The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

More ISA reflections: Technology, IR, and the study of IR


February 23, 2009

To continue the theme of ISA follow-up, I wanted to mix in a few observations about the way the massive technical shift of stuff like Web 2.0 seems to be changing that which we study, how we study it, and how we conceive of what it means to study what we study. Of all, it feels as if our professional norms of what it means to study IR and how we ought to do so are the most lagging.

I attended several panels on discourse analysis. One panel focused on the study of images as discourse and featured two innovative graduate student papers investigating the discourse of photographs of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. The two papers revealed just how powerful these images have been world-wide, impacting the understanding of the US occupation of Iraq and War on Terrorism. Gitmo, in part, has become such a powerful international symbol because of the images the world has seen of prisoners there. As a field, we have historically focused on discourse as text, privileging the primary discourses of speeches and archival records. As a discipline, we ask researchers to publish papers and present without access to LCD displays. The presenter of the Gitmo paper managed to put up some color overheads, which made her presentation significantly more effective. And my question to them was–why are you writing a paper about pictures?

It would seem to me that there is room in the field for us to innovate beyond the 10,000 word journal article and engage the Web and digital media. James DerDerian, who was discussant on one of these panels, is doing some remarkable work with documentary film. The two papers on images would be so much more powerful as multi-media enterprises but the field has no way to recognize that. And, ISA has no way to present that to a panel.

I was at another panel on Diplomacy (also with DerDerian…). Of note there was the way in which the military, especially in the US, is taking over traditional diplomacy. Counter-insurgency operations only serve to magnify this trend. And yet, I asked, why is it that the pragmatism of the military is willing to embrace these new forms of diplomacy while diplomacy looks so much as it did 30 years ago? Of all the agencies within the US government, the Pentagon is far and away the most innovative in using information technology resources. Imagine the State Department embedding journalists in the 6 party talks. Imagine the State Department’s public diplomacy program with the resources of the Pentagon’s information operations. Imagine the State Department with a website filled with cool photos like any of the .mil sites. Imagine a first-person interactive negotiating game on the state department’s website (like the Army’s first person shooter games).

Information technology is changing the stuff that we study. Information technology is changing the way we conduct our craft. And yet, some institutions seem slow to catch up. Alas, our own profession seems to be one of them.

For crying out loud, how hard would it be for ISA to just buy some wireless access for everyone already!!!

And, for crying out loud, how hard would it be to get a truly transformational diplomacy?

+ posts

Dr. Peter Howard focuses on US foreign policy and international security. He studies how the implementation of foreign policy programs produces rule-based regional security regimes, conducting research in Estonia on NATO Expansion and US Military Exchange programs and South Korea on nuclear negotiations with North Korea.