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Freedom to Reach

Struggling during the Great War, JRR Tolkien started writing letters in which he created a world of mystery and adventure that formed the basis of his most famous novels, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I like to believe that it was during those times that Tolkien came up with the scene where Frodo, at the beginning of the adventure, feeling overwhelmed with the burden of carrying the ring, frightened and wishing the ring had never come to him, tells Gandalf “I wish it need not have happened in my time”, to which Gandalf replies: ”and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us”.

2020 will be known as the year of the global pandemic, the year when the entire world had to close, where millions were infected and more than a million lost their lives to the virus. As 2020 comes to an end, defeating the virus looks as within our grasp as it ever has been. At the time this article is being written, a number of vaccines have proven to be 95% effective in preventing contracting the virus (more effective than many vaccines the world has been using on other viruses that today no longer represent a global threat) and a number of treatments are being approved by the regulators as effective in treating the virus (including the one used by Donald J. Trump, the President of the USA, as part of his recovery from Covid-19). This brings us closer to victory against this common enemy. This enables us to “build back better”, to be able to live our lives without having to be constantly worried about this virus (which is different from simply “going back to normal”). And while ending the pandemic is worthy of celebration, global society continues to face challenges that threaten to present us with far worse outcomes than this pandemic could ever inflict on us.

This virus has taught us that the social divide is larger than it ever was. Basic health measures, such as wearing a mask,become the object of debate and political confrontation. Facts, such as the existence of the virus, are neglected. There is no longer a basic agreement on a common set of facts on which people can exchange counterarguments seeking to find the best possible solution. The facts themselves are the core of the discussion. We should use what we have learnt from the fight against the coronavirus to improve the way we tackle the challenges of our time, including climate change. Without being able to agree on a common set of facts, there is only confrontation and no way forward. The attack on facts, and lies not being discredited, weakens the pillars of democracy, it weakens the strength of society. Thomas Friedman recently recounted the story of a Bedouin chief who discovered one day that his favorite turkey had been stolen. He called his sons together and told them: “Boys, we are in great danger now. My turkey’s been stolen. Find my turkey.” His boys just laughed and said, “Father, what do you need that turkey for?” and they ignored him. Then a few weeks later his camel was stolen. And the chief told his sons, “Find my turkey.” A few weeks later the chief’s horse was stolen. His sons shrugged, and the chief repeated, “Find my turkey.” Finally, a few weeks later his daughter was abducted, at which point he gathered his sons and declared: “It’s all because of the turkey. When they saw that they could take my turkey, we lost everything.” It is hard to remember what was the first falsely disputed fact, the first spuriously questioned truth or the first uncondemned lie. It was probably something minor, like a turkey being stolen. Then it got fueled by technological bots and fake news. Then it got bigger. To the point where today a substantial amount of people believe in conspiracy theories. To the point where the results of fair and free elections in some of the strongest democracies in the world are being baselessly disputed. The paradox of this attack on reality is that the very technological tools created to pull us together as a people are the very ones that are creating a distance between each of us. Because of misinformation, and tools for disinformation, democracy is at stake. The rule of law is at stake. And our chances of overcoming the challenges we face are at stake. The manipulation by bots and fake news to which all of us are exposed, and to which many fall prey to, needs to come to an end. Freedom of speech strengthens society. Freedom to reach audiences with no accountability may destroy it. A verified single digital identity for each verified physical or legal person will be a critical, probably decisive, first step to stop the fueling of harmful conspiracy theories and to end massive unaccountable manipulation. In one of the last scenes of The Lord of the Rings, when Frodo and Sam have gotten into Mordor, over the mountains of shadow, in the plains of Gorgoroth and next to Mountain Doom, Tolkien describes how Frodo is exhausted from the stress of the ring, to the point where he can barely drag himself forward. And Sam is looking over at him. At night, they are hiding in a crater in the plains, and Sam looks up at the sky, “(...) and there, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. An optimist is someone who believes the future is uncertain. Thank you for reading, stay tuned and see you soon.

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