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.
The September/October 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 to advance literacy rates, which would you read first?
But 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.
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 risen 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 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 cellphone 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.
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. Access to essentially limitless information will accrue to effectively everyone 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, according to Freedom House. And despite some backsliding in recent years, countries that are not nominally or actively democratic are now by far the world’s outliers.
Beyond better education and politics, the global growth driven by innovations is also producing real and tangible wealth. In 1985, 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 is an enormously troubling problem in many parts of the world. Since 2000, however, global per capita income has increased more than 25 percent. 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 and gluttony, 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 is spreading.