Friday
Dec092011

Please Update Your RSS Subscriptions

The columns section has been discontinued. Not to worry: the columnists - Faisal Devji, Jon Western, Stephen Saideman and Scott Smith -- are all still contributing to Current Intelligence. CI has moved to a new structure and format, so instead of multiple RSS feeds, all of our analysis and commentary will now be available through a single, new Analysis page.

We've linked to it here for ease of access, and you can subscribe to the Analysis RSS feed here, as well. Enjoy.

The Editors

Tuesday
Oct252011

UN Irresolution

The TV show “Community” recently had an episode largely dedicated to two groups of students competing to run their school’s Model UN program.  The episode concluded with a win by the team that was less reality-based, as a political science professor (at the community college around which the show is centered)  stated that the UN is a “fundamentally symbolic organization founded on principles of high minded rhetoric and empty gestures.”  This snark seemed most appropriate given its timing: as world leaders line up for the annual speeches in September and October, as Palestine’s membership status was being hotly debated, and as the UN Security Council could not agree to sanction Syria for its repression.


The issue of Palestine as a member of the UN is entirely symbolic (although not entirely meaningless), as the US and Israel essentially recognized Palestine in previous agreements.  Further, even as it gains international recognition, Palestine will join the ranks of states that have less than full control over their own territory.  Statehood, as recognized by the UN, will not change too many facts on the ground.  Somaliland has managed to get by despite the lack of recognition, and the list of non-recognized countries  is getting longer all the time from Taiwan to Abkhazia and beyond.


Of course, we should not be surprised that Russia and China would veto a resolution addressing human rights.  It is more surprising that they let the Libya resolution go last March.  Of course, they now bear the scars of that resolution, as France and its allies took that resolution and ran with it.  The important point here is that China, in particular, gets to vet the world’s decisions about the application of human rights standards.


Why do I find this at all problematic?  If I had never moved to Canada, I would have just laughed at the Community episode and moved on.  But having moved outside of the US, I was surprised to find that Canadians (and folks elsewhere) tend to think that UN approval is a stamp of legitimacy that might be required for international interventions.  While nice as an ideal and convenient when one already does not want to participate in an invasion of Iraq, it means that one’s foreign policy becomes subject to the whims of the veto-holders on the Security Council.  And, excuse me, but the idea of Putin or the Chinese having a veto on American or Canadian foreign policy is not terribly appealing.  As it would not be appealing for many countries to essentially grant the US a veto.


We are far from a world in which each veto-holder at the UN is seen as representative, well-governed, and fair.  These are not Supreme Court justices but powerful countries with their own interests.  China is hardly democratic, Russia is pretty flawed (especially with the Putin return to power, as if he ever left), and the US showed that its leaders are not bound by the rule of law during a semi-emergency. 


I am not suggesting that the UN be reformed so that there are no vetoes at the UNSC, nor am I arguing that we should restrict who holds the vetoes.  Hoping for either or both would be ignoring the institutional logic of the vetoes—change is not going to happen.  No, what I am suggesting is that we might not want to over-rate the legitimacy and power of the UN and the Security Council.  While the UN and the Security Council are important fora for presenting messages and for trying to win global popularity contests, they should not be seen as arbiters of justice.  The presence of Libya and other repressors on the Human Rights Council reminded us that these organizations do not have membership criteria tied to suitability or fit with the avowed standards of the organization.  As long as we also remember that is the case for the UN Security Council, we would be alright.

Thursday
Oct202011

The BRIC Inside

REGARDLESS of how one feels about it, the Occupy Wall Street protest that’s grown in both size and geographic scope in the US (and internationally) is focusing a bright light on an issue that’s been actively obscured in US politics for a decade, and which has passed some critical markers in terms of severity: US income levels—and opportunities to generate income—have fallen, and continue to fall, alarmingly. New US census data indicates that median incomes fell by 6.7% from June 2009 to June 2011 alone. Poverty rates have climbed, and unemployment remained stagnant, pouring more cold water on Americans at the end of a so-called "lost decade".

One of the key drivers of decline that many politicians point to is the export of manufacturing jobs that have been at the heart of the US economy over the past century or more, as well an increasing slice of service sector jobs that have powered it for the last 20 years. America’s loss has been a gain for China, India, Mexico, Vietnam and a host of other emerging markets whose new middle classes have grown while America's own has not. And now that the world’s largest economy has been sufficiently hollowed out, some economists and consultants are flagging what they view as the beginnings of a reversal.

A combination of sliding manufacturing wages, weak union protection, an increasingly anti-regulation mood among legislators in the US,  inevitable wage inflation in China and high costs of maintaining long supply chains across the Pacific, are creating conditions wherein companies are considering repatriating factories back to the US. In the analysis of the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), which has studied this phenomenon, the made-in-China savings are negligible enough to merit bringing some industries back onshore. BCG has recently gone so far as to name key industries that could be first in line: transportation goods, computers and electronics, fabricated metal products, machinery, plastics and rubber, appliances and electrical equipment, and furniture.

In short, the core of American industry is effectively becoming almost as Chinese as China, in economic terms, but with marginally better quality control. It’s not necessarily a new thesis. Tom Friedman raised the spectre of global economic equilibrium in “The World is Flat,” and financial writer Michael Lewis takes it a step further in his new book, “Boomerang,” which places the US economic calamity in the same context as those of Ireland, Greece and Iceland, though these are largely dealt with at a macro level. The emerging downside of globalization is that it flows both ways. The US may have benefited from low-cost foreign production and cheap labor elsewhere, but that benefit has, in net terms, raised other nations' standard of living while sapping America's own, due to overleveraging.

Some large corporations have seen this leveling and taken advantage of it to bring to the US market lower-cost design and innovation picked up in emerging markets, often without the end consumer being any the wiser. Most American buyers of inexpensive sedans made by companies like Honda and GM, for example, wouldn’t know their vehicles were optimized first to suit the tastes of Chinese consumers, and only then exported to the US -- a reversal of the historical trend that “what’s best for America is best for the world.”

It’s a strategy adopted by a wider range of global companies, as well. GE, for example, has touted its bottom-up innovation strategy of sourcing from developing markets new ideas for lightweight, inexpensive approaches to technology development. Numerous other global brands have sent specialists into the field to see what could be learned from innovation under constraint to use in developed markets where margins are tight and money newly scarce.

Economics isn't my field, but observing and analyzing how economics and other forces change our behaviors is—in particular, how these forces change our use of technology. On this point, an interesting cluster of signals has been emerging recently that points to growing similarities among the growing US “underclass” of low-income individuals and families, to their global, lower middle-class counterparts in the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China) and beyond. Even as they are layering up, we are stripping down, so to speak.

Take for example, a new set of data released by the Pew Internet & American Life Project this past summer (and recently refined) which indicates an unwiring of lower income consumers. Pew’s earlier research showed that, amid the deleveraging that American households are undergoing, Internet and mobile connectivity have largely been protected from the chop, as they provide both low-cost entertainment and communication. Now the fixed-line Internet connectivity is going to an increasing number of homes, and mobile Internet is protected as critical infrastructure. As a single investment, the mobile phone can deliver the greatest number of functions, at a sufficiently high level, at the least cost.

As an economic and social tool, an Internet-connected mobile phone is seen as a critical possession for   people and families on the downward economic escalator, and for newcomers to the US on their way up. I saw the latter phenomenon in field research over five years ago among immigrants living in US cities. A prepaid mobile is an early acquisition, and sometimes even a group resource. It enables access to jobs, contact with families, acquisition of other utility services, and so on. And with the availability of prepaid smartphone services that don't require established credit history, low-cost smartphones have penetrated these growing lower economic tiers.

This might sound familiar if you’ve kept up with the spread of mobiles and smartphones in the developing world. Emerging middle classes and those at the bottom of the economic pyramid have graduated up to higher levels of sophistication in mobile devices. In a study we recently completed of almost 50 countries worldwide, we found that one of the key trends in technology uptake is no longer the spread of mobile phones in general, but the boom in smartphones, even at lower economic levels. For emerging markets, first contact with the Internet is increasingly coming not through PCs but via a hand-held or pocket-sized device. A new study of rural China shows what this looks like: copious quantities of modern media, piped in via a 3G connection, consumed by that country’s lower middle class. Similar research results are becoming apparent in countries such as Indonesia, India, and across the emerging world.

So what does this mean in the context of the US economy? Underneath the stereotypical American tier of multi-device, high-speed households choc-a-bloc with the newest Apple devices, games consoles, flat-screens and fibre connections, is a growing layer of pragmatic technology users for whom utility is a higher priority than entertainment or convenience. For them, a mobile is a life tool, a means of staying both connected and afloat. If one factors in the possibility that US incomes could remain flat for the next decade, as just forecasted by a Wall Street Journal panel of economists, this layer will grow to be a more substantial part of the technology audience, looking much more like the lower middle classes in the BRIC economies than the more economically mobile top tier.

A recent Gallup poll indicated that fewer Chinese than Americans reported struggling to afford food or shelter for their families. That's a fairly stark data point at the current juncture. Technology usage is just one indication of how the lives of both country’s middle classes are starting to converge in alternately worrying and surprising ways. Should these two economies continue along similar trajectories to what they have been doing for the past five years, we may soon need to consider not just how to capitalize on BRIC growth abroad to grow the US economy. We may also need to adjust to the development of a similar economy within the US—the development of our very own BRIC inside.

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Scott Smith is the author of Discontinuities, CI's monthly column on disruptive technology and innovation in emerging markets. He is founder and principal of Changeist, LLC,  foresight and strategic design consultants advising organizations as they navigating complex futures.

Tuesday
Sep272011

After Libya and Syria: Can R2P Survive?

For many, the UN and NATO action in Libya has been a validation of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine.  In response to a strong global consensus on the imminence of a major attack on civilian populations, the international community came together with unprecedented speed to support a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force to protect civilians from harm in Libya.  In the end, NATO forces effectively removed the threat to the citizens of Benghazi and Misrata. Qaddafi’s removal from power begins a new chapter in Libyan history.


For critics, however, Libya is yet another example of selective international concern for civilian populations. Swift UN decision making and robust NATO military action in oil rich Libya only highlights the disparity in international responses on-going violence elsewhere, particularly in Syria.  Throughout the summer, many critics asked:  Why Libya and not Syria?   After all, in recent months civilians in both appeared to be victims of one of the four delineated crimes of R2P – crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide, and ethnic cleansing.  

The selective application and the shift from civilian protection to regime change calls into question whether or not R2P can become anything more than a tool for ad hoc responses to violence against civilians.  The doctrine’s major promise when it was unanimously adopted at the World Summit in 2005 was that it would become the needed corrective to episodes of mass atrocity and that it would contribute to broader transformation of global society.

Is selective application the death knell for R2P? It is a remarkably young doctrine, and exists within a state-based international system that has significant political and military constraints.  There are many circumstances in which external military intervention, regardless of exigent circumstances, will not be a viable option.  For example, if China were to crack down aggressively with military force against some form of separatist uprising in Tibet or Xinjiang Provinces, the international community could condemn it, but there would be no real military options for a response.  For that matter, there would be no major military option if any one of a number of major powers committed R2P-delineated crimes.  

Unlike the rebels who had gained control of Libya’s second largest city, opposition demonstrators in Syria are a disparate group of urbanites that controls no territory.  The Syrian regime has been delegitimized by its use of violence, but it retains complete control over a strong military and security apparatus.   By almost all accounts, intervention would take an Iraq-like invasion force and there are few historical indications to suggest that interventions (or wars) of that magnitude actually save lives.  As Rory Stewart and others have posited, there is no moral obligation to act in a situation where there is no possibility to save lives or when intervention will make matters worse.

It’s also important to remember that R2P is not a singular policy instrument.  Intervention is only one part of a doctrine that includes calls for resources and commitments to prevent conflict, to respond to conflicts, and then to rebuild after conflicts.  R2P is wrapped up in a broader set of conflict management strategies that have expanded dramatically in the past twenty years. It now includes a dramatic increase of global humanitarian assistance efforts, more targeted development aid to build state capacity, more robust and successful peacekeeping missions, and more comprehensive post-conflict stabilization, reconstruction, and reconciliation efforts.

According to Joshua Goldstein in his new book Winning the War on War:  The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide (Dutton, 2011), it is this comprehensive package that is contributing to a noticeable and dramatic decline in the frequency and intensity of war (both interstate and intrastate) across the globe. Data from peace researchers in Sweden and Norway have shown that interstate war has been in decline for almost five decades while civil wars, and most notably civilian casualties from all types of conflict worldwide, are also now in significant decline.

In other words, while the world is still experiencing (albeit reduced) violence against civilians and Syria has proven a complex challenge for the international community, R2P is embedded in a changing set of norms and expectations about state behavior.  Those norms and expectations, as well as the wider set of international conflict management strategies and institutions, are stronger and more effective than at any other time in history, and appear to be showing results in reducing war.   In the end, critics might balk at selective application and at some elements of the UN and NATO actions in Libya. But how we measure the ultimate efficacy and strength of R2P, and whether or not it has a future, is almost certainly dependent on whether or not the current decline in war continues.  At least for now, those signs are encouraging.

Tuesday
Sep202011

Human Flesh Search Engines

How would you like to see your face on a 20 foot LCD screen mounted on a truck, asking “have you seen this person?” If you had been unwise enough to throw your hand in with rioters in Birmingham, England during the UK’s outbreak of unrest in early August, you would stand a chance of having just that moment of infamy. Not content just to print faces of unknown offenders in the local paper, the West Midlands constabulary took things one technological step further and hired a van meant for digital advertising to flash pictures of its most wanted, captured on CCTV during the previous days’ rioting. Granted, the van (and its giant screens) had been offered to the police by its owners, but the jump from posters and print amplifies the real-time effect. Mobile screens that can travel a city shopping for witnesses are an interesting use of surveillance footage to track down unknown offenders.

The riots themselves represented a hallmark in the application of CCTV and other kinds of imagery being used for surveillance, including liberal use of open social media by authorities to spot and identify alleged culprits in the unrest. Britain’s technology-enabled public surveillance culture had been nearly 20 years in the making, kicking off in earnest in the mid-1990s following the IRA’s bombing campaigns in London, initiating the so-called Ring of Steel strategy to protect London’s inner perimeter in subsequent years. More sophisticated image recognition technology for car number plates and human faces got a boost when London’s congestion-charging system was put in place in 2003, a key part of which is thousands of cameras used to check vehicles entering the city against rolls of those who have paid the requisite fees. According to some analysts, that system studies and tracks faces as they move through the area as well.

Estimates now put the number of CCTV cameras in the UK alone at between 1.85 and 2.25 million, making it one of the most densely video-monitored countries on earth. One estimate suggests the average Briton is viewed on a CCTV camera some 70 times per day. In a 2009 count, London’s Wandsworth borough, which saw a great deal of action during the recent riots, itself contained more CCTV cameras than Dublin, San Francisco, Johannesburg and Boston combined.  Some analysts believe the recession has taken a bite out of private companies and local councils’ ability to pay for “Surveillance Britain,” but the 2012 Olympic Games are expected to give video surveillance and facial recognition technology a fillip. Although still a year off, it is driving deployment even now in strategic areas of London and ports of entry.

Identifying alleged troublemakers is no longer just the job of the faceless men and women in dark operations rooms. The riots also made facial recognition more of a peer-to-peer activity, with online groups formed to weed through thousands of images to put names to allegedly offending faces. Members of one group even discussed collaboratively tapping an existing online service to facilitate use of Facebook photos to find rioters. This so-called crowdsourcing of facial recognition wasn’t new to the riots or the UK.  Chinese citizens, for example, have taken it upon themselves to use the Internet, through China’s eerily named “Human Flesh Search Engine,” to highlight, locate, shame and even intimidate those deemed to have offended civic sensibilities. For Canadians upset at hockey riots, social groups have taken identification and occasionally retribution into their own hands. But with the riots happening in and among such a well-wired and social media-connected milieu, it wasn't just the government that was interested in harnessing social transparency to law enforcement ends.

Like many other technologies, high-powered facial recognition has trickled down to the average person's fingertips in recent years. Facebook’s apologies for the rollout of automatic facial tagging of photos was just a temporary setback for the company, a tactical stutter-step in advance of a longer-term push into this controversial space. Likewise, some believe Google’s strong stance on its “real names” policy  - requiring users of its Facebook-rival social network to use their legal names instead of nicknames or pseudonyms - is motivated by its desire to put not just data but faces with these names. Apple, which has kept a lower profile over facial recognition (enabled in its iPhoto application), has now integrated recently acquired technology to allow developers on its platform to apply facial recognition even more effectively in its upcoming release of iOS.

Google may have more to gain than its rivals, as its business is already so heavily built on analysis and monetization of data it has already captured. Despite recent words from chairman Eric Schmidt cautioning governments against using it too widely, the search giant also recently got its hands on facial recognition software from a Carnegie Mellon spin-off which correlates faces with public databases of information - including any publicly disclosed data such as addresses, phone numbers, or fragments of social security numbers. With a US$12 billion business in advertising sales alone, based substantially on its data-crunching capabilities, the Google is almost compelled to push ahead in what amounts to an analytics arms race, of which consumer profile assembly is a big part.

Around the edges of these intelligent face-spotting networks, analog countermeasures such as hoodies, hats and burkhas have been deployed for as long as people have been concerned about their privacy. More inventive bottom-up responses are now in development. Jan Chipchase of frog design noted in his recent survey of the issue that this is already happening with online reputation “cleaning”. Soon, there will surely will be a brisk business in scrubbing facial trails from the web. If current market dynamics are any gauge, there will even be visual SEO experts making sure the face of the hot celebrity, local estate agent or besuited business guru is sufficiently robot readable.

 

Many more will want to stay out of the gaze of technology, and will take steps accordingly. Enterprising designers have already created several versions of anti-paparazzi sunglasses, which, while a novelty a few years ago when first shown, may have more real world uses for non-celebrities today. One designer recently showed off makeup schemes that confuse facial recognition technology’s reliance on facial geometry. Measures are already percolating on the fringes, from plastic surgery to evolved “black bloc” tactics such as clothing that suppresses heat signature.

Sooner than we think, the increased scale of events will escalate both the watching and the desire to be unwatched. With governments, private companies and peers alike wielding the means to capture and identify facial likenesses, we will increasingly be pushed to choose whether we want to optimize or obfuscate, in the same way we now opt in or out of marketing databases. The public relationship with the eye in the sky, the hand-held camera and the remote database will drive more and more of our social, political, economic and technological decisions as individuals.

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Scott Smith is the author of Discontinuities, CI's monthly column on disruptive technology and innovation in emerging markets. He is founder and principal of Changeist, LLC,  foresight and strategic design consultants advising organizations as they navigating complex futures.