It was quite a shock for me to see war break out between Russia and Ukraine in 2022. When people of the past looked forward to the future of today, surely they did not see countries fighting for conquest of physical land.
That said, after two years of a global pandemic, it does feel like a destabilized period in our history.
What is happening in Ukraine is being watched by the entire world via technology that didn’t exist during previous conflicts between the West and Russia. This calls on all of us to take the time to be more critical, aware, and demanding of the information we receive about the crisis.
Here’s what this self-honesty looks like for me personally. I recognize that this is a massive topic which I cannot cover in full detail so please feel free to leave me a comment for further reading.
Honesty about the War & Technology in the 21st Century
In Yuval Noah Harari’s book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, he writes about the existential threats we face in the modern age.
In casting back over our human history, he outlines the ideologies which formed after centuries of war and trial and error. One of the most influential ideologies being liberal democracy. Political theorist Francis Fukuyama observed the end of the Cold War as the triumph of capitalist, liberal Western democracy over competing ideologies.
Harari, in his recent book, makes an argument that liberal democracy is no longer firmly entrenched in our societal consciousness as the dominant ideology. If I may make an attempt to summarize the core reasons it is losing hold, it would be two-fold; a) it is an ideology based on rapid economic growth, which is slowing, and b) with the contrasting growth of AI, big data, and other advances in automation in our technological society, human beings are slowly becoming ‘irrelevant’.
One of the biggest existential threats of our times, according to Harari, is the coming revolt that people will stage against being irrelevant.
As the intangible world of blockchain currencies and NFTs grow in power, how can war to capture physical land still be relevant? Harari states clearly in his book that country leaders are cautious about launching wars in the 21st century. Wars are not profitable as there is no financial gain from conquering another country.
Thus, when I’m honest about technology and the current war that Russia is staging on Ukraine, I feel that we have given technology far too much credence.
Firstly, because we have had the feeling that technology would divest us of the physical threat of war. We held a belief that technology sets up a reality abstracted from our daily lives, geographic nations, and bodies. I think we can still consider that digital dictatorships may arise from technology that has all-encompassing access to our lives.
However, we must also recognize that there are still powerful human beings with irrational emotions at play. Conflicts and wars can and will still occur (see: 8 Deadliest Wars of the 21st Century).
Secondly, technology will certainly not save us from these human forces. In fact, it will likely play into the other growing irrelevancies that we face as economic actors in our society (where wealth can be hyper-concentrated with a wealthy few who do not require human beings to maintain or grow that wealth). After two years of lockdowns and economic trials due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it feels like we are collectively in a vulnerable and destabilized period.
Inflation is the primary manifestation of this vulnerability which is sending alarm bells ringing for politicians, the media, and economists (see this article from the Economic Policy Institute for more).
Technology will also help to spread disinformation during times of war. Unverified reports, pro-Kremlin narratives, and manipulated images are just a few of the ways misinformation spreads according to researcher Shelby Grossman in this article, Seven tips for spotting disinformation related to the Russia-Ukraine conflict (Stanford News, 2022).
While technology has been mobilized to help get resources to the people of Ukraine (read about how the AirBnB platform is being used here), how does the intrusion of misinformation in easily-accessible technology contribute to the worsening of war time conditions for people on both sides of the conflict? The Russian narrative of the conflict is particularly troubling (read more here).
This spread of misinformation is also troubling for racial minority groups caught up in the conflict.
Honesty about the War and Racial Minorities in the 21st Century
This topic was a primary motivation for my writing this blog post. I have to be honest with myself that with the announcement of the Russia-Ukraine crisis, my first thought as a white, privileged Westerner was:
This is unprecedented! War hasn’t broken out since WWII. We have been a peaceful global community and it is Russia’s fault for persecuting an innocent nation!
A colleague quickly blessed me with a deeper perspective and a racial lens on global conflict in this century.
That colleague said to me: “This isn’t the first time that war has broken out since WWII. People who say that mean this is the first time that war has happened in a white, European nation.” This statement opened my eyes. War and violent occupation has been a constant reality in some nations, creating refugees and subjugation of entire cultures (e.g.: the Syrian Civil War, Iraq War, Yemeni Civil War).
I would encourage you to read this great article from insideWaterloo on, ‘Social media and the ‘good’ refugee‘ for further exploration on the subject. There are some disturbing global judgements in the major western news networks on what a ‘good’ refugee looks like. I will bring in two of these quotes which shocked me most:
“It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed” – Ukraine’s Former Deputy Chief Prosecutor, David Sakvarelidze on BBC News.
“This isn’t Iraq or Afghanistan…This is a relatively civilized, relatively European city” – CBS foreign correspondent Charlie D’Agata.
There are also Black and racialised people fleeing Ukraine who are being denied entry at borders. In these instances, race is a lens that is being applied as a value judgement on lives. I believe that all people in situations of violent occupation deserve to have generous and active support from other nations.
When I’m honest with myself about the Russia-Ukraine conflict, I realize that it has shaken my belief that our society is progressing in the direction of a non-violent technological utopia. It has also awakened me to the privilege that I as a White person in the West have when it comes to viewing war, which for so many countries has been a reality throughout the 21st century.