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The Internet and peace

A Nobel Peace Prize for the Internet? It seems so silly that it might be a parody of the awarding of the prize to our young president. But it is being put forward seriously by Riccardo Luna, editor in chief of the Italian edition of Wired magazine, and it’s been applauded by Chris Anderson (the U.S. editor of Wired), by 2003 Peace Nobelist Shirin Ebadi, even by designer Giorgio Armani.

For what it’s worth, I think the nomination is a good idea because of how it helps us to think about peace.

The case for the award is weak based on results. There are ways the Net has served the cause of peace, at least if we count freedom as a requirement for peace. The examples are familiar: Iranian dissidents tweeted throughout their uprising. Chinese dissidents seem to keep some hope alive. Egyptian bloggers were organizing dissent ... until the Egyptian government simply jailed them. There are more such examples. But where are the cases where the Net ended or prevented a war or overthrew a repressive government? Where exactly did the Net make peace?

It gets worse, for we can point to many instances where the Net enflamed hatred or enabled bullying. Cass Sunstein in his books Republic.com and Infotopia goes over evidence that suggests that on the Net we mainly hang out with people who agree with us, and that doing so tends to confirm us in our views and make those views more extreme. That’s not exactly what you want from a peacemaker.

So, why isn’t the nomination of the Internet—or, more exactly, of founders Larry Roberts (ARPANET), Vint Cerf (Internet) and Sir Tim Berners-Lee (World Wide Web)—just plain silly?

Because it says something about the Net’s potential. And not just about its potential: about its nature.

Fine. But does the Net even have a nature? The Internet is just a hunk of technology. Technology, like anything, can be used for good or evil. There’s nothing inherently peaceful or warlike about the Internet.

Yes and no. We certainly don’t want to attribute conscious intent to the Net. But, we even have to be very careful when talking about its “nature,” since the same tool can have different uses and meanings in different cultures. Nevertheless, the Net as a technology has some characteristics and lacks others. Using the Net makes users implicitly aware of some of those characteristics. If you’ve been on the Internet, even in a rights-challenged country, you know that the world the Net connects is vast, is varied, consists of people who care about matters enough to post about them, who disagree about which matters matter, who disagree constructively and sometimes destructively about what matters about the matters that matter. Explore a bit more and the Internet will show you that the differences are inevitable and unresolvable. We’re never going to all agree.

These basic facts about the Internet offer a vision of peace that differs from the usual one in which the lions and lambs put on pajamas, lick each other’s faces and have a fun sleep-over. That old vision of peace was based on a Western Enlightenment ideal that reasonable people can come to agreement if they’re just given a chance to reason together. The Net shows that that’s not going to happen. Yet, the perpetual disagreement that is the Net should not be a cause of despair. The Net manages to stay a Net despite the disagreements. And, much of the creativity of our species comes from such differences. This experience of a global Net of creative expression and difference gives us a different view of peace, and one that is more achievable: a noisy peace of connected difference.

We’re not there yet. We may well never get there. It may not even be attainable. But, the nomination of the Net for a Nobel Peace Prize can nudge us toward thinking about peace in a different way. And that by itself is quite an achievement.  

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