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HCI for Peace: An Invitation to Positive Action

By Juan Pablo Hourcade and Natasha E. Bullock-Rest

The increasing ubiquity of digital devices in people’s lives provides novel opportunities for human-computer interaction (HCI) and user experience professionals to design technologies that promote specific human values. One of those values is peace. At hciforpeace.org, we are members of the HCI and user experience communities interested in the use of computing technologies to promote peace and prevent war. Our goal is to highlight work that is already being done to this end. We also hope to encourage more people within the community to design technologies that promote the precursors of peace and mitigate the causes of conflict. Our world can be no brighter than the worlds we dream of.

Peace is a practical value to pursue because wars are extremely costly. Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences winner Joseph Stiglitz has estimated the cost of the Iraq war at about $3 trillion USD. The most important cost, though, is the cost in human lives. In the twentieth century, 87 million people died as a direct consequence of war. The Pentagon’s 2008 National Defense Strategy promotes the precursors of peace over military actions when it says, “Military efforts to capture or kill terrorists are likely to be subordinate to measures to promote local participation in government and economic programs to spur development, as well as efforts to understand and address the grievances that often lie at the heart of insurgencies.”

But can computer technologies actually make a positive difference? Nobel Peace Prize winner Jody Williams’ e-mail campaign to ban landmines provides evidence that even the simplest of technologies can make a difference. But can we design computing technologies that directly address peace and war? Recent research from economists and statisticians provides a useful starting point by identifying the risk factors associated with armed conflict based on socio-political indicators, such as form of government and educational levels. In addition, breakthroughs in neurological research provide us with a better understanding of the decision making processes involved in situations when individuals have to decide whether or not to support a war. We believe there are opportunities for positive action by human-computer interaction and user experience professionals based on these recent research findings.

Focus on Sociopolitical Precursors of Peace
University of Oxford Economics professor Paul Collier and others have used demographic data from the United Nations to build statistical models that provide empirical data on the best predictors for peace and war. These findings can help us move past philosophical discussions on the causes of war and the antecedents of peace by focusing on the factors that have made a difference in the recent past.

The most consistent finding in the literature is that fully democratic countries are significantly less likely to be involved in intra and interstate wars. Computing technology can play a role in promoting democracy. For example, social media is increasingly being used to organize protests in non-democratic countries, with a recent example in Tunisia.

Studying United Nations demographic data, Professor Collier found that for the years 1965-1995, each additional year of education for the general population resulted in about a 20 percent reduction in the likelihood of civil war. There have been many efforts in the past few years in using computing to boost education in developing regions, for example, the One Laptop Per Child project (Vol. 10, Issue 1). Even though projects such as One Laptop Per Child have not achieved initial goals, the work is too important to give up and there have been important gains. For example, in Uruguay every child in public elementary school has received a laptop and all schools have broadband access.

Tied to education is the success or failure of the social contract. Failures of the social contract (for example, low life expectancy, crime, and disease) are directly linked with war. Mobile technologies, which are now widely available even in poor regions, can be used to deliver information to prevent disease and promote healthy habits.

Private motivation has also been identified as a source of war. Collier reached this conclusion when studying civil wars and finding that countries that depended heavily on primary commodity exports were more likely to have civil wars because these could be easily commercialized. Illicit trade certainly has played a role in civil wars, whether it involves opium, cocaine, or diamonds. Computing technologies can help in this regard by helping consumers realize the consequences of their purchases on conflicts that may be occurring half a world away.

There is also an opportunity for computers to play a role in aiding operational prevention (fact-finding and monitoring missions, confidence building measures). For example, live video of sensitive areas streamed over the Internet could de-incentivize escalations and increase confidence between parties.

Fig 1

Appeal to Individuals
Joshua Greene, a professor at Harvard University, has studied how empathy works in our brains by conducting a version of the “runaway trolley” study. In the study, Greene presented one of two scenarios. In the first, a runaway trolley will kill five people unless the participant hits a switch, which will cause the trolley to take a different set of tracks and kill one person instead. Most participants in the study chose to hit the switch. In the second scenario, to save the five people, a person must be pushed onto the tracks. Almost no participants chose to push and kill someone in order to save the life of five others. Greene found that the second scenario activated regions of the brain associated with mental state attribution. In other words, they could understand how the person being pushed would feel.

Distance to potential victims appeared to play a role in Greene’s experiment. Lieutenant Colonel (Ret.) Dave Grossman, a former Army Ranger who taught psychology at West Point, believes that distance also plays a crucial role in war. It is easier for soldiers to make the decision to kill enemy soldiers if they are farther away. Grossman also discusses the concept of social distance, with greater social distance occurring when enemies are perceived to be inferior or immoral, which also makes it more likely for soldiers to make a decision to kill.

Physical and social distance can also affect popular support for a war. If we don’t see the faces of those being killed and the carnage of war, we are more likely to support it. Decisions about war are best made when the real costs of war, in terms of human lives and suffering, are taken into account. One way to achieve this is to reduce distances and change perspectives so that decision makers can put themselves in the shoes of potential victims of war. In a 2007 article in Science, Jonathan Haidt from the University of Virginia suggests that the most common way in which people change their mind when it comes to moral decisions is by engaging in conversations with other people who can provide a different perspective.

Technologies that connect people from opposing camps could therefore have a positive impact in helping them learn about their common humanity and reduce the social distance between them. However, simply enabling connections does not mean people will want to connect with people with different ideas. Storytelling may help in this regard. There is evidence from studies of donations to charity, for example, that stories about specific people are more effective than statistics at highlighting their problems. An example of how computers can play a role is the digital recording and sharing of stories that has already been used in post-conflict reconciliation projects by human-computer interaction and user experience researchers.

Together with the many opportunities for positive action come many challenges. The first is that any intervention to promote a precursor of peace is likely to take a long time to unfold. For this reason, and because so many factors are involved in causing wars, it would also be difficult to measure the effectiveness of a particular approach. Funding is another challenge, but it is also an incentive to provide opportunities for volunteering.

We hope this article inspires you to join the growing group of researchers and practitioners thinking about peace and computing and taking positive actions. To learn more about working toward peace in the human-computer interaction and user experience communities, visit hciforpeace.org. The blog features interviews and stories ranging from educational technology use in South America to digital kiosks for post-conflict reconciliation in Liberia, to reflections on voting technology. You can also follow news about HCI for Peace on Twitter (@hciforpeace) and Facebook (Hciforpeace Group).UX

Juan Pablo Hourcade is an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Iowa. His main area of research is human-computer interaction, with a concentration on the design, implementation, and evaluation of technologies that support creativity, collaboration, and information access for a variety of users, including children and older adults.

Natasha E. Bullock-Rest is a research assistant in the Speech and Psycholinguistics Lab at Brown University. She was previously a research assistant at the University of Iowa conducting research in human-computer interaction.

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This article was originally printed in User Experience Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 2, 2011.

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