“Smartphones are dumbing down people,” a colleague observed
It would be hard to argue with him. The psychological addiction to the devices means conversation is dying, that discussion and debate are disappearing, that speculative thinking is no longer happening.
It wasn’t meant to have turned out this way.
Technology was supposed to change the world in which we live.
A decade ago, I bought a book that said there would be a democratic revolution in our world that would be brought about by digital technology. It argued that aspirations for freedom, transparency and democracy would be fulfilled through access to the Internet, to email, to mobile phones.
It all seemed straightforward, stories could no longer be suppressed, news would be carried instantly around the world; even the humblest mobile phone with a camera could be used as a tool to reveal the truth to the world – and the world would respond.
The weakness in the argument was the assumption that the world would respond, that people would care about revelations from faraway and foreign places.
If technology was to have a revolutionary impact, shouldn’t the major news agencies’ online reporting of human rights abuses persuade the numerous dictators that their behaviour was being reported and that they should heed international calls to respect human rights?
But why would words and images on a website have any impact on a politician who need care nothing about what is said online? Few of the people in their countries are ever likely to see the international news and those of us watching from far away are powerless to do anything.
What were the other things that were going to change the world? Email? Mobile phones? Social media?
In the brave new digital world, continued dictatorship of nations like China was not meant to be the way of things. Universal access to the full facts of every situation was meant to create a world where the truth would bring a swift response from the international community. However, the prospect of stories and images being shared around the globe has done nothing to inhibit leaders like Vladimir Putin, though perhaps the explanation in his case was that he was big enough to simply ignore opinion. But neither has the digital world inhibited the presidents of the poorest countries on Earth, for they know that those who watch online can do nothing.
Old fashioned power politics are the only ones that really make a difference. Economic and military power is the only sort that troubles dictators, whether they be actual or aspirant. Cut off the supply of money or put soldiers’ feet on the ground, and there might be a response.
As for the digitized revolution, it was a nice idea.