This week brought us, in South Africa, another State of the Nation address (SONA) and, like its predecessors, it will probably be best remembered for the fashion parade on parliament’s red carpet and the punch up on the floor of paliament. There was also the usual post speech analysis of what was seen generally as both a populist and denialist SONA, peppered with a few dubious claims about unity and progress.
We should not have expected anything more. After all, we live in a time of uncertainty, that is also a time of “alternative facts” where truth has become nothing more than a factor in verbal spin. This is also a time when the poison of nationalism seeps into every fibre of the social fabric, starting to rot what it cannot calcify. But this is a global phenomenon as demagogues and ambitious populists jockey for power with politicians desperate to cling onto challenged authority; when corporate media acts largely as a channel for a torrent of mis, dis, and often corrupted information, presented in the most titillating and entertaining fashion.
No wonder so many people are confused, frustrated and pathologically angry; why so many choose to seek refuge in sullen apathy that all too often hovers on the brink of destructive nihilism. And when blind rage erupts, it is little wonder that schools, clinics, libraries — anything vaguely representing authority — goes up in smoke.
All of this is evidence of a systemic problem, of an economic system gone haywire because of technological advances trapped within a social and political system of elite control that cannot cope. The only way to maintain the present system is to bring the planet to the brink of destruction while causing the most horrendous suffering for most of humanity.
This is a dystopian vision, and it is one that has been warned about for many years. But it was not dealt with in parliament this week. Nor at any political rally in the name of ‘the people”. Yet the reality, especially in South Africa, with our massive social and economic inequalities and frightening joblessness, is staring us in the face.
If we want to look for warnings of what might lie in store, we can go back to 1949 and the stark — and, at the time, ignored — picture painted by the father of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener. Or we can look to literature, to the 1932 classic by Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, and the incredibly perceptive short story, The Machine Stops, by E. M. Forster, published in 1909. And, of course, there are the the projections made in 1848 by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.
These are a few of the sources that deal with ideas related to technological developments and the possible consequences of their application; they are what every individual, let alone politicians claiming to address the state of their nations, should be addressing. But, as in Forster’s story, we are encouraged not to think, at least not too deeply or critically. And a media maelstrom increasingly dulls our senses and provides predigested thinking that we are expected only to consume.
In these circumstances, those with the mandate to be the eyes and ears of populations at large — journalists — have a particular responsibility to cut through this mass of obfuscation and political filth to expose underlying realities: verifiable facts that should present a picture as close to truth as possible. Only with such accurate information and clear analysis of possible consequences, can people make informed decisions about what should be done and about the way forward.
The early computer company giant, IBM, once proudly boasted a one-word slogan: THINK. And that is what we should all do — and be encouraged to do. But our thinking should be without preconditioning, fear or favour, based only on the premises that all human life has equal value and that the planet that is our home must be treated with respect and utmost care. Only then will it be possible to truly grasp what is the real state of any nation.
And we should not look to politicians to provide any answers. For the most part, they have a vested interest in a status quo that is increasingly enriching the few while most of humanity faces the prospect of redundancy. Together, people everywhere need to understand the systemic disaster we face and act to avert it. If we don’t the future for generations to come is almost too horrible to contemplate.