First the good news: despite all the doomsayers who continue to predict that the world will come to an end, here we are in the New Year welcoming it with gusto and celebration. Sure we were in the brink of catastrophes, both natural (typhoons, floods, etc.) and man-made (chemical war in Syria, continuing drama in the Korean peninsula, and incompetent governments everywhere blundering along) but overall we have made it past all ‘the-end-is-near’ prophesies.
Are we resilient or just plain lucky? Or, are we discounting the inventiveness of mankind that enables us to wriggle out of difficult spots whenever pushed to the wall? Take the oil crisis as an instance. Indeed most parts of the world were left gasping when oil prices went through the roof a few years ago but thanks to a variety of reasons (including the sudden rise of a new star on the horizon, shale), prices have been fairly stable, despite the cauldron of tension in the Middle East.
While the energy crisis has never really ended, the fact remains that this has become an opportunity that has spurred the search for alternatives, be it hybrids, electric cars, or other sources of renewable energy. Yes, we have only scratched the surface of the problem and the alternatives under consideration are too few to make a significant impact currently, but let us not dismiss them as being absent. Instead, let us look at all of them as indicators of potential changes for the coming years whose promise will unfold over the next few decades.
The one big news event of the year, to my mind, is the ‘Snowden files’, as I call it. Was it a surprise to know that a government spies on its citizens? Of course not! Even the most naïve citizen knows that governments all over the world keep a watch over its flock – and have done so over centuries. In fact, it is a central piece of statecraft and there is nothing Machiavellian in practicing this, as all responsible governments are required to protect the state from its enemies, both internal and external.
However, what Edward Snowden revealed was a disclosure that was straight out of a Hollywood spy thriller. It is staple diet in thriller movies that the ordinary Joe has to face the wrath of an autocratic state when he chooses to speak up against it. Snowden’s life post-May 2013 mirrors Julian Assange’s but his whistleblowing act puts into shade the world of wikileaks.
What Snowden has shown is that given the might & resources of the state, and the power of technology, even a democratic state can reflect shades of a totalitarian one like North Korea. While Snowden’s published revelations are still considered to the be tip of the iceberg, it is indicative enough to suggest that what the East German Stasi achieved over a smaller number of its citizens pales into insignificance with the what the US government has done with a larger population, both within the country and outside over its allies and foes. Suffice it to remind the ordinary citizen that when state paranoia grows, then there is no one who escapes its scrutiny as in the digital world of today our electronic spoor is everywhere.
Aggregating data through surveillance methods is an on-going exercise that keeps a number of government agencies busy. What this also means is that vast resources – chiefly people and financial – are being deployed for this purpose. What is surprising is that despite this huge investment, the world continues to be taken by surprise whenever a major terrorist strike takes place. Makes you wonder whether the investment has been fruitful till date.
On another note let us look at what this means to all of us ordinary global citizens. The concept of privacy is dead: it is not snooping by government agencies that killed it but the fact is that the electronic lifestyle that we have all chosen for ourselves has caused it. The gadgets that we live by today – cell phones, tablets, laptops, etc. – have created an internet based lifestyle for us, requiring us to be constantly connected to one another. Take a look at how modern times have evolved: from a world where we connected with relatively few persons (‘the village’) to an addictive urge that compels us to superficially ‘keep in touch’ with a diaspora (‘aka the global village’). Coupled with this is the culture of going public with every emotion in a world of round-the-clock transmission, and you have a situation where tracking a person is easier than ever before.
If the future looks like a bad plot amalgamated with elements from George Orwell and Spielberg’s Minority Report, one is not entirely wrong. Yes, given the rise of technology, our lives are getting shaped by it. Yet the unique aspect of being human is that we will always find a way to thwart the tyranny of the State. This has been proved over and over again in history. Be it a monarchy, a totalitarian state or an incompetent democratic government gone rogue, there will always be voices of dissent that begin at the margins, leak information, spread the truth and over a period of time gather momentum and support to stand up to the stonewalling of the rulers. Be it the Arab Spring that has changed parts of feudal Africa and West Asia, or the recent state elections in democratic Delhi (that produced an unlikely surprise to the old guard of established political players and propelled a new political force that is re-writing all the old rules of governance), the voice of the ordinary man does get heard in due course.
The dissenter has been persecuted in history, and current times are no exception. In the medieval centuries (and even as recent as in the gulags of the early decades of the twentieth century) a lone voice was left in the wilderness to fade. But today such voices attract attention quickly. The connected world of the internet reverberates very rapidly with the alternate voice of the dissenter and soon finds echo across the world. Soon enough with the aggregation of the multitude a crescendo of protests arises virally making it impossible for any government to ignore. Be it the Chinese government (who have allowed dissenters to leave their shores) or the Russians (witness Putin’s recent pardon of the former oil tycoon and his opponent, Mikhail Khodorkovsky), or the army junta of Myanmar, (who were compelled to finally heed to Aung San Suu Kyi), the dissenter cannot be throttled any longer.
Viewed narrowly they have betrayed their nation but from a larger perspective Snowden and his ilk have shown great personal courage in speaking out. While they suffer for a cause, it is clear that they have contributed by alerting society at large of the consequence of unbridled state interference in every aspect of a citizen’s life. We have all been once again reminded that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.
By: K. Jayshankar