The Trouble With Time's 'Person of the Year'

This isn't just my first post of the New Year--it's my first post of the modern era. Actually, I did guest-blog here at TheAtlantic.com a couple of years ago, so maybe a better way to put it is that this is the first-ever post in my very own blog stream. Today I proudly become one of The Atlantic's 'Voices.'

Having gone without a forum like this until now has left me with a backlog of things I would otherwise have said, so forgive me if, over the next few weeks, I get some of them out of my system. For starters: I wish that three weeks ago Time magazine hadn't named 'The Protester' the person of the year for 2011.

It isn't that I doubt Time's premises--that (a) there's an important commonality among the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, the anti-Putin protests in Russia, the tent city in Tel Aviv, etc.; (b) these protests deserve top billing as we rank the happenings of 2011.

I just wish Time had done something analogous to what it did in 1982 when, instead of naming a person of the year, it named a "machine of the year"--the personal computer. I think in 2011 the award should have gone to the thing that empowered last year's wave of protest: the Internet, as manifest in Facebook, Twitter, plain old websites, and so on.

No disrespect for human beings is meant here. Obviously, you can't have a protest without protesters. And it takes more courage to face off against reactionary thugs in Tahrir Square than to serve as a conduit for electrons. It's just that I think a failure to duly credit the role of technology in the new grassroots activism could lead to sorrow.

For decades now--from the dawn of personal computing to the age of social media--digital technology has been decentralizing power by challenging traditional controls over the expression of opinion and by making it easier to organize at the grassroots level. This plays out differently in different countries, but the upshot is pretty clear in authoritarian countries: On balance, in the coming decades, their policies will become more responsive to popular opinion. Even where they don't become true democracies--and even where rulers work hard to stifle the potential of digital media--the governments will have to live with greater fear of popular disapproval, and so will more closely align their policies with public opinion.

One challenge of writing in a blog-like format is getting a sense for a blog-sized thought. I don't yet have that sense finely honed, but even I can tell that, if I start fleshing out the previous paragraph, I'll find myself in essay territory. So for now I'll just say that (a) I think a failure to reckon with the internet's long-term implications is one reason America's foreign policy is on a disastrous course; and (b) I'll be saying more about that in the future.

But don't worry! The role of technology in international relations isn't my only hobby horse, so my writing here won't be an unrelieved sermon about the evils of our Paleolithic foreign policy. I'll try to exercise a number of different hobby horses, as well as acquire new ones. Meanwhile, I want to thank the people at The Atlantic for giving me the exercise space and thank any readers who decide it's worthwhile to drop by now and then.

Presented by

Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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