One November evening in 1989 I was loafing in my room at university when a friend began thumping on the door. “What is it?” I shouted irritably. “The Berlin Wall just fell,” he shouted back. For months afterwards I walked around in a daze of wonder, as crowds ransacked secret-police headquarters and Nelson Mandela walked out of jail. Two lines from Wordsworth about the French Revolution, which I’d read in some article about the 1989 revolutions, kept going through my mind:
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!
It was the most optimistic political moment I’ve lived through, my generation’s version of 1945 or 1968. Strangely, it actually turned out pretty well.
Now we’re at the peak of political pessimism. The political year is opening with almost nobody on either right or left expecting anything good. The great questions seem to be: how will an intervention in Syria go wrong? And will the US House of Representatives vote to repeal “Obamacare” for the 41st time? But hope springs eternal. The utopian urge persists; it has just migrated from politics to technology. Instead of developing a political policy to solve a problem, people now develop an app.
In politics, you can hardly count all the lights that have failed since the invasion of Iraq a decade ago. Faith in unregulated capitalism died with Lehman Brothers. Then Barack Obama, the Occupy movements and the Tea Party all rapidly disappointed their followers. In 2009 in Copenhagen, it became clear the world wouldn’t agree to combat climate change. Now the Arab spring is eating its own children, the Russian demonstrators have gone home, and hardly anyone believes in the European project any more. Austerity became the latest light to fail, even before its intellectual underpinning was revealed as an academic paper whose authors had accidentally left important bits of data off their spreadsheet.
The western liberating impulse – previously directed at Iraq, Iran and Cuba – has died too. Myanmar finally opened up, and ethnic conflict promptly began. Even people who believed in al-Qaeda are now presumably disillusioned.
It’s hard to find a self-proclaimed political messiah anywhere: Hugo Chávez is dead, and Fidel Castro himself says Cuba’s revolution has failed. Politicians have been reduced to celebrities who can gain our attention only with Anthony Weineresque private antics. Mandela on his deathbed still towers over today’s lot. Meanwhile a rash of TV series like House of Cards, Veep and The Thick of It portray politics as a greedy, narcissistic pursuit. No wonder political parties are shedding members at record speed. The last emotion that still animates lots of western voters is rage at immigrants – an archetypal expression of pessimism. Andrew Adonis, leading thinker of the UK’s Labour party, says: “We’re in one of those periods like the 1970s where politicians manifestly don’t have the answers.”
But meanwhile a group of people has stood up who do claim to have answers: technologists. In 2007, just as western economies began to crumble, Apple launched the iPhone. Since then, credibility has kept leaching from politicians to techies. The latter took time to decide how to use their new might. Nicole Boyer, director of the Adaptive Edge consultancy in San Francisco, explains: “Tech was late to the game for social problems. It took a generation of tech entrepreneurs to make money and then say, ‘OK, what are we going to do?’” Now they are busy remaking the world: Google’s Eric Schmidt negotiates with North Korea, Jeff Bezos tries to save newspapers, Mark Zuckerberg plots to get the world’s poor online and Bill Gates fights infectious disease. “They have something of the white knight about them,” muses Adonis. “There is a profound tech-optimism.”
Moreover, adds Boyer, “the Silicon Valley mindset has propagated itself all over the planet”. In the tech-utopian worldview, mobile phones are saving Africa, social media are empowering activists and Google’s driverless car will end the human misery that is commuting. Hopes for a solution to climate change now rest more on Silicon Valley than on Washington. Evgeny Morozov’s recent book title parodies the current mood: To Save Everything, Click Here. We have nothing to lose but our privacy.
In this budding tech-utopia, government scarcely features. Great technological achievements of the past – the atomic bomb, the moon landing and even the internet – began within the US government. Today, whether people like government or loathe it, they mostly ignore it.
Of course everyone is being too harsh on politicians. They’re probably better now for having had all hubris beaten out of them. The debate over Syria, for instance, has been much more considered than the debate over Iraq. One day western economies will recover. For now – as Adonis notes – real life isn’t so bad. Measured by global life expectancy, international peace and the numbers of people living on less than $1 a day, humanity has never had it so good. Perhaps politicians are doing something right.