Academic journal article Parameters

The Plague of Ideas

Academic journal article Parameters

The Plague of Ideas

Article excerpt

People sense, in these disordered times, that more has changed than words have yet expressed. Ours is a restless, unsettled age, straining between unprecedented hopes and old terrors, bounded on its shining edge by possibilities undreamed of even by our younger selves and on its darker horizon by vast, enduring misery worsened by rekindled hatreds. A world order that defined half a millennium, the age of European imperial domination, ended with the collapse of the Soviet incarnation of the Russian empire, and no unitary political system will replace it in our lifetimes.

We have entered a long, inchoate interlude, in which the concentration of wealth and military power in a minority of nations obscures the centrifugal nature of contemporary change. This is an age of breaking down, of the destruction of outgrown forms, of the devolution of power. The process of building again atop the ruins and reorganizing our societies will occupy us at least through the new century. We can be sure of little, only this: the speed of change is without precedent; for the first time in history, change has come to the entire globe, if to differing degrees and with radically different results; and no state or society can rely solely on past forms to shape the future.

Comfortable security models and industrial-age warfare between competing powers seem as obsolete as Marxism, while, in much of the world, even the legacy of statehood left behind by the old empires is under threat. Ideological and physical control over populations crumbles relentlessly in every lagging state, and hatreds and blood ties bind where law cannot. Authority sputters, increasingly ignored, wherever humans find it inconvenient. Although the evidence had never fully disappeared, across the last decade the world's ruling and educated classes began rediscovering the primitive nature of man and his unattractive tendencies when civilized constraints are brushed aside. We, the long-empowered, do not know what to do.

In these eruptive times, thoughtful men and women have voiced concerns about new or resurrected threats that ignore or exploit national boundaries, both those of robust states and borders that are little more than a pretense hoping for a bribe. Whether speaking of organized crime in its countless mutations, of terrorism, of epidemic disease, of financial manipulations, or of the assaults of digital anarchists, those who would alert us do good service. Yet, the greatest "transnational threat" is the closest kin to our brightest hopes. Of all the dangers globalization brings, none is so immediate, so destabilizing, and so irresistibly contagious as the onslaught of information--a plague of ideas, good and bad, immune to quarantine or ready cures, under whose assault those societies, states, and even civilizations without acquired resistance to informational disorders will shatter irreparably.

Global Infection

Several years ago--an antique age by technology's present measure--Americans enjoyed a brief infatuation with books and films about horrific diseases that, once unleashed, might ravage middle-class neighborhoods. While sober attention must be paid to even the least chance of new pandemics, whether sparked by global-man's intrusion on remote territories, or spread by adept madmen or the decay of biological warfare facilities in the former Soviet Union, the alarmists missed the epoch-defining symptoms erupting in front of their faces: For the first time in history, thanks to a dynamic constellation of communications tools, ideas can spread to the world's masses more quickly than epidemic disease.

Historically, disease outpaced data, with ideas lagging far behind. Rumors might precede the first fever in a village, but a serious plague reached more human beings far more swiftly than any abstract concept ever did. Disease moved at the speed of human travel--the same velocity as the rawest information. Ideas were, statistically, far slower. …

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