You are a special generation: born just after the Cold War, the first of the digital age and fortunate to have enjoyed the longest economic expansion in American history.
It may be hard to believe, but the threat of nuclear war once cast a long shadow over our lives. Your parents probably recall huddling under their school desks in civil defense drills. Thankfully, that horrible specter has receded. We did not win the Cold War, but the Soviet Union lost it for reasons that are relevant today.
Communism denied individuals freedom to speak out, stifled information and monopolized power. It was mind-numbing, suffocating and once covered about half the planet — hundreds of millions of people suffered through it in the Soviet Union, China and elsewhere.
The Soviet Union expired for many reasons: over-militarization, a dysfunctional system of economic central planning and a lack of civil society and rule of law. But one factor which we can see more clearly in retrospect was that, as a closed society, it could not compete with a wave of innovation, communications and new technology that was blossoming in the West. The advent of the personal computer in the 1980s empowered individuals to control and distribute information — an idea that made Soviet bosses shudder.
Today, the digital revolution has become a powerful liberating force for millions of people. China’s burgeoning middle class is rife with ferment, making it harder and harder to sustain the Great Firewall. Events like the Zhejiang bullet train crash, once hushed up, are now shared with lightning speed on microblogs and provoke popular fury. In Russia, a single Facebook page was critical in organizing tens of thousands of people to protest Vladimir Putin’s return to power and last December’s fraudulent parliamentary elections. Russia now has 53 million people online, more than any other country in Europe. The Arab world was convulsed by demonstrations for democracy which spread like wildfire on the winds of social media and satellite television. The life sciences are in a period of discovery as exciting as physics was at the dawn of the nuclear age. The digital upheaval has transformed music, photography, news and literature, and a new video entertainment boom is around the corner. And you can hold a device to do this in the palm of your hand.
In the early years of the atomic age, nuclear bombs were huge and unwieldy — they weighed 5,000 pounds and had to be lofted across the oceans by airplanes that would take five hours to reach their target. Technology relentlessly improved the “absolute weapon” so that by the end of the Cold War, a nuclear-armed missile could fly 4,000 nautical miles in 30 minutes and hit a target in a circle with a radius of 560 feet. No doubt the threat of warfare in cyberspace will arrive long before we are prepared for it. The commander of U.S. Cyber Command said recently we have a better chance of detecting an incoming ballistic missile than we do a cyber attack.
The digital revolution is also upending our politics. It has enabled every one of us to effortlessly choose the sources we want for information, and to custom-build them.
As you take this immense revolution in your hands, don’t be passive. Climb out of your foxhole and look at the world broadly. It will be a terrible disappointment if the technology and creativity of recent years results in a new isolation — everyone looking down at their smartphones without looking up at the horizon. Our problems right now are too daunting.
And just as your parents and grandparents fought to liberate millions of people from an ideology that locked up photocopiers and books, so too must you be ready to take action, perhaps under entirely different circumstances. Freedom, competition, openness, democracy and innovation are treasured values for any age. They helped bring us to this moment. Don’t lose sight of what you inherited and what you must do to nurture and protect it.
David E. Hoffman wrote this article for Foreign Policy magazine.