).
Sanjana then went on to explore the potentialities and
problems arising from the pandemic for peacekeeping
operations (PKO). Building on this, he went on to look at 6
key ideas for radical, systemic reform at the UN, that could
from unprecedented existential challenges emerge as an
institution centre and forward in the conceptualisation and
realisation of a post-pandemic world.
Calling for investments today around disruptions that in the
future will pose similar or greater challenges than
Coronavirus, Sanjana ended by stressing how the pandemic
could help institutions and individuals become better
versions of themselves.
In the Q&A session that followed, Sanjana was asked about,
amongst a number of other topics, counter-terrorism in the
context of the pandemic, the possible future of terrorism,
concerns around a post-Covid-19 elite & the resulting
discrimination, social credit systems, and their rapid
expansion, more pervasive data gathering and the
entrenchment of surveillance, gendered perspectives to
pandemic response especially around the use of AI as well as
the privatisation and preservation of data.
ICT for peaceful purposes
Since 2004, the ICT4Peace Foundation has
championed the strategic, sustainable and meaningful use of
ICTs for crisis management, disaster risk reduction and
peacebuilding. The Foundation’s sustained and strategic
input, stocktaking exercises, evaluations, briefings,
workshops and ideation has contributed to the strengthening
of humanitarian aid structures, as well as the peacekeeping
and peacebuilding – at the United Nations, and beyond.
Uniquely, we work at and are called upon by the highest
levels of government and inter-governmental bodies and also
have deep, trusted, multi-stakeholder connections to
grassroots activist, civil society and rights movements.
Pioneering output includes working with the
UN on crisis information management platforms, developing
the Crisis Information Management Strategy of the UN
Secretary General (A/65/491), technical evaluations of key
humanitarian platforms, contributing to the development of
path-breaking information exchange protocols, the hosting of
information sharing and collaboration platforms, creation of
mission and disaster specific wikis, training on situational
awareness and open source intelligence gathering including
social media verification, strategizing the use of Big Data
around peacekeeping and peacebuilding, the development of a
rights based approach to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in
support of peacekeeping and curation of an annual,
high-level UN meeting on crisis information management from
2008 – 2015.
Since 2017, we have pioneered the
conversations around the ethics, rights and use of
Artificial Intelligence and related fields in peacebuilding,
including the laws around the use of autonomous weapons in
peacetime. We are also actively contributing to the thinking
and research around frontier technologies that will
increasingly define the information, peace and conflict