Preparing for the Next Wave of #Digital Disruption

Several weeks ago I published a post titled “Preparing for the Digital Future”. In it, I advocated that MFAs (ministries of foreign affairs) and diplomats should adopt a proactive approach to digital innovation. A proactive approach begins with understating the future technological landscape and taking measures to adapt to this landscape in terms of working routines, organizational structures and norms. In other words, rather than adapt to new technologies, diplomats should begin preparing for the next wave of digital technologies.

In this post, I identify three technological innovations that will soon disrupt the practice of diplomacy. Notably, I use the term digital disruption in reference to both positive and negative outcomes.

The Age Fake of Videos

It is anticipated that by 2020 the strength and quality of internet connectivity will substantially improve leading to a video based online environment. While videos are already prevalent on online platforms, the majority of content published on news sites, social media sites and blogs contains texts and images. In the near future, videos will not only dominate websites, they will also become the main vehicle for online communication. Two way conversations will no longer take place in Facebook messenger or WhatsApp but will consist of either live video interactions or video based correspondence. Even the text based email is likely to be usurped by a video equivalent.

Yet it is also estimated the by 2020 the ability to manipulate videos will be so sophisticated that every PC user will be able to create fictitious videos depicting real life individuals. The age of fake videos, as it has been dubbed by the Atlantic magazine, is upon us.

Such videos can already be seen in the present. The television show Mr. Robot, for instance, includes frequent videos in which President Obama addresses events taking place in the show from behind the White House podium. The quality of the video is so impressive that one is unable to discern whether the video was manipulated or whether Obama was actually asked to tape a video for the show.

But the ability to create such high quality video presently remains in the hands of well-resourced and highly skilled individuals.

This is about to change. Future software will enable individuals, groups and even nations to create videos that rapture the very fabric of reality. From a video depicting President Trump declaring war on North Korea, to a video depicting Russian troops firing surface to air missiles on civilian airplanes, the internet will become populated by a mirage of reality which will inevitably influence reality itself. Fake videos will lead to real life consequences while the diplomatic community will find it increasingly hard to discern between the real and the fake. And without an agreed upon definition of reality, diplomacy cannot function.

The question that arises is how can MFAs best prepare for this digital disruption? Internally, diplomats will need to develop the ability to quickly discern between real and fake videos. Otherwise, diplomats’ ability to gather and analyze information will be dramatically impaired. Moreover, MFAs will need to be able to discredit fake videos in near-real time. Doing so will require online collaborations with news organizations and individuals that can increase the reach of MFA communication. It may thus be incumbent on MFAs to begin working now with tech companies that are at the forefront of video analysis.

Yet even more importantly, diplomats will need to increase the digital resilience of countries that are already witnessing mass scale digital manipulations. To this end, MFAs and diplomats must aid local civil society organization and news organizations develop the skills necessary for identifying and exposing fake videos in near-real time.

The Age of Virtual Reality

Goldman Sachs recently estimated that by 2020 the Virtual Reality market will be worth 25 Billion Dollars. With massive investments from Facebook, Google, Sony and Microsoft, Virtual Reality may soon become a constant feature in our lives. Easy to use googles will transform every smartphone into a Virtual Reality projector propelling us from our living rooms to the jungles of Peru or the Pyramids of Giza.

While much attention has been paid to the role of Virtual Reality in games, this technology may also revolutionize news reporting. Through their Virtual Reality apps, CNN and Sky News will allow their viewers to visit war torn Syria or see up close the damages of global warming in the Arctic.

It is often said that “seeing is believing”. Yet Virtual Reality will enable individuals to do more than see- they will be able to walk in faraway streets, hear the sound of bustling markets and, with the help of Augmented Reality, touch the walls around them. The power of Virtual Reality reporting will thus lie in its immersive and emotionally stimulating nature.

For diplomats, Virtual and Augmented Reality may be a double edged sword. On the one hand, MFAs will be able to offer global audiences tours of their capitals, historic sites and museums. The State Department has already experimented once with a virtual tour of New York City. Soon, other MFAs may join in such activities with the aim of increasing tourism and promoting a nation’s cultural achievement. Notably, Virtual Reality may especially prove useful to relatively small States who lack the resources necessary to launch expensive nation branding campaigns around the world.

Multi-lateral organizations may also make use of such technologies. The UN may enable global audiences to virtually attend deliberations in the UN Security Council while NATO may allow audiences to view exercises of its rapid deployment units.

But the threat of digital manipulation also looms large over the popularity of Virtual Reality. Rogue news agencies, state owned media companies and even certain states will be able to use Virtual Reality to depict fake environments that will challenge the fabric of reality.

The age of Virtual Reality is estimated to begin in earnest in 2020 suggesting that MFAs and diplomats must already now develop the capabilities to leverage these technologies and assess the means through which they may limit the ability of actors to manipulate reality through such technologies.

The Age of Tele-Presence

Finally, it is estimated that by 2022 Tele-Presence will be engaging and stimulating enough to allow individuals to participate in remote events from the comfort of their home. These will include board meetings, university classes, medical consultations and roundtable discussions.

For diplomats and MFAs, Tele-Presence may hold two important benefits. First, Tele-Presence may dramatically impact the academic reach of nations. Much of Public Diplomacy has traditionally rested on exchange programs in which university students are seen as becoming future Ambassadors of a country. While Tele-Presence will not substitute exchange programs all together it may increase the number of foreign students educated in another country’s academic institutions. Equally importantly, Tele-Presence may enable relatively small or less affluent states to compete with the exchange programs of dominant states. Via Tele-Presence, Baltic and African States will be able to offer classes to international students.

By the time Tele-Presence becomes popular and affordable, the number of connected individuals will have likely grown from 3 to 8 Billion. This growth will occur mainly in the global south. MFAs and diplomats may thus use Tele-Presence for future capacity building programs. Via Tele-Presence, rural communities in the global south may partake in public health interventions or learn how to utilize new irrigation systems while children may attend classes taught by experts from nearby cities or remote countries.

Tele-Presence thus holds the potential to substantially increase the reach, and efficacy, of nations’ capacity building programs, foreign aid programs and exchange programs. Yet utilizing Tele-Presence means that MFAs must now begin to explore how this technology will be developed and how it will be diffused around the world. This work should be undertaken with additional stakeholders such as cultural institutions, public diplomacy institutions, aid agencies and NGOs who will all come to rely on this technology in their activities.

The next wave of digital disruption will soon be upon us. It is incumbent on diplomats to prepare today for the benefits and dangers of the digital future.

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