This might be the golden age of vice, but people are getting richer, freer, and more connected every day.
- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
Sometimes we in the media can’t help ourselves. We kick the big story to the curb in favor of the salacious one. We ignore the one with lasting global implications in favor of the one with a juicy video, a pretty blond protagonist, or a celebrity falling off the wagon.
This issue of Foreign Policy deals with the global business of vice. Why? First, new technologies and old impulses are combining to ensure that vice spreads as never before. Drugs, corruption, and self-indulgences of every sort are more accessible worldwide than ever. Download it. Order it online. Hop a regularly scheduled flight to a place with laxer laws. Use new technology to cover your trail. It’s a golden age for the seven deadly sins.
We write about these things because they appeal to baser instincts: Given a choice between a story about how sex is selling better than ever in the information age or one about how new technologies are helping advance literacy rates, which would you read first? (Oh, I know, I know, you’ll swear publicly that your better nature will triumph. But left alone in a dark room with the magazine.… Well, frankly, that’s not an image I wish to dwell on.)
Of course, the alchemy between the spread of the Internet and literacy worldwide is a much, much bigger story that touches many more people and affects society in ways far more profound than the impact of even the hottest website offering real-life American losers access to imaginary Russian beauty queens. (If this is the moment you start swearing your Anastasia is real and knows you better than anyone you’ve ever met, you can move on from this column. It’s not for you. It contains actual facts.)
The facts tell the real story: The global spread of virtue and its byproducts trumps in every way the global spread of vice.
For example, while approximately three-quarters of a billion adults on our planet still cannot read, global literacy rates have grown steadily in the past two decades. In 1990, the rate was about 75 percent. Today it’s roughly 85 percent. What’s more, even those who are not yet able to read are no longer as isolated from society as they once were. Indeed, in the years ahead, the tools connecting them today can help them tap the resources already available to the literate. That’s why the growth of cell-phone subscriptions from just 11 million in 1990 to nearly 7 billion today is so promising.
Right now, according to the International Telecommunication Union, mobile-phone penetration is 128 percent in the developed world (some people have multiple mobile devices) and 89 percent in developing countries. That means global mobile-phone penetration has reached an astounding 96 percent. According to the same assessment, Internet penetration is currently 77 percent in the developed world and 31 percent in developing countries. That might not sound so promising — household penetration worldwide is only 41 percent — but consider that more than half the phones sold worldwide this year will be smartphones. Who needs desktop computers anymore? Access to essentially limitless information will accrue to effectively everyone, and in very short order.
On top of the entire planet becoming connected to one another and to a wealth of information, over roughly the past quarter-century, the number of democracies in the world has nearly doubled from the 66 that existed in 1987, according to Freedom House. And despite some backsliding in recent years — witness Egypt and Bahrain — countries that are not nominally or actively democratic are now by far the world’s outliers.
Beyond education and politics, the global growth driven by new technologies and innovations is also producing an extraordinarily positive outcome: real and tangible wealth. In 1985, the global per capita income was around $6,200, according to World Bank purchasing power parity-based estimates. By 2010, it was almost $10,000. To be sure, growth rates have lagged in many low-income countries, and widening inequality between the top and bottom of the income spectrum is an enormously troubling problem in many parts of the world. Since 2000, however, global per capita income has increased more than 25 percent. Any way you slice it, that has to be a virtuous development.
In short, despite the headlines blaring warnings of dire crises, gruesome developments, corrupt politicians, bullying states, greed, lust, gluttony, and the global byproducts of all seven deadly sins, it’s worth noting that the forces spreading what’s wrong with the world are simultaneously making it a much better place to live. In fact, they’re doing it faster and more pervasively than they are creating problems.
Don’t let the media fool you. Progress, it seems, actually is spreading.