Optimism, Technology and (Citizen) Diplomacy

At this time of December, I always write a paper on how we can help get Lebanon through the coming year. In this part of the world, at this time, that is success. 

It is not just Lebanon where pessimism is mounting. Globally, 42% of people think that their lives will be worse than those of their parents. People worry that the bewildering rate of technological advance means that we are no longer in control of the risks we are creating. Roger Cohen wrote this year of “the great unravelling”, a time of aggression, breakup, weakness and disorientation. Astronomer Martin Rees argues that our probability of extinction before 2100 is 50%. Technology will do to 21st century arms what it did to the musket, bayonet and pikestaff. This could be the North Pole’s last century. Tens of millions of the angriest, hungriest people will head North and West. Another economic crisis could trigger de-globalisation. 

Pessimists also worry about the impact of technology on our society. Thomas Piketty tells us that the digital economy risks increasing inequality. Evgeny Morozov sees a world in which we prioritise consumer experience over jobs, wages, dignity and rights, with victims yet unseen. Jaron Lanier, an internet pioneer who has become its most outspoken critic, argues that it is dividing us into “computing cloud overlords” and “digital serfs”. 

We are already seeing how digital systems can over-ride human instincts and alter the way that our hands and minds interact with inanimate objects – watching my three year old with an iPad is the 21st century equivalent of watching an early Paleolithic hominid reshaping stone tools. The next waves of technological change are going to alter basic human capacity, including how we move, communicate, store essential information and – most dramatically – think. I asked one Oxford scientist how many decades it would be before he could implant a foreign language in my brain – his answer was “who needs decades?” 

Maybe digitalisation is even damaging our souls. Nicholas Carr argues that our ability to think is decayed by how we interact with the internet. More humans will migrate towards digital relationships, as in the 2014 Spike Jonze film ‘Her’. Like the characters in EM Forster’s prescient ‘The Machine Stops’, written over a century ago, we will acquiesce in the idea that there are “no new ideas”. “Quietly and complacently, humanity was sinking into decadence, and progress had come to mean the progress of the Machine … until the body was white pap, the home of ideas as colourless, last sloshy stirrings of a spirit that had grasped the stars.” See Dave Eggers’ ‘The Circle’ for the modern version of this dystopia, where “all that happens must be known”, “secrets are lies”, and “privacy is theft”. Life by Klout score. A wikiworld in which everything is up for grabs. We will become so connected that we lose our ability to truly connect. 

Contemporary analysts are not be the first in history to warn that the end is nigh. Pessimism about the impact of technological innovation on culture, learning, traditions, institutions, businesses or morality has always accompanied breakthroughs in transport (rail, road, air), production (assembly lines), energy (steam, nuclear) or communications (telephone, radio, television). The Luddites smashed spinning wheels in 19th century Britain, and some aim to do the equivalent today. Sometimes the doom mongers have been right. When previous empires waned in the Middle Ages, the power vacuum created space for religious fundamentalists, pirates and Vikings, and communities fell back on protecting themselves in smaller and smaller units amid growing fear of ‘the other’. Sounds familiar? 

 I think however that there are four reasons for us to be more hopeful about the Digital Century. First, the stats are on our side. It turns out that an optimist is a pessimist armed with facts. We live twice as long and grow six inches taller than our great, great grandparents, and have access to a life that they could never have imagined. In 1900, 53% of humans died from infection. That figure is now just 3%. We are 200 times less likely to die violently than a century ago. We have just had the most peaceful year since records began. This is little consolation to a civilian in Syria, Gaza or Chad, but it is remarkable.  

Secondly, technology can in fact reinvigorate our creativity and politics. Many companies, states and ideas will be disrupted out of business. But democracy is going to evolve, adapt and improve as more people are drawn into the political process. The internet brings us greater diversity, choice and opportunities for engagement. Through what Moses Naim calls “minilateralism” – building small coalitions to get the job done – individuals have an unprecedented ability to influence decisions made on their behalf.  And that empowerment is a good thing. The more we are able to determine our own fate, the more peaceful we become. We have tended to distrust the mob, and online mobs can be as vicious and easily manipulated as their offline predecessors. But maybe we should learn to believe in the wisdom of crowds after all. Our desire to network and connect is not just a fad or blip, a short term response to a surge in connectivity. It is in our DNA. 

A third reason for optimism – resilience is in our DNA too. We have been here before. “Never let the future disturb you” counselled Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, “you will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.” The astronaut Chris Hadfield updated this at TED this year: “people seem to think space is different from everything else we’ve done. It’s not. We’ve always taken the best of our technology to probe a place and then decide whether that’s something we’d like to make a part of our shared experience.” We have genuine form, honed over millennia. At key moments, as in the West after 1200 BC, or at the end of the first century AD, we face a race between transformation and collapse. So far, we have always managed to respond: hunter gatherers turned to domestication; farmers created cities; states created empires. When millions lost their agricultural jobs, nobody knew that they would find industrial work. At these catalytic moments, though we might not realise we’re doing it at the time, we find a way through, what Buzz Lightyear calls ‘falling with style’. As NYT crossword writer David Kwong says, “human beings are wired to solve”. 

Fourth, we should be optimistic because the internet is going to help. As Alec Ross has argued, connectivity is going to be a great leveller. Only about a third of all the people on earth now have internet access. Deloitte studies show that expanding access to 4 billion people in developing countries will increase productivity by a quarter and GDP by almost three quarters, create 140 million jobs and lift 160 million out of poverty. 

If digital information is the 21st century’s most precious resource, the battle for it will be as contested as the battles for fire, axes, iron or steel. Between libertarians and control freaks. Between sharers and exploiters. Between those who want transparency, including many individuals, companies, and governments. And those who want privacy, or as its critics call it, secrecy. Between old and new sources of power. The next wave of technological disruption will be faster and greater than anything we have ever experienced. But we can and must be ready for it. 

What has this got to do with diplomacy? Everything. I’ve argued on this blog that when we strip back the ‘excellencies’ and the protocol, we find diplomacy is not a mysterious cult, creed or code. It doesn’t require years of training like medicine or law. It is a basic human reflex. At its essence it is about promoting coexistence, or – more starkly – stopping violence. We are trying to provide the lube as continents, states, armies and economies rub up against each other. We are trying to agree how best to distribute resources and power without fighting, as essential to the survival of the species as finding the resource in the first place.  

You don’t need to be working for a Foreign Ministry to do diplomacy. Indeed most of the people doing it have never crossed the threshold. They are working in communities, in NGOs, in the media, in politics, in business, in food banks and schools, elsewhere in government. Many do so through small acts of daily resistance against apathy, division, corruption and fatalism. And if we are to get through a period of significant peril, we need more of that citizen diplomacy to kick in. We need to find a more inclusive, empowering and effective way of marshalling the best instincts of humanity against the worst. Technology makes this a more imaginable reality – we won’t always need to put our nationality before our common humanity.  

Power is draining away fast from traditional elites, including diplomats. It is less like a traditional British banquet – ordered, structured, top down. And more like a Lebanese meal – anarchic, unpredictable, diverse.

The man or woman on the Clapham omnibus, Tokyo train or Dubai monorail now has three things that have never existed in the same way before. First, the means to disentangle the complexities of international problems, through access to information that was previously either out of reach or confined only to policymakers or elites. As Alain de Botton put it this year, “It is as if a dossier, with the latest news from Kiev, which might properly arrive on the desk of a minister has accidentally been delivered to the wrong address and ends up on the breakfast table of a librarian in Colchester or an electrician in Pitlochry.” 

Secondly, that electrician in Pitlochry has the access to networks that allow him to form an unmediated view on the information he receives. The public no longer need to wait for a Times editorial or government statement to form an opinion on the latest atrocity in Syria. Indeed, by the time the thunderous denunciation or timid bleat of concern arrives on their television screen or in their newspaper – for the declining proportion of people who use either – they have moved on to forming a view on the next crisis or debate.

Thirdly, an unprecedented ability to influence and shape how humanity responds. We haven’t yet worked out how to convert our incredible new access to information into genuine influence. Like all superpowers, the smartphone superpower depends on what we choose to do with it. We can download pictures of cute cats, and follow the twists and turns of Justin Bieber’s hairstyle. Or we can use it to shape the environment around us. Citizens can now control the public square, literally and digitally, in a way they never could before. We need to win wars in the digital space. We need to show that improving the world around us involves more than ‘liking’ something on Facebook or sharing a hashtag. Change also requires spine – organisers and institutions to turn that energy into something tangible.

Yet factors are getting in the way: our hardwired tendency to form gangs; and disinterest, banality and distraction. If the basic hypothesis on the positive effect of greater public participation in policy is true, we depend on those participating to understand their increased power, and to engage with the global issues that they can now shape. It is all too easy not to care, to see it all as too difficult, to swallow the easy conspiracy, or simply oppose. In reviewing David Marquand’s ‘Mammon’s Kingdom’ this year, Gaby Hinsliff concluded that “To put it in the words of Milton, how do you get people to choose “strenuous liberty” – the huge effort and risk involved in remaking society along radically different lines, and weaning ourselves off the rewards of economic growth – instead of “bondage with ease”, or the devil we know?” How, in other words, do we avoid mooching towards destruction? How do we ensure that more people use technology to become Roosevelt’s “man in the arena”, not just Roosevelt’s critic.

The reality is of course that we don’t have to know everything about everything. We don’t need to have an emotional reaction to everything. But, with the world getting smaller, we do need to care.Why? Firstly, because the people in the news are also human. Idealism is out of fashion as countries turn inwards. In an austere age, don’t we need to build our own schools and hospitals and let the rest of the world look after itself? Should we not just put up bigger walls and better checkpoints? Yet history tends to suggest that walls and checkpoints don’t last long. There is a pragmatic not just moral case for finding creative and ingenious solutions to the 21st century’s mounting challenges if we are to survive as a species. The threats no longer take the form that they did in the 19th and 20th centuries. Neither can our responses.

We also need to care because history hasn’t finished.  In 2014, Nader Mousavizadeh updated Norman Angell’s ‘Great Disillusion’ to argue that “the tools of 21st globalization are now acting as the very enablers of an archipelago world of fracturing power and identity”.  A topless Putin on horseback is one muscular symbol of this. The decline of influence and credibility of global institutions is another. So are selfies of beheadings by the UnIslamic Non State. We have not had the last world war, nor reached a plateau where everyone agrees that liberal democratic values are as good as it gets. We don’t, 25 years after Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’, know how history ends. That should fill us with fear. It should also fill us with hope. As Harvard’s Dan Gilbert put it at TED 2014, “Human beings are works in progress who mistakenly think they’re finished.”

So we will need to summon up fresh will to defend the progress and freedoms we take for granted. We cannot simply wait for someone else to come up with the answers. What we do as humans, and how we do it, is changing at a faster pace than any time in history. The gadgets and apps of 2014 will become as comic as the mobile phones heaved around by characters in 1990s sitcoms. It is in our restless nature not to be satisfied with what we create – we go from novelty must-have to car boot sale (or now eBay) at speed. Ideas that startle us today will not be startling for long. Changes we wonder at today won’t be wonderful for long. Predictions we think are crazy today will not seem crazy for long. 

Optimism requires hard headed realism. It must be based on our past success in managing these dramatic periods of change, and our ability to master new tools and ways of interaction. It requires ceaseless creativity and innovation: the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones. Most importantly, it must be based on a fundamental belief that, like Chaplin’s Great Dictator, “more than machines, we need humanity”. It requires the courage to bend the curve of history, to write our own epitaphs. But also – in the pursuit of justice and coexistence, or what some of us call diplomacy – to be on the right side of that history. This will test our heads and hearts. 

My rediscovery of the year has been Jacob Bronowski’s extraordinary account of human development, ‘The Ascent of Man’. His work on the nuclear bomb in the 1940s drove him from the most complex corners of the destructive power of science towards a profound understanding of this simple but vital challenge. He concludes it standing knee deep in mud at Auschwitz, with the slime of the holocaust running through his fingers. We need, he exhorts us, “to reach out and touch people”. 

There is an amazing gadget for citizen diplomacy. It allows us to process information, listen, communicate, influence, create, build, progress. It has been honed over centuries, and is constantly improving. It is not the smartphone. It is that ability to reach out and touch people. It is about the message not the medium. So perhaps the greatest danger to the most influential generation in history is not actually the nuclear bomb, environmental catastrophe, the robot age or the crazed terrorist, frightening as they all are. The greatest danger is in fact the loss of the curiosity to learn from each other, the loss of the desire to live together. 

Technology and diplomacy must together enhance rather than remove that vital and creative part of who we are, so important to humans throughout history. Not because of fluffy platitudes about warm bilateral relations and Ferrero Rocher cocktail parties, but because our ability to find ways to coexist is what, since the first naked diplomat, makes us survive. Of course, technology will change us, and we will change technology, as we always have. It won’t always be empowering and enlightening. But it can often be if we hold our nerve. We can change the way we communicate without changing what it means to be human. 

This is going to be another exhilarating year. But amid the drama, churn, parochialism and distraction, we will need to focus more energy on ten urgent and fundamental global questions: how do we nurture creativity?; when should we go to war?; how do we protect the most vulnerable?; how do we fix the international system?; how do we spread economic opportunity while conserving the planet?; where is our next energy source?; how do we make as many people less poor as possible?; how do we reduce global imbalances?; how do we establish rules on the new weapons?; and how do we keep the internet free, fair and available? 

We better not screw it up. Let’s not fail because of a lack of ingenuity, creativity or curiosity. Let’s not fail because of a lack of courage. If diplomacy did not exist, we would need to invent it. But diplomacy is now much too important to leave to diplomats.