A group of people watching a panel of six people in a lecture theatre.
Credit: Judith Weik

Research Associate Timothy Charlton reflects on the ‘Tech, International Conflict, and Geopolitical Change’ working group at our Technology & Democracy Conference

Digital technologies have toppled taken-for-granted assumptions about geopolitics. Connectivity, semi-autonomous weapons, and online disinformation play central roles in contemporary conflicts, which are fought in cyberspace and the physical world. Questions about digital technologies have been propelled into the heart of warfare – fundamentally changing the established rules of engagement (i.e.what constitutes a legitimate target) and diplomatic de-escalation.  

Academics, technology designers, and policymakers disagree about the distribution of power in the new digital world order where conflicts are described in the media as ‘networked’ or ‘digital’. They all face urgent questions: Where does digital geopolitical power lie? Is it split between the US and China or are there other parties? Are states or tech corporations the crucial actors going forward? 

The Humanitarian Action Programme (HAP), a joint initiative between the Minderoo Centre for Technology & Democracy (MCTD) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Delegation to Cyberspace, adds another important dimension to this debate: How can humanitarian actors remain neutral, impartial, and independent when their digital infrastructure is geopolitically contested? Without independent humanitarians in the digital sphere, so the argument goes, there can be no impartial aid for those affected by increasingly digital conflict.

The Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy’s Technology & Democracy conference, convened on 15 and 16 April at Magdalene College, Cambridge, was the ideal venue to engage with these difficult questions. The conference brought together* distinguished experts from research, industry and civil society into the discussion about the role of tech in conflict and humanitarian settings. Several insights emerged from the working group on ‘Tech, International Conflict, and Geopolitical Change’ that are highly relevant to the HAP and other research in this field:

1. Populations impacted by conflict have no say in the design and implementation of digital systems underpinning humanitarian aid. The ensuing risks and harms to individuals are unacceptable. Conflict-affected communities must be represented and able to participate in the design, deployment and regulation of tech. Achieving this is a central humanitarian challenge.

2. Tech corporations promote innovative digital solutions in the humanitarian sector. They influence choices and narratives about technology through financial incentives and steering committee positions. Recognising where power lies is an important step to protect civilians in conflict situations from digital harm. To remain independent, the humanitarian sector must engage with the private sector in its powerful new ‘state-like’ role in the digital sphere.  

3. Military uses of technology, such as AI-driven semi-autonomous weapons or decision-support systems, are advancing rapidly. Available legal and political tools are often not appropriate for the current state of technology. Understanding the digital military-industrial complex and how digital supply chains spanning the globe are being weaponised is essential knowledge for political and humanitarian actors today.

The themes which emerged from this working group emphasise the Technology & Democracy conference’s motto of radically rethinking the relationship between digital technology and society. To do so, we must understand where power truly lies by untangling the complex digital value chains of AI and other technologies used in conflict. 

The humanitarian use-case of maintaining neutrality and independence brings to the surface the power dynamics at play in the digital sphere. It complements recent studies of digital power by authors such as Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman, Kieron O’Hara and Wendy Hall, and Anu Bradford, who each propose alternative constellations of US, Chinese, Russian, and EU influence as lying at the heart of geopolitics in the digital sphere. But what of the digital sovereignty of states outside these hegemonic blocks?

The geopolitics of technology can be better understood if we adopt varied perspectives to reflect the plurality of stakeholders, including humanitarians (who desire neutrality) and states in the Global South, who now find themselves in the middle of a renewed great-power contest.

Finally, a perspective often missing in this debate is that of the affected populations. Opening channels for conflict-affected populations to bring their perceptions, fears, and hopes about digital technologies to the virtual table is a pivotal goal corresponding to the overall spirit of the Technology & Democracy conference. 

Both the analytical and participatory aspects emerging from the working group session are integral to the HAP. If you have a perspective to share on the issues mentioned in this blog post, please get in touch.

*Discussions which occurred in the working groups at this conference were conducted under the Chatham House Rule.