Central Europe is finally catching up with the rest of the world
Since 1989, Central and Eastern Europe has become a place where big ideas are made possible. In the last 25 years, many countries have come a long way from political and economic oblivion to democracy and prosperity, a transformation led by outstanding people who have achieved the seemingly impossible. Now we look to the next 25 years.
In October 2014, Res Publica together with Google and the Visegrad Fund in cooperation with the Financial Times, will launch the New Europe 100 project – a list of outstanding challengers from Central and Eastern Europe who are changing the world and improving people’s lives with ideas that scale up in the digital world. In the first of three articles, editor-in-chief of Visegrad Insight, Wojciech Przybylski, argues that the world of tomorrow is at our fingertips today.
Central Europe is facing an opportunity afforded by the next, totally new wave of modernization that entails mass use of the Internet and innovations. For years, it has endeavored to catch up to the West following external guidelines. Today, there are no off-the-shelf recipes, as all countries shape their own futures on their own. This is an opportunity for Central Europe to transcend its own history, provided that the new tech revolution overcomes the digital divide and everyone is included.
Today is already tomorrow. This has been noted by William Gibson, cyberpunk author and one of the most outstanding visionaries in the field of digital reality. In 1984, he published Neuromancer, a book on technologically inundated dystopia in which he popularized the term cyberspace and the dilemmas we later followed in the flick The Matrix. He wrote his novels using the same typewriter as Hemingway when the web was still merely an experimental inter-university network. Nevertheless, in those times he managed to create a vernacular to describe complicated, yet-to-come phenomena. That was a measure of innovation, the product of a free and totally unfettered imagination.
In those times, when bestsellers defining the world of the future as ripe with hope and new challenges were being written elsewhere, Central European authors grappled with history and censorship. Even when they wrote about the future, they had to confront the past. While Americans were engrossed with enjoying the spoils of progress, in this region we actively remembered how progress served to authenticate crime against mankind.
This part of the world’s bloody and unjust history has sparked the drive toward freedom for centuries. Intellectuals’ moral treatises were needed. They inspired their readers to change themselves and to improve the world, to open themselves up to experiencing freedom. We availed ourselves of the opportunity of experiencing freedom, though this did not apply to everyone in every venue. The ones who did so to the greatest extent were educated, were of open mind and were ready to take risks. In a word, they were the middle class. What can be done to enable everyone to reap the benefits?
William Gibson is currently a regular commentator on technological trends and the changes taking place in conjunction with them around the world. He anticipated the repercussions of the web being disseminated to a post-industrial general public and the twilight of nation-states and utterly unrestricted surveillance. In turn, he recently framed a dilemma that is surprisingly familiar to us: he claims that today is already tomorrow, though this does not apply to everyone, and not to an equivalent extent. How can this be changed?
Tomorrow unquestionably means new technologies, changes in manufacturing structures, the rising significance of urban communities, the downfall of paper-based bureaucracy, the upsurge of new, yet-to-be-defined powers, and the growth, progress, fast pace, and the new challenges that accompany them.
Central Europe is finally catching up with the rest of the world and may even leapfrog to the front of the pack. During its first decade of freedom it bolstered its geopolitical position. It devoted the subsequent decade to a race relating to the speed of production and leveling the playing field in various regions. The finish line of this road rally is still a long way away but an entirely new possibility has emerged on the horizon. With a web economy, Central Europe could move to the front of the pack, as this road race has radically leveled the playing field from the starting shot.
Technological progress has altered the world beyond recognition. Consequently, the path of modernization has changed. Progress occurs spontaneously, accruing benefit to all. We all know how Polish drivers drive. Janosik is a smartphone application that allows drivers to receive warnings about photo radar and police vehicles on the road by acting like an enormous data cloud. The police explicitly encourage people to use this application as it makes roads safer. Absolutely no one, including the application’s designers or the police, expected such an outcome.
This new modernization is a change that is being brought about through undecreed political will. The world of tomorrow is at our fingertips today. Acceleration and alteration. The downfall of vintage monopolies and the emergence of new ones. Above all, the possibility of implementing changes in civilization whereby all individuals have a level playing field on which to compete from the outset, for the web does not tolerate asymmetry in relationships just as it does not condone censorship or stagnation.
What can be done so that this “tomorrow” may really apply to all? For it to be within everyone’s grasp? Here, now, with lightning speed, for Europeans to the same extent as for Americans. For rural residents and urban dwellers at the same price and the same level of quality? For each and every one of us to have truly unfettered access to the blessings of tomorrow. For this “tomorrow” to be available to all on equal terms. Is it really plausible to be free if you desist from partaking in the progress taking place before your very own eyes? Ultimately, who benefits? And who is already profiting today from “tomorrow?”
Wojciech Przybylski (@wprzybylski) is the editor-in-chief of Visegrad Insight and Res Publica Nowa.