If you attend an international conference these days, such as those at the United Nations, you might encounter something seemingly out of sync: hundreds of diplomats listening via charming but unmistakably outdated headphone equipment to tech experts bandying around cutting-edge terms such as blockchain and big data.
“Emerging technologies” have made strong inroads into the diplomatic community, where they are increasingly discussed as part of future solutions to global problems. This has become apparent across almost every policy area.
The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report evinced support for geoengineering carbon sequestration techniques as a future solution to climate change. Within the United Nations system, there has been growing support for the application of blockchain technology–a distributed ledger technology which purportedly offers a decentralised and transparent method of storing information–in several key areas such as the nuclear disarmament safeguard regime. These technologies are still classified as “emerging technologies” despite being configured in policy decisions made at present.
For the most part, they have yet to be used on a large scale, and the full extent of their costs is still unknown. It begs the question as to why the diplomatic community – not known for its dynamism – has come to so enthusiastically embrace the potential of these technologies.
A simple reason is that these new technologies inherently transcend borders and revolutionise the international realm; the diplomatic community cannot afford to not engage with them. Moreover, these technological developments will occur regardless, and it is better to incorporate them into policies now than to play catch-up later.
What does the diplomatic community have to lose by betting on these technologies delivering? One possible answer is that technology has always been prone to hype. The firm Gartner has posited the existence of a “hype cycle” where technologies go through phases of development.
Currently, they classify many emerging technologies such as blockchain and artificial intelligence under the phase “trough of disillusionment” but argue that this is only temporary, as these technologies will eventually reach the phase “plateau of productivity” in which their hype is finally justified.
The hard truth, however, is that there is nothing to assure us that hyped technologies will not peter out and slumber in this trough of disillusionment indefinitely. Since these technologies purport to completely overhaul existing systems, they can only deliver if the diplomatic community invests in them on a large scale.
If it turns out to be all hype and they fail to deliver, then this could damage the already declining credibility of the international system. Furthermore, over-reliance on these technologies could directly and indirectly detract from other solutions. This is especially the case for climate change where greater environmental consciousness on the individual and national levels must be continuously encouraged.
The other way to view this is as the tale of two very different communities: the tech community and the diplomatic community. The tech community, of course, drives the development of emerging technologies. They and they alone are in possession of the expertise which makes or breaks these technologies.
It is increasingly commonplace to see representatives from Silicon Valley participate in international conferences. Moreover, cooperation between the United Nations and tech companies such as Microsoft has been clearly established.
However, the recent scandals regarding data privacy provide good reason to question the benevolence of tech companies and their commitment to socially- just uses of their technologies. In an interview with POLEMICS, Nicholas Agar, author of The Sceptical Optimist: Why Technology Isn’t the Answer to Everything, said that much of the discussion instigated by the tech community constitutes little more than marketing for themselves.
It is difficult for external actors (such as diplomats) to decode the highly technical language employed by the tech community. To be fair, there is a degree of humility; one of the guiding principles of the UN Secretary General’s Strategy on New Technologies is to “be humble and continue to learn.”
They must ensure however, that humility does not become gullibility. The diplomatic community’s natural gravitation towards these technologies is understandable. The mandate of organisations like the United Nations is Sisyphean in nature, and there inevitably comes about a certain malaise when combatting persistent global problems.
In such a climate, pessimism towards proposed solutions is not considered helpful, which may contribute to the existence of an optimism bias. Investment in emerging technologies should by no means be abandoned; there are already reported success stories such as the World Food Programme’s Building Blocks programme which applied blockchain technology to facilitate cash transfers to refugees in Jordan.
However, a healthy form of scepticism should be adopted; innovation must not exist merely for the sake of innovation. The relationship between the tech community and the diplomatic community will undoubtedly increase in importance, but even if we are at the dawn of a technological sea change, that does not mean we all have to dive in headfirst.