You probably already know that autocracies are on the rise. Whether you’re looking at Putin’s rise to power in Russia, Erdogan’s control in Turkey, or the return of the Marcos family to the political world of the Philippines, leaders who subvert the democratic process–and their cabals–have seized power in more and more countries across the globe. They rise on the crest of waves of popular discontent because they find simple, often brutal “solutions” to problems. Once they get elected, they kill or arrest dissidents, shut down the free press, and spread conspiracy theories that help them consolidate power.
I don’t pretend to know any more about politics than politicians pretend to know about teaching English. Yet it seems to me that the rise of autocracy corresponds proportionally to reliance on social media for news. It seems odd to frame American politics from 2000-2008 as a kinder, gentler arena for thoughts. Yet that era was the last before social media and smart phones ruined our minds–and the last where local newspapers served as primary news sources. Since 2004, more than 2000 newspapers have gone belly up.
We take our phones everywhere. People text in church. I’ve heard video games being played in bathroom stalls on more than one occasion. Many prom dresses and accessories have been purchased during class. Most insidiously of all, I see parents handing their toddlers phones in buggies at the checkout line at stores. Constant contact with these devices means that we never stop working, we never stop playing, never stop accessing new information. Another result: we are always tired.
We haven’t adapted to the potential advantages of smart phones and social media by allowing ourselves time away from them. We think more quickly–and with less regard for the consequences of our actions.
What does this have to do with autocracy? Everything. Without time to process information intellectually, we fall back on the vicissitudes of emotion, which makes us easy pickins’ for those who manipulate our fears.
Want to make the world a better place? Put down your devices. Read a magazine or a newspaper. Give yourself time to think.