The D decade
It’s not just a year that’s ending, but a decade.
I thought of many D’s to characterize the decade that started, from day one, as difficult, with a heavy hangover from the economic crisis precipitated by the Wall Street crisis of 2008 and which spread to Western Europe, with reverberations throughout the world.
Ironically, even as economic hardship hit once prosperous countries, the ranks of billionaires rose. The chasms dividing rich and poor spawned discontent, allowing populist regimes to come to power throughout the world, including presidents Donald Trump in the United States and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. The Oxford English Dictionary has the most apt definition of populism — as a “political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel their concerns are disregarded by the established elite groups.”
The populist regimes today are different from the authoritarian regimes of the 1970s (Ferdinand Marcos and martial law being one of them). Those of the last century were almost always very right-wing and aligned with the United States. In the last decade, we have seen populist regimes that are not always easy to define ideologically.
The regimes do share some common values, mainly intolerance and impunity, with populist regimes creating scapegoats to feed into social discontent and distrust. In the West, the scapegoats have been migrants, refugees, Muslims. In the Philippines, this has been mainly through the demonization of “drug addicts” and the red-tagging of anyone who dares to hold dissenting views. Populist leaders sometimes end up more murderous than the dictators of the 1970s by explicitly calling for armed responses.
Today’s populists continue to use the guns, but have expanded their arsenals by weaponizing modern (mis)information technologies, social media in particular, to create fake news, to slander enemies, and to stoke sensationalism, mistrust and anger.
Social media was only a part of a larger 21st-century package of the Internet of Things (IoT), which has brought mixed reactions from people. We have been entertained (some will say sedated) and enchanted, but we’re also growing increasingly fearful of these technologies, with the way they have invaded our privacy and sabotaged our attention spans and ability to think critically. Most ominously, looming in the background, has been the spread of Big Brother surveillance and control of our lives.
People must learn to harness the IoT for common good. We have seen how social media can be used to talk back and defy those in power. The decade started out with the Arab Spring—people mobilized by social media to take to the streets to join prodemocracy movements. Sadly, many of the movements faltered, showing the limits of social media mobilization.
Social media has also played a major role in mobilizing people for social change, the most dramatic of which have been on issues of gender and sexuality. Think of the #MeToo movement, which exposed the skeletons in the closet of sexual harassment by the powerful, some of whom have since been brought to their knees. Think of the growing visibility and support for LGBT+ causes, including the legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States in 2015, one of the last developed countries to do so.
The difficult decade comes to an end at a time when we are finally waking up, not too late I hope, to what was first called climate change but is now increasingly being referred to as climate emergency (Oxford’s word of the year for 2019), requiring responses described as climate justice.
We see the potential of mass media in the way it was harnessed for climate justice by a Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg. Born in 2003, she is iconic of Generation Z. In the next decade, we will see this Generation Z (wo)manning the front lines for personal lifestyle changes (as in Greta’s refusal to take planes), as well as protesting against and boldly hectoring our politicians about the climate emergency, and, I hope, many other social challenges.
As a scientist, I think of how in the 20th century so much attention was given to dramatic discoveries of individual scientists. In this last decade, the major scientific breakthroughs — from the first images of a black hole to promising research around cures for cancers, HIV, Alzheimer’s — were done by large consortia of research institutions spread across the world. Perhaps, as the sciences become more collaborative across nations, they might be able to better contribute to peace instead of war.
The 2010s was a decade of daring and doing (derring-do, as the American expression goes), more of which we will need in the coming decade which starts with 2020 — a powerful metaphor for the need to be of clear vision.
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