Objectivity is overrated. We need media that take sides and call leaders to account. And we all need to spend less time online
If I ruled the world, my first goal would be to make it easier to cut through to the facts. At the moment, we are all drowning in spin, smokescreens and lies. Those who perpetrated the two biggest policy disasters of the past ten years—the Iraq war and the financial crisis—could not have pulled their work off without a lack of transparency. So greater transparency would be at the top of my agenda.
Take WikiLeaks. Too much of the coverage has been “meta”—focusing on questions about whether the leaks were justified—while too little has dealt with what has actually been revealed. While the leaks didn’t contain a bombshell revelation, they delivered a consistent drip, drip of details that belie the Obama administration’s public statements.
For example, in December, during the same week Obama made a surprise visit to the troops in Afghanistan and spoke of how we are “succeeding,” “making important progress” and are bound to “prevail,” the WikiLeaks cables revealed a very different private assessment: of wholesale political corruption in Afghanistan, and, in the words of US ambassador Karl Eikenberry, of President Hamid Karzai’s “inability to grasp the most rudimentary principles of state-building.”
The irony here is that, during his run for the White House, Obama brilliantly harnessed the power of the internet to rally support, and waxed lyrical about using technology to foster greater transparency. “We have to use technology to open up our democracy. It’s no coincidence that one of the most secretive administrations in our history [George W Bush’s] has favoured special interest and pursued policy that could not stand up to the sunlight,” he said back in 2007. “Information maintained by the federal government is a national asset,” he added soon after he became president.
Cut to a few years later, when many of his own policies do not “stand up to the sunlight” and his administration is not so keen on the people having a chance to access this “national asset.” Making government accountable is now described by outgoing White House spokesman Robert Gibbs as “reckless and dangerous action.” What WikiLeaks reveals is how smart, good-faith diplomats and foreign service personnel have been trying to make the truth on the ground match up to the one the administration has proclaimed to the public. It’s like a foreign policy Ponzi scheme.
What can be done? The internet has already shown great promise in cutting through spin. YouTube, Twitter, email, and turbocharged search engines have made it easier to expose our leaders’ distortions. But if I were in charge, I’d go much further to protect the rights of disclosure and free speech on the internet, and challenge the press—particularly in America—to break its addiction to faux objectivity. Let’s face it: not every issue has two sides. Global warming is real. So is evolution. Sometimes the truth is on one side or the other—not to be found by splitting the difference.
My second decree as world ruler may seem to contradict what I’ve just said, but bear with me. I would order the creation of a high-tech tool that forces us to disengage from our 24/7 connectivity.
Why? “Knowledge has three degrees,” wrote the third-century philosopher Plotinus, “opinion, science, illumination. The means or instrument of the first is sense; of the second, dialectic; of the third, intuition.” Our always-on culture has contributed much to the first two kinds of knowledge—science and opinion—but has in many ways taken us further away from our inner resources of wisdom.
We need to pull the plug on our hyper-connectivity; to disconnect from all our devices in order to reconnect with ourselves. Which is why, as ruler, I would oversee the creation of a killer app that gauges the state of your mind, body, and spirit and suggests the steps you need to take to realign yourself. Think of it as an internal GPS, showing you the best, most direct route to your own wisdom and creativity.
We live in a time of high-tech miracles—and I see more explosive wonders just ahead. But, as world ruler, I’d strive to direct all that combustible creativity towards servicing our need for more truth, more transparency, and more wisdom. And getting eight hours sleep per night would be given my World Ruler Seal of Approval.