“Eastern world, it is exploding. Violence flaring, bullets loading…” Sounds far too contemporary, doesn’t it? But when P. F. Sloan wrote those lyrics (most famously sung by Barry McGuire), it was back in 1965 and it felt like the world was on the brink of catastrophe. Wars, rumours of wars, civil strife, all the issues we face in today’s world were there almost sixty years ago. Sometimes it can seem like things have never been as bad as they are today, but, sadly, history tells a different story.
By this time in the Twentieth Century, 1924, there had been quite a few wars; the “Great” one caused somewhere between 15 and 20 million deaths: precise numbers are impossible to know. There was the Spanish Influenza pandemic after that – another 50 million deaths and 20% of the world’s population infected. Even after our own experience of COVID worldwide, these are numbers that are mind-boggling. And fascism had taken power in Italy under Mussolini in 1922, encouraging its appearance in Germany. And remember what came after 1924? The Great Depression, World War II, the expansion of the Soviet empire. History hasn’t stopped since then either.
So, should we all calm down and accept that what we’re seeing is just one of those times in history when humanity is at its worst? Nothing special to see here, get back to work? There’s certainly a tendency to overreact, panic even, as our comfort level is disturbed and equanimity shattered. So, some perspective helps. But this time, there is something different happening, a different context, one we should be genuinely concerned about.
Because now we have the ability to destroy everything with one wrong move by any one of a number of unbalanced actors. Moreover, we can now create an alternative reality: AI can allow individuals, and more importantly, rogue actors on a national level, to fool us into thinking a lie is the truth. Imagine Iran, North Korea, or especially Russia or the States, making us believe that their chosen enemy had launched an attack on them, requiring a response in force before there could be any hope of detecting the fraud.
We could see someone claiming to be a national leader making such a statement. How would we know if it were true? Video of apparent massacres, unprovoked attacks, anything that would stir up an immediate and hasty response could be used to justify action. And the groundwork has been laid for this kind of world over the past decade or more.
We have seen in our neighbour’s case that lies can be accepted as truth, in spite of evidence to the contrary. That whatever doesn’t suit someone’s ideological, political, religious, or other beliefs can be explained away as the result of a conspiracy. The very idea of the Deep State makes people doubt the truth of anything they don’t like. Trust in traditional sources of authority has been completely undermined and, as a result, democracy itself has been put in jeopardy.
Pretty depressing, isn’t it? As so often in human history, technological advances have been misused with seriously negative effects. The Internet, and most particularly the rise of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter (now called “X”) have allowed unsubstantiated stories, radically anti-social ideas, and really outrageous conspiracy theories to gain traction, to become acceptable and part of normal discourse in a way that was impossible before.
Personally, I don’t understand why people keep using platforms like these, knowing how much they have been contaminated and misused, not only by those using them, but even by the corporations behind them. It’s nice to be able to keep in touch with friends and family online: but at what cost globally? How much power do Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg have on world events, even beyond what a national government can hope to exercise? Not that governments are innocent in this either. Putin’s Russia, Iran’s Ayatollahs, Israel’s Mossad, and other actors can control what their people know and see. The possible return of Trump to the White House is rightly seen as an existential threat to democracy and possibly world peace. Because if he returns, the big winner, and future world power broker, will be Vladimir Putin.
Depressed yet? Don’t be too down. There is nothing new under the Sun, it just comes in different forms throughout history. This, too, shall pass, as we used to say about COVID, and we were (almost) right. And after WW2 came the United Nations, the European Union, national health systems, civil rights movements, feminism, and other advances.
Maybe, beyond the dangers talked about here, the biggest one will be if we start looking for a great Leader to come and solve all the problems. We have created a mess, and we need to find a way to get through it. The lies will catch up with us some time.