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How Digital Media Can Help Make Peace

By Patrick Towell
[Bloomberg via Getty Images]

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was founded in November 1945, in the wake of the world's most violent conflict, with the purpose of contributing to peace and security by promoting collaboration among nations through education, science and culture. Its constitution recognizes that "since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed," and that "ignorance of each other's ways and lives has been a common cause . . . of that suspicion and mistrust between the peoples of the world through which their differences have all too often broken into war." Peace, in other words, needs to be actively created. One fundamental way that this can be done is through building awareness, knowledge and understanding of others and their ways of life--removing ignorance about those who are different from us.

Trust develops from feelings of empathy with others, the ability to stand in their shoes and see the world from their perspective. Cultural expressions are perhaps the most natural and effective means by which we are able to develop empathy, to engage our emotions in the understanding of others.

Cultural expressions always communicate aspects of who the performer, author or characters within a narrative are and project a sense of identity or voice. Dance, song, poetry, painting, sculpture, sonic art or games--all of these express and engage the emotions, communicating to us beyond the analytical mind. The arts and culture have the potential to shift attitudes and behaviors rapidly and fundamentally.

Culture, in the sense of values, vision, beliefs and habits, is embedded in all communications, whether we are aware of it or not. Put another way, no communications are "value-free" or "culturally neutral." We all learn from and are influenced by the information that communications convey and the behaviors they portray. So the media are a major source of education--beyond the realm of formal study, whether we like it or not.

The media also shape and influence our sense of self. We create our sense of self--positioning ourselves within the cultures in our environment--through a process of bricolage, collecting like magpies the bits of the world with which we want to associate ourselves.

Communications media therefore contribute to both the creation of self-identity and regard for others. In this way, communications media advance mutual knowledge and understanding.

Digital Media

Whilst digital media replicate many of the cultural and educational experiences of other media, their interactivity and personalization shift users from being passive watchers to active participants and producers.

Some of the key attributes of digital media--and how they differ from traditional media--are that they are collaborative and coproduced, local and global, changeable and persistent, searchable and personalized.

Digital media--through social media, blogs, etc.--encourage and enable interactions between people to talk, discuss and debate, and collaborate creatively. At the same time they can foster a sense of locality through location-based services such as FourSquare (foursquare.com), and form the communications backbone of in-country campaigns for democracy, such as in Iran's Green Revolution and more recently in Tunisia and the Arab world. Another aspect of their power is their ability to connect people at a distance. This can not only increase intercultural dialogue but also create a "multiplier effect" to gather the moral force of like-minded people behind a particular issue, as has been so effectively demonstrated by the online petitions organized by AVAAZ.

Digital content and services are plastic--they are endlessly editable and evolvable. This pliability allows them to respond to circumstances, be adapted for particular communities, and, in the case of digital learning, entertainment and artistic content, they can be adapted to suit different cultural and linguistic contexts. It is also possible to store vast quantities of content and to maintain persistent references to them.

With mobile phones, the Internet and social media embedded in the lives of so many, the information and experiences that digital media deliver are having an ever more significant influence.

It is a common mistake of those who were not raised on digital media to see digital cultural expressions as lower than traditional or "higher" culture. But young people--and increasingly silver surfers--don't have a hierarchy of high and low culture, and are comfortable expressing themselves and taking in information about others across a range of media.

This expanding interaction among young people has the potential to deeply shape the values, visions, beliefs and habits of the next generation. Digital culture is laying the foundation of a new kind of society, one marked by increased openness, communication and participation. These qualities, together with the mutual understanding fostered through cross-cultural exposure, are the basis of a culture of peace. And for those who feel passionate about contributing to peace, the expanding possibilities of our digital connectedness offer an endless field of potential, limited only by our imaginations.

What you can do:

• Make something creative through your work or personally; a peace-related "take out" supported by digital media
• Sign up to a peace-themed group on Facebook or LinkedIn
• Join a cross-cultural "buddy" program through Facebook or another platform

Patrick Towell is the chair of the Information Society Working Group for the UK National Commission for UNESCO (www.unesco.org.uk). He is also chief executive of Golant Media Ventures (www.golantmediaventures.com), which has as one of its core purposes to "help people understand more about themselves, other people and the world."

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