A Question of Bandwidth

Walk across the office, or send an email? A look at how much time we save—or not—when we opt for the technological solution.

"Migrant 6," 2009, courtesy of the artist Hayv Kahraman

On Sept. 17, 1978, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed the historic Camp David Accords. The agreements embodied in the accords would soon become the foundation of a peace treaty that is still in effect today—an accomplishment for which Begin and Sadat would share the Nobel Peace Prize. And yet, at the time the accords were reached, neither man had seen the other for 10 days.

President Jimmy Carter, who hosted the talks, later recalled that though participation at Camp David had meant that “Egyptians and Israelis who had been devoting their adult life to killing each other were required to swim in the same swimming pool, watch the same movies…sit on the same rock and talk,” after just a few days Begin and Sadat proved personally “incompatible.” Thus Carter spent the bulk of the process shuttling a negotiation document between the two men; they alternately edited the single text—a process engineered to help them identify common ground, rather than focus on their competing demands. Remarkably, an agreement was reached in spite of the fact that for most of the process, the two leaders at the heart of the talks did not meet face to face.

Today, thanks to the evolution of technology, the careful preparation and neutral location that facilitated the Camp David Accords can now be structured into software frameworks accessible on the Web. So it is hardly surprising that nearly 40 years after Camp David, Carter’s groundbreaking approach would be given a decidedly 21st-century twist: The single-text negotiation process would be used to try to end a decades-long conflict between a national government and a terrorist group—and would take place entirely online.


The Liberation Tamil Tigers of Elam—commonly known as the Tamil Tigers—formed in 1976 as an ethnic separatist group seeking self-rule from the majority Sinhalese in Sri Lanka’s northeastern region. Led by Velupillai Prabhakaran, the group would wage a four-decade-long guerrilla war against the Sri Lankan government—a war that ended only when Prabhakaran was killed by the Sri Lankan military in May 2009. Over the course of 40 years of warfare, the Tamil Tigers’ ranks would, like similar groups, be increasingly filled out with child soldiers. The Tamil Tigers would also pioneer some now painfully familiar terrorist tactics, such as the use of so-called “suicide belts.”

While the developed world may be enamored of the increased convenience and connectedness afforded by new technologies, their impact on the developing world is, in some cases, the stuff of techno-deterministic fantasy.

Sanjana Hattotuwa, today a journalist and global fellow with the nonprofit Technology, Entertainment and Design, grew up beneath the veil of violence the Tigers’ activities brought to Sri Lanka. Born just a year after the group was formed, Hattotuwa witnessed firsthand the anti-Tamil pogrom of “Black July”—the three-day stretch of violence that would cause thousands of injuries and deaths and is considered the start of full-fledged armed conflict between the Tigers and the Sri Lankan government. “That was my first day of school,” Hattotuwa recalls. “I remember people being burned alive.”

The memory of that violence is part of what led Hattotuwa, in 2004, to become one of the chief architects of an online platform designed to help frame and guide negotiations between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government, in an audacious—and final—attempt to find peace. By customizing commercial software and soliciting input from participants around the globe, Hattotuwa helped build what is thought to have been the first single-document negotiation process to be implemented “totally virtually.”


Perhaps nowhere more so than in the developing world is the promise of information technologies so great. While the developed world may be enamored of the increased convenience and connectedness afforded by new technologies, their impact on the developing world is, in some cases, the stuff of techno-deterministic fantasy.

In rural South Africa, the combination of cell phones and staffed health hotlines has made marked improvements in HIV outcomes, while on the Asian subcontinent text messages provide essential farm reports and early warning systems for natural disasters. In sub-Saharan Africa, mobile devices create income opportunities for female entrepreneurs who sell minutes and recharging services; they can also provide support for victims of domestic violence. As with any good prodigal tale, the student every once in a while even outdoes the master—as with the text-message money-transfer services pioneered in the Philippines that only made their U.S. debut through Western Union last year.

As in many developing nations, in Sri Lanka mobile internet access is the norm, not an add-on: An estimated 81 percent of the island nation’s 3 million people have access to a cell phone. Mobile phones have become the global leapfrog technology for good reason: Even where there are computers, geographic and financial obstacles mean that higher-bandwidth hard-line connections are rare. Internet access in most cases is possible only through less-robust satellite signals.

Such were the circumstances during the negotiations between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government, with the result that their negotiations process was not only single document, but text-only as well. “We experimented with multi-user videoconference,” Hattotuwa says. “We simply couldn’t use it.”

In principle, Hattotuwa would have favored a more robust interaction platform. In conversation, he cites Cisco’s Telepresence as an example of an interface he would have liked to see used in the process. “Cisco is surreal,” he says. “It’s the closest I’ve ever experienced to being in the same room as people.” But in Sri Lanka even today, he says, “We don’t have the bandwidth to get Cisco to work.”

Hattotuwa and I first met when he visited a class on emerging technologies at N.Y.U., where I am pursuing a master’s degree in educational communication and technology. At the time, I asked him if using technology had made negotiations more feasible by obscuring the participation of opposing factions. Though he acknowledged that the relative privacy technology afforded was important, he suggested that the online process had its limitations. When such potentially charged conversations are restricted only to text, he said, “information is lost.” Sitting about 15 feet across the room from me, he continued:

“Right now I am noticing what you are doing with your body as I talk: when you look me in the eye, when you write something down, how you shift in your chair. Of course, I am a trained negotiator. But there is something lost when you’re not in the same room as someone.”

In the modern workplace, many of us find ourselves opting for a text message instead of a telephone call, an email instead of a meeting, or an instant message instead of stopping by a coworker’s desk.

More recently (in a highly tech-facilitated conversation that involved Skype, two computers, an iPhone, and Wi-Fi—on my end, that is), Hattotuwa intimated that communication beyond an exchange of text might have improved the negotiation process, if not the outcome. Withered faith in the process meant that the talks, begun in 2001, were never resumed once the humanitarian crisis of the 2005 tsunami ended. After the alleged assassination of a prominent official by an L.T.T.E. sniper in August of that year, the government openly abandoned an international ceasefire agreement and resumed military attacks. Though Hattotuwa felt that by that point both the government and the L.T.T.E. were using the talks “as an excuse for other processes,” he adds: “Looking back, perhaps the richness of having videoconferencing would have contributed to greater confidence in the negotiations.”

“Part of the challenge of online communication is that the verbal cues and visual information is lost. Those aspects of communication are more important than the significance we might give them. We see more of what people don’t say when we can actually see them.”

Hearing what isn’t said is, in fact, a fundamental part of human communication. Though this is well acknowledged in the psychological community, the opening monologue to the movie Hitch may have put the concept most memorably: “Sixty percent of all human communication is non-verbal, body language,” Will Smith’s voice-over advises. “Thirty percent is your tone.”

“So that means 90 percent of what you’re saying,” he quips, “ain’t coming out of your mouth.”

In a high-speed, (theoretically) high-efficiency environment, such a reminder can be construed as either reassuring or unwelcome. In the modern workplace, many of us find ourselves opting for a text message instead of a telephone call, an email instead of a meeting, or an instant message instead of stopping by a coworker’s desk. We may have the sense that text-based communication is somehow more professional, reasonable, or even persuasive. And yet many of us know this belies the frustration of our inboxes filling with days-long strings of mis-communiqués and 15-response email chains that we know are less informative than a five-minute conversation would have been. The medium may not be the message, but it mediates what gets across.

Though much of the Camp David negotiations ostensibly took place on paper, President Carter himself said “there is a personal, emotional factor that goes into a final success story.” Three days before the accords were signed, Israeli Prime Minister Begin announced that he would be withdrawing from the negotiations. He had taken an oath that he would never dismantle an Israeli settlement, and the discussions had reached an impasse. Before departing, he sent eight photographs to Carter for his signature: commemorative photos of himself with Carter and the Egyptian President Sadat. Later that day, Carter personally delivered the photos to Begin, each inscribed with the name of one of Begin’s eight grandchildren, as well as the president’s signature. Begin, moved to tears by the personal gesture, agreed to return to the negotiating table.

In Sri Lanka, despite the ultimately violent end to the conflict, Hattotuwa feels that internet technologies present “immense hope” for creating and improving democratic processes around the world. Though the text-based process used in 2004 may not have been ideal, it offered an alternative where there might otherwise have been none. “There would have been no single-document process if not for the technology,” he says.

Though their ultimate defeat was bloody (“I think the degree to which the [Tamil Tigers] was decimated surprised a number of us”), Hattotuwa says of his native Colombo today: “There are no suicide bombers. There is normalcy. So there is a relief that people can go to work without fear of not returning home.”

“I’m relieved that the war is over, but…what we have now is a ‘negative peace.’ There is an absence of war, but in to no way, shape, or form, do we have accountability, democracy. ‘Positive peace’ is to me as elusive as it was during the war…there are stories that need to be seen and shared that are not being heard.”

Though internet technologies brought Sri Lanka closer to the possibility of peace, the formats they afforded were, in the end, not enough—and perhaps nothing would have been. But there is no denying that the level of exchange they provided was limited. For most of us, overcoming those limitations can be as easy as occasionally getting up from the keyboard and taking a few steps down the hall. Sri Lanka’s experience should perhaps be a reminder to us all: If we strive to truly communicate then we must critically evaluate what medium we choose, and avoid the temptation, as Hattotuwa notes, of “treating technology as a panacea” instead.