Wednesday July 06, 2022

The age of acceleration

April 13, 2016

Writer Robert Colville calls it ‘the great acceleration’ – how modern technology is forcing all aspects of our life to ‘accelerate’ and people are beginning to struggle to cope with its impact on human beings.

Columnist Mosharraf Zaidi recently commented about how Pakistan’s already superficial political discourse has shifted on to Twitter and other social media. His other comment was about the lack of any books about recent events in Pakistan. Where were the books about the heady days of Imran Khan’s dharna or about the military operation against Lal Masjid?

This comment made me reflect on how things have changed in our political debates over the last decade.

There are two obvious reasons for all this, one is part of Colvilles ‘great acceleration’. This marks how life has been impacted by the relentless pace of new technology. The contrast with the not-so-long-ago is simple. The average working person would wake up and maybe sneak a glance at the newspaper or the news on television before heading to work. Work more often than not would be a self contained world where the outside world had little impact and once work was completed for the day he would return home.

By contrast, in the era of the smart phone, work and social interaction is a 24/7 relentless event. There is a constant stream of more often than not unfiltered information that we come across. This information prizes speed of interaction and opinion over interpretation and development of knowledge. It also makes debate narrower, so when one news story happens which attracts attention – like the recent Panama Papers scandal – there is a race by all others to focus on that event and ‘break’ the next bit of information.

What is lost in this accelerating cycle is a look at broader news stories. So while every social media site, channel and TV show is focussing on the Panama Papers, it ignores the tragedy of the floods in northern Pakistan in which over one hundred people have died. It ignores the long-term risk of flooding and climate change.

This has expressed itself in a way that many find frustrating – limited attention spans and a sense of cyclical outrage and grief over events. The second reason is to do with the Pakistani political process. By the time of his execution, Z A Bhutto had authored nearly seven books. The founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami was also incredibly prolific.

In contrast, in our modern generation of leaders, there is no equivalent. While Imran Khan may have written several books, most were non-political. And everyone else, from Asif Ali Zardari to Asfandyar Wali and Nawaz Sharif, has no such books/works to their name. Those dismissive of the intellectual tradition would argue that this makes little difference. But that is a poor argument when we consider the benefits of debate based on reason and facts versus emotion and imagined grievance.

A recent example of this is the attempted extension of customs duties to the provincially administered tribal areas. This region – consisting of Malakand, Swat, Shangla, Buner, Dir and Chitral districts – does not receive the same attention as Fata but exists in as a separate legal entity. The local representatives there do not have the authority to legislate on issues regarding the area and many laws and taxes have not been applied there.

Surprisingly, rather than using this as an opportunity to promote the integration of the region into the rest of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the local representatives across all parties have opposed the move. Most have cited arguments with little basis in historical or legal fact.

Ultimately, these two factors of modern-day technology and the intellectual decline in our quality of leadership lead to one basic problem. We have individuals, societies and leaders who are unable and unwilling to address issues that require long-term planning. In an age of major challenges like terrorism, climate change and democratic deficits that means that problems that could be addressed in years will now take decades.

So the next time you take your smart phone to the room with you or pass by the book store and choose fast food over a new book, maybe you should decelerate, disconnect and read a good book.

The writer is the founder of the website:

Twitter: @qisskhwani