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Humanitarianism is in crisis. Digital innovation won’t fix it

A boy with VR goggles on outside of a refugee camp for Syrians in Jordan. Christopher Herwig/UNICEF

The humanitarian norms that once tempered international conduct lie abandoned. A couple of decades ago, hopes for a liberal “new world order” shaped by human rights and cosmopolitan values still had traction. A backlash of authoritarianism and insurgent populism, however, has revised that global outlook.

Levels of violence, inequality, and societal breakdown once thought to define the past are now accepted as normal. Civilians caught in conflict situations are routinely starved, raped, and tortured; hospitals are bombed; and humanitarian assistance denied. Once widely accepted human rights and refugee and criminal laws are flouted with impunity.

Yet rather than protest such behaviour, donor governments have seen their influence decline as their political pursuit of austerity and domestic retrenchment increases and multilateralism loses its cohesion.

Technology does many things for humanitarian response and prevention. Addressing the problems at the heart of our industry’s crisis, however, is not one of them.

Countering this negative prospect, however, stands a more optimistic – even celebratory – techno-populism. Its proponents speak not so much of a humanitarian crisis but of the need for humanitarian innovation. They present first-order political problems that demand democratic debate and urgent action as heuristic challenges to be sidestepped and rendered profitable through smart technology, agile design, and private acumen.

For the techno-populists, the enemy is not authoritarianism but institutional inertia and hidebound convention. Technology does many things for humanitarian response and prevention. Addressing the problems at the heart of our industry’s crisis, however, is not one of them.

Upsides and downsides

Smart technology and mobile telephony have been touted as revolutionising “traditional” humanitarian action for more than a decade. Arm’s-length evaluation tools that combine sensing techniques and Big Data informatics can address problems of denied access and hard-to-reach disaster zones. Compared to conventional monitoring systems, these methods are touted as raising real-time awareness in crisis situations. And automation and streamlining of humanitarian assistance, not to mention significant cost savings, now beckon via effective remote management.

Cash transfer cuts the expense and hassle of aid-in-kind. Benefits can be adjusted algorithmically according to changing conditions. Remote policing of identity and entitlement is possible using biometric and blockchain technologies. Streamlining by eliminating professional oversight is spreading as “liberating” forms of self-administration take hold, including app-based education or self-diagnosis and prescription via online providers.

In the expanding off-grid urban milieus of the global precariat, there is also a diverse suite of cost-saving humanitarian services styled to support basic survival. They include portable sanitation, water filtration, and solar lighting. And the designed-in feedback loops in such new technologies are hyped as “empowering” – smart technology is valued commercially only to the extent that it affects behavioural change and transforms autonomous groups into permanently surveilled user “communities”.

For humanitarian innovators, the growth of international push-back is unconnected to the computational turn – that is, the spread of digital technologies into all aspects of social, economic, and political life tout court. Or at least, any relation is fortuitous – if not providential. Doesn’t smart technology promise to take the complexity out of our “complex” world?

That the age of anger and techno-populism are more fundamentally linked is off the radar. In drawing out such a relationship, the difference between circulation and connectivity is important.

A liberal understanding of security emerges with the discovery of the modern town in terms of ‘circulation’. During the 19th century, towns were designed to improve the free circulation of people and things – goods, sewage, light, and air – in order to better manage disease, crime, and sedition. Modernism aimed to maximise good circulation by developing a security apparatus to police and prevent the bad. Free – or spontaneous – circulation was encouraged through a universal fixed-grid of roads, canals, railways, public spaces, street lighting, and postal services.

As an urban logic, network connectivity is radically different. The smart city is a closed cybernetic system. Computers convert the continuously recorded data generated by the interaction of people and things into a totalising artificial intelligence. Such intelligence aspires to control the movement of people and things according to demand, availability, and risk. While people and things still move and exchange, free circulation in the sense of being spontaneous or curious is lost. Movement is predicted and directed; better still, booked in advance.

Humans needed

Unlike free circulation – which accommodated risk – cybernetics uses the command and control potential of information to eliminate risk by removing human autonomy and caprice. There is thus a necessary if hidden paradox at the heart of connectivity: the more connectivity, the less circulation. Technologies and social-robotic architectures that contain, logistically direct, and shepherd people and things in places like airports are colonising society and reshaping the global plane.

That the age of anger and techno-populism are more fundamentally linked is off the radar.

As global connectivity has deepened, the number of fences, walls, border controls, visa restrictions, and nationality derogations has exploded. International space has physically striated into fast, slow, and stopped lanes. The positivity of techno-populism is a function of the ability of connectivity to leap across such barriers and, at the same time, effectively disregard the growing anger and ground friction associated with them.  

For techno-populism, global threats and uncertainty arise from too much network connectivity. Terrorist propaganda in one country, for example, promotes lone wolf attacks in another; a European demand for cheap goods encourages slave labour in Asia; and so on. These are not concrete circulatory outcomes resulting from direct contact and observable causation – they are abstract mathematical risks and probabilities derived from comparing very different, separate, and contained orders of reality. Uncertainty arises when you compare apples with oranges, so to speak. The only connection is the truism that they are all part of a ‘network’. With humans out of the loop, moreover, the separation between such orders of reality can be so great that only computers can reveal a pattern. Moreover, due to their “complexity”, such patterns are presented as allegedly objective “visualisations” rather than reasoned explanations that are open to contestation and democratic debate.

Rather than understand the age of anger politically and historically through face-to-face engagement on the ground, techno-populism is complicit containment and late-capitalism's expanding off-grid wild. If technology is to play a useful humanitarian role we have to make a choice. The easy road is to do nothing and submit to ever deepening automation, remote management, and the robotisation of behaviour. The more difficult task – and one that will define progressive politics for years to come – is to bring the oligarchic electronic atmosphere under democratic control.

(TOP PHOTO: A young boy uses virtual reality goggles at the Za’atari camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan. CREDIT: Christopher Herwig/UNICEF)

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