The sadly deceased British comic Kenny Everett once told the story of how a New York radio station called the British Ambassador in Washington and asked him what he wanted for Christmas.
Anxious to appear modest and unassuming, the diplomat suggested a couple of innocuous gifts his family might get him. He was mortified to hear, on listening to the relevant program, the presenter gleefully declare that the Soviet ambassador had said he wanted global peace for Christmas, the French ambassador an end to the threat of nuclear war, and the British ambassador a pipe and some slippers.
Of course, that story might be apocryphal, but as the Italians say, if it’s not true, it ought to be.
At the other end of the wishful thinking scale is the lesson that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. We’ve seen this, as the early, funny Woody Allen might say, from your Greeks and your Romans. Classical history – when everyone wore bright white togas and spoke like British stage actors – shows us that even those with high ideals become corrupted by power.
One minute you’re promising liberal reforms and winning the hearts of your subjects, the next you’re going on like Caligula, elevating your horse to the senate and, in a sort of classical version of the War on Terror, declaring war on the god Neptune.
This is why it wouldn’t be a good idea if I ruled the world. I’d start off with modest demands like a new pair of slippers and end up carrying on like John Hurt in I, Claudius. That’s if anyone recalls I, Claudius. If you haven’t, go watch it. It has Patrick Stewart with hair.
Still, in the catastrophic event I was handed absolute power, I’d do a couple of things before succumbing to my basest desires and making everyone watch old BBC serials.
Like anyone, I have a long list of global problems that personally drive me nuts, that I’d fix if I had the power. The ongoing oppression of women right around the world is top of my list, but then there’s poverty, corruption, inaction on climate change, authoritarianism, people who use leaf blowers… on and on goes the list.
I’d do nothing about those. Instead, I’d invest a shedload in upper secondary and tertiary education, with a focus on instilling the capacity for critical thinking across educational systems, so that each student who graduates from high school or from tertiary study, apart from anything else, has the basic skills of bullshit detection: logical rigour, evidence assessment, awareness of basic techniques of manipulation.
That’s notionally what our own education system is supposed to produce now. But it wasn’t doing it when I stumbled my way through the halls of academe and I see little evidence that the situation has improved since.
There’s not much point trying to inculcate such skills in most adults. Our brains are calcified, and react poorly to anything that doesn’t trace the same well-worn synaptic paths we’ve used for decades. But the yoof – ah, the yoof. They’re our hope.
And I’d invest in a range of technologies to guarantee plug-and-play online anonymity and build in resilience to the internet to place it beyond the capacity of governments and corporations to shut down, monitor or throttle. If need be, I’d construct an alternative internet beyond the control of gatekeepers. Maybe wifi on drones. Drones are kinda the in thing at the moment.
Release the drones, I say.
A resilient, uncontrolled online space would be used by all sorts of loathsome creatures: terrorists, organized criminals, pedophiles. But the harm from their activities, which would carry on via other means anyway, would be vastly outweighed by the emerging possibilities of interconnection afforded by online networks, the vast historical force that is reshaping our societies, our economies and our minds right now. This is the coolest time in history to be alive because we are changing right before – in fact right behind – our very eyes, courtesy of the internet.
Then I’d leave people – skeptical, demanding, rigorous, connected – to it. Let them sort out the world’s problems for themselves, rather than me doing the usual “if I ruled the world” thing and imposing my own solutions.
The first action of an increasingly empowered, interconnected and skeptical electorate would presumably be to throw off the yolk of Keaneian tyranny, which would be a marvelous thing, although not necessarily for me. But never mind, there’s always exile in Saudi Arabia, the dictators’ home-away-from-home.
I figure building our civic capacity to analyse, inform and communicate without restriction is going to do much more good than arbitrarily intervening to attempt to correct various serious and complex worldwide problems. They’re for everyone to sort out.
Bernard Keane is an author and Crikey’s Canberra correspondent writing on politics, media and economics.