Before you ask, yes, I had a good summer break – a break from work, email, i-phone, TV and texts. The isolated splendor of riding through the Weald of Kent meant I missed out on the summer disturbances that blighted much of our cities. I’m still not quite sure what to call them – protests, riots, looting or just shopping with violence.
Surfacing from holiday has been accompanied by the inevitable quickening that flows from the re-acquaintance with email and other forms of communication so essential to survive and compete in today’s interdependent world.
None of this is to suggest that I have returned from my rural travels a luddite convert – I love the sexy sleekness of my IPhone too much to go down that route – merely to observe that for better or worse in today’s age of hyper-communication serious reflection can sometimes appear an impossible task.
Today’s communication age empowers and disenfranchises in equal measure. We are totally involved in everyday passing affairs, satisfied with chunks of information, surrounded by audio and visual pollution. At the same time, the ability to get information at once and to communicate across large distances empowers us.
Marshall McLuhan’s famous phrase- “the medium is the message” -captures both sides of the process.
Watching the news the other evening I was struck by an old Libyan couple being interviewed outside a café in London’s Little Tripoli. They spoke joyfully of being able to speak at length by phone for the first time in years to members of their family in Tripoli.
And yet despite this connectivity the situation in Libya remains confusing. Take for example the statements by TNC Chairman Mustafa Abdeljallil and subsequently by the International Criminal Court that Saif Al Islam Gaddafi was in custody and being treated humanely. This story was subsequently squashed when Gaddafi’s son made a surprise appearance at the Rixos Hotel in central Tripoli.
This incident reminded me of the comment made by William Hague some months ago following the imposition of the No Fly Zone. He informed journalists after an extraordinary meeting of the European Council that he had credible evidence to suggest that Gaddafi had now left Tripoli and was on his way to Argentina.
With such informed uncertainty there is a danger that any analysis merely adds to the noise. Could it be that in creating the possibility of knowing everything we condemn ourselves to the likelihood of knowing nothing?
We might be able to agree that we are now at the beginning of the end game in Libya, but it’s not quite the end and we have no way of knowing how long this phase will take. There is already much speculation about what will happen in the immediate aftermath of the campaign and the challenges that Libya will face in any transition period. Again, we can map the scenarios but they remain nothing more than that – scenarios.
One of the more interesting pieces that I have read in this area is a paper produced by Chatham House earlier this month. Libya: The Policy Options for the Future claims to be nothing more than a summary of a working group meeting held at Chatham House on 18 August 2011.
It’s worth a read, not least because it is reflection produced before the audio and visual pollution reached the heights that it currently has over Libya. Interestingly, one of the key-points of that expert discussion was the need for the NTC to improve its communications – both with the media and with the population – particularly with regards to managing the expectations of the population in transition.
Moving further away from the immediacy of the situation, you might also want to revisit a post I wrote back on 8th March. This blog drew attention to recent work by the International Crisis Group that sets out certain guidelines that it believes can help assist the transition from authoritarian rule.
Despite the uniqueness of events in Libya, we should avoid divorcing ourselves from a wider body of knowledge that has been painstakingly developed over the years. Sometimes in the quest to understand something new we lose sight of what we already know.
Taken together these two reports remind us that amid today’s confused and uncertain euphoria, the magnitude of the challenge facing the Libya of tomorrow ought not to be underestimated or downplayed.