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Thursday, 23 December 2010

23 December 2010

If I were Time magazine, I wouldn’t have named Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook as 2010’s Man of the Year. I’d have named Mother Nature.

Well, not Man of the Year, obviously. Maybe Force of the Year. And there are at least five reasons why.

The Haiti earthquake (January). The Icelandic volcano (April). The Pakistan floods (July). The Chile mine disaster (August). The snow in northern Europe (December).

Even as I write these words, there are reports of violent storms lashing California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah. Los Angeles has received half its annual rainfall in the past six days. So maybe make that six reasons.

Sorry, but if we’re looking for who – or what – has had the biggest impact on our world over the past year, I think Mother Nature beats Facebook by a mile.

And, since this is nearly the end of the year, and traditionally the time when we look back and try to make some sense of the past 12 months, well, my suggestion for Word of the Year is humility.

Humility in the sense that we have been reminded time and again that, much as we might like to think otherwise, we are not Lords of the Universe. We can blog, and tweet, and Facebook to our hearts’ content, but we cannot stop the earth quaking, nor the volcanoes erupting.

I am, by nature, an optimist. I think that, by and large, the world is a better place than it was. Fewer women die in childbirth, fewer children die before the age of five, more people live in relative comfort.

But I also like to think that I’m a realist. I understand that there is still much about this planet we live on that we do not understand. I concede that we have only limited powers to change the course of events. And I acknowledge that every day brings with it the potential to change everything.

I think of the people of Haiti, and of Pakistan, and the miners’ families in Chile. And I marvel at how obsessed we sometimes become by the tittle-tattle of the Westminster village, or the diplo-babble of the latest international summit.

So my cracked and highly unreliable crystal ball stays in the back of the cupboard this year. The predictions I made a year ago were largely rubbish; I was wrong on nearly everything. Humility starts at home.

Instead of predictions, here are some reasons to be hopeful about the future. The American economist Charles Kenny calls the first decade of the 21st century “humanity's finest, a time when more people lived better, longer, more peaceful, and more prosperous lives than ever before. “

Consider these facts, he says: in 1990, roughly half the global population lived on less than a dollar a day; by 2007, the proportion had shrunk to 28 percent -- and it will be lower still by the close of 2010.

Some 1.3 billion people now live on more than $10 a day, suggesting the continued expansion of the global middle class. Even better news is that growth has been faster in poor places like sub-Saharan Africa than across the world as a whole.

We're also winning the global battle against infectious diseases. Between 1999 and 2005, thanks to the spread of vaccinations, the number of children who died annually from measles dropped 60 percent. The proportion of the world's infants vaccinated against diphtheria, whooping cough and tetanus has climbed from less than half to 82 percent between 1985 and 2008.

I have no doubt that during 2011 we’ll be bringing you plenty more stories of death, mayhem and destruction. But I just wanted to remind you that there’s more to life than headlines. (Incidentally, on New Year’s Eve, we’ll be broadcasting a special programme about the revolution in African farming, and asking whether Africa is now on the brink of not only being able to feed its own people, but maybe the rest of us as well.)

As I say at this time every year: enjoy the company of your family and friends; admire the trees and the flowers in parks and gardens; count your blessings.

I’ll be taking a few days off now, so no blogging until 7 January.

Have a happy and peaceful Christmas, and a healthy and fulfilling New Year.

Friday, 10 December 2010

10 December 2010

A thought occurred to me as I was watching the pictures yesterday of the student demonstrations in central London. Might this kind of mass street protest soon be regarded as, well, so last century?

After all, look at the internet activists who call themselves simply Anonymous, and who have been creating all kinds of online mayhem this week for some of the world’s biggest internet payment operations (Visa, Mastercard, PayPal). Aren’t they somehow more in tune with this new webby age we live in?

What we saw on the streets of London yesterday was pretty much exactly the same as what students were doing when I was at university in the protest-heaven days of the late 1960s.

What the internet activists are up to, on the other hand – organising mass computer attacks on carefully chosen targets – well, that’s something genuinely new.

There are, of course, endless ways of protesting against things you object to. Until the dawning of the internet age, the best way to show how many people opposed a particular policy or a particular course of action was to bring them out on to the streets.

Now, you simply connect up all their computers and jam your target’s web operations. Not so effective as a way of getting coverage on the TV news, perhaps, but every bit as effective as a way of making your objections known to your target.

I’m not in the business of telling protesters how to go about their business, but it is possible to imagine, isn’t it, a student movement of the future organising a mass web attack on, say, a university website, or a government website.

It is also possible to imagine that the action taken against WikiLeaks this week is likely to become the revenge attack of choice for targetted authorities. Deny your attackers server space; pressure their bankers, their payments operators; disable their social network sites so that they can no longer be used to pass messages between their supporters.

I wonder if perhaps the whole WikiLeaks episode does mark the beginning of a new era of online activism. Some people are already calling it the first cyber-war. Maybe that’s overdoing it, but I think some new battle lines are being drawn.

WikiLeaks fired the first shots by publishing their leaked material online. There was nothing all that revolutionary about what they did – it was simply an internet-age version of what the New York Times did back in 1971 when it published the Pentagon Papers (a secret US government history of US involvement in Vietnam which showed that successive administrations had been less than candid about what they were up to in south-east Asia).

Or you may remember Spycatcher, the colourful insider account of alleged MI5 skullduggery by Peter Wright, published in the mid-1980s despite the strenuous objections of the then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.

Leaking government secrets is a time-honoured form of journalism. (In fact, one definition of news is: “Something that someone, somewhere, doesn’t want you to print. Everything else is advertising.”)

What’s new about WikiLeaks is, first, the sheer volume of the material they’ve got their hands on; and, two, the way governments have responded and supporters have retaliated.

It’s openly acknowledged that Washington has been encouraging companies that do business with WikiLeaks to suspend all cooperation. Server space has been withdrawn; payments companies have frozen accounts. And the pro-WikiLeak internet activists have gone into battle in response.

You could, if you wished, think of the US government – any government, in fact – as an elephant, under attack by a fearsome swarm of thousands of stinging insects. The elephant is, of course, much bigger and stronger than the insects, but if there are enough of the insects, and if their sting is painful enough, then the elephant will be in real trouble. The internet activists are the insects.

So perhaps what we’re witnessing is the beginning of a new battle for control of the dissemination of information. Internet enthusiasts like to claim that the web is beyond any authority’s control, that it is a genuinely open space, available to every stinging insect on earth.

But someone, somewhere, provides the infrastructure that enables the internet to function. And it’s that infrastructure which seems still to be vulnerable to government pressure.

So, notwithstanding the hacktivists, as the internet warriors like to call themselves, perhaps there is still a future for mass street protests. After all, as we saw yesterday, the police can’t control all the streets all the time.

By the way, you may remember that a couple of weeks ago, when I was in China, I asked on this blog if China is now “throwing its weight around, becoming more assertive, even more aggressive as its economic power increases?”

Well, here’s an answer (an answer, not the answer) from the US assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Johnnie Carson, as quoted in a WikiLeaks cable dated February of this year from the US consul-general in Lagos: “China is a very aggressive and pernicious economic competitor with no morals.”

Friday, 3 December 2010

3 December 2010

I’ve been doing some heavy duty eavesdropping this week, eavesdropping on what were meant to be private conversations between American diplomats.

In other words, I’ve been reading the Wikileaks files, hundreds and hundreds of supposedly secret missives, sent to Washington from US embassies around the world in order to inform the policy-makers back home.

And, perhaps oddly, I’ve been thinking of Robert Burns. You may be familiar with the lines: “O, wad some Power the giftie gie us/To see oursels as others see us!”

(They come from a poem called “To A Louse”, which may be appropriate given how some US officials have been talking of the Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange.)

But why Burns? Well, if you’re Kim Jong Il of North Korea, or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, or President Sarkozy of France, or Silvio Berlusconi, or Vladimir Putin – yes, even if you’re David Cameron or Gordon Brown – you can now, thanks to Wikileaks, see yourself as others see you. Or at least, as US diplomats see you.

It won’t come as a great surprise to Kim Jong Il that the Chinese are not all that enamoured of him. Nor will President Ahmadinejad be deeply shocked to discover that he’s not flavour of the month in Riyadh.

But to see it written down, to read in black and white what’s being said about you behind your back – well, that must be a bit of a blow.

Still, I think we need to retain a sense of scepticism. Just because something is said in a document marked “Secret” doesn’t always mean it’s the Gospel truth. (And remember, these particular documents were so secret that they were available to something like three million US government employees.)

Take, for example, one of the more interesting disclosures – that China is apparently prepared to countenance the idea of a reunified Korea under South Korean rule.

Says who, you may ask. And it turns out that the source for this little nugget is a senior South Korean official, talking to a US ambassador, about what he believes Chinese officials “would be comfortable with.” I know plenty of journalists who would think long and hard about going into print with that kind of flimsy sourcing.

So what about the description of the Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu as “exceptionally dangerous”? The quote comes, in fact, from an unnamed “high-ranking [Turkish] government adviser” – and we all know about the perils of relying on unnamed advisers as sources.

I’m not suggesting that this vast document dump is uninteresting. Far from it. It shines an unprecedented bright light into corners where normally very little light shines at all. The sensation you get reading the documents is rather like what a child feels, ear pressed to the key-hole, listening to the adults talking on the other side of the door. It’s not so much what they’re saying that’s exciting, it’s that they have no idea we’re listening.

Much of what I’ve read so far confirms what was already pretty well known. The Gulf states are deeply distrustful of Iran; corruption and organised crime are a major problem in Russia; Gordon Brown wasn’t much good at being prime minister.

Embarrassing for some of the diplomats who wrote these missives? Of course. Unwelcome to the sources quoted in them? Undoubtedly.

But deeply damaging to US interests? Here’s the verdict from the US defence secretary Robert Gates, who as a former director of central intelligence presumably knows plenty of real secrets:

“Every other government in the world knows that the US government leaks like a sieve … Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for US foreign policy? I think fairly modest.”