Philipp Blom is a man who knows something about the beginnings of centuries. He is sitting in Café Korb in Vienna, a place where time does not so much move as remain frozen in place. He is here to compare the beginning of the 21st century with the beginning of the 20th century.
Blom has written a wonderful book, "The Vertigo Years," about Europe in the years between 1900 and 1914, a period he describes as a nervous time. The pace had quickened, and new inventions, particularly the automobile and the telephone, condensed and accelerated life. It was overwhelming for many people, and "neurasthenia" or nervous exhaustion became the disorder of the age. Today we would talk about "burnout."
On the other hand, says Blom, it was a time of hope and utopian ideas. People looked forward to the future, and to a more affluent, equitable and pleasant world. Then the Great War began.
Blom sees both parallels and differences between that era and today. At the beginning of the 21st century, there has also been a surge of innovation that has condensed and accelerated life, he says, and this time new technology -- the Internet and, to an even greater degree, the combination of the Internet and the mobile phone -- is also the driving force behind change.
The difference, says Blom, is that the beginning of this century has not yielded any hope for the future. Blom utters a depressing sentence: "We don't want a future, we want a present that doesn't end." It isn't as if this present were so attractive, he says -- it's just that people are worried that things could get even worse.
In a few days, the first decade of the 21st century and of the third millennium will come to an end. It was a decade that began, not with a smooth transition into a new era but with a bang. It was a decade filled with crisis years: the 9/11 crisis, the climate crisis, the financial crisis and the crisis of democracy. Taken together, they represent a general crisis for the West. Things could hardly have gone any worse over the course of decade.
Ironically, the new decade began with great hopes. New Year's Eve 1999 was one of the biggest parties of all time. Money was available in abundance, because the Internet-driven "New Economy" promised new wealth. The Germans, who up until then had been known as über-cautious investors, were suddenly putting their money into stocks, which meant that they were optimistic.
At the end of 1999, the Allensbach Institute for Public Opinion Research found that 55 percent of Germans were "hopeful" about the future, while only 14 percent were "fearful."
The West was dreaming, not only of wealth, but of eternal peace. People still believed the words of Francis Fukuyama, then-deputy director of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff, who famously wrote in 1992: "What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."
But the new decade had hardly begun before the New Economy crashed and many stocks were suddenly worthless. Then, on Sept. 11, 2001, two airliners, hijacked by radical Islamists, crashed into the World Trade Center in New York. It was the end of the end of history.
The new decade was now on the road to becoming the lost decade: lost in terms of peace, wealth creation and democratization.
By the end of 2002, only 31 percent of Germans were hopeful about the future. By the end of 2008, that number had risen, but only to 34 percent.
Retreat into an Infantile World
The internationally most successful film of the decade was "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King." Harry Potter was the most successful literary character. Both are children's stories that are also enjoyed by adults. We are withdrawing into an infantile world, in which attractive heroes conquer evil. The modern fairy tale is our response to a harsh world.
In the reality of the first decade, evil did not come from monsters but from our neighbors, who had no bad intentions. Our neighbors' stock market investments stoked the financial crisis, their SUVs contributed to the climate crisis, their abstention from voting to the crisis of democracy. And now their viruses are transmitting swine flu. With the exception of terrorists, the villains of the decade were innocents.
It also became clear that everyone is, in fact, everyone else's neighbor. It wasn't until the beginning of the 21st century that people realized what globalization really means. Chinese air pollution is a Dutch problem. The collapse of the American real estate market can cost a worker in the French chemical industry his or her job. In the climate and the financial system, everything is interconnected.
This interconnectedness is consistent with the way communication has brought humanity together. Mobile phones are everywhere, as is the Internet. Younger people, in particular, maintain dense networks of friends worldwide, using Twitter and Skype. Google enables anyone anywhere to gain access to virtually all of human knowledge. It is now possible to be kept informed about world events more or less in real time. And local knowledge is no longer the sole privilege of the residents of a given place. With the help of GPS, Google Earth and navigation systems, everyone can now be at home anywhere in the world.
The world has become a very small place in the first decade of the new millennium. Everyone is now a global citizen, whether they live in rural Germany or in New York City. Everyone can be reached everywhere by almost everything, by news or love letters, by the consequences of toxic financial products, by the consequences of climate change or by human bombs originating in some remote corner of Waziristan.
This is the world at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, a world marked by four serious crises -- and a technological development that nourishes hope.
The 9/11 Crisis
In November 2001, Virginia DiChiara sat in her house in Bloomfield, New Jersey, constantly scratching the skin on her arms, scratching furiously with hands encased in black gloves. But the scratching did little to relieve the infernal itch coming from her burn wounds as they healed.
Nine weeks earlier, on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, she was on an elevator headed for the 101st floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, where she worked for the financial services firm Cantor Fitzgerald. When she got off on the 78th floor to switch elevators, she suddenly faced a wall of burning kerosene. She had no choice but to run through the fire as fast as she could.
Thirty percent of her skin -- on her hands, arms, face and back -- was burned in the fire.
As luck would have it, DiChiara was running late that morning, which meant that she wasn't sitting in her office when the aircraft hit the building. No one on the 101st floor survived, and 677 Cantor Fitzgerald employees died that day. "I lost a lot of friends," DiChiara said in November 2001, her eyes filling with tears.
After the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, the world's sole superpower was no longer euphoric, but traumatized. From then on, America's fear dominated events in the world. A law professor and senator from Chicago named Barack Obama would later talk about the "politics of fear" that emerged in the aftermath of 9/11.
It was not just citizens' attitudes to their governments that changed after 9/11. More importantly, every Western government changed the way it viewed and treated its citizens -- with greater concern and anxiety, as well as with greater suspicion and authoritarianism.
In the United States, this new tone meant that anyone who disagreed with the government became the target of suspicion. Never before have so many people been put under telephone surveillance than in this decade.
In Germany, the coalition government of then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, which comprised the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Green Party, felt deeply uneasy as it looked across the Atlantic. But this didn't prevent it from enacting extensive new security laws.
Otto Schily, an attorney and Germany's interior minister at the time, spoke of the "basic right to security." Anyone who dared to argue that citizens also had a "right to anonymity," like Helmut Bäumler, a former data protection official for the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, ran the risk of being labeled a misfit.
Defense Industry Profits
For government security services and the private security industry, the first decade of the new century was a boon. Their influence increased with each new bombing and each new terrorist video claiming responsibility for the attacks. Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden effectively became their most successful lobbyist.
In a world of insecurity, government and private security experts are the new "masters of the universe." They sell the antidote to fear, or at least they promise to do so. The fact that they also fuel the fear that they are fighting is a side effect that is perhaps not entirely coincidental.
Throughout the West today, daily life is characterized by elaborate and expensive security measures that sometimes seem to make little sense. Every day, security officials at German airports search more than 200,000 passengers. The spirit of "prevention" makes every citizen a suspect, says former Interior Minister Gerhart Baum. He accuses his successors of having become obsessed with security. He also accuses ordinary citizens of indifference, which only encourages the state in its efforts to introduce more and more security measures.
The streetscape has changed in many Western capitals. The new US Embassy next to the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin presents a fortress-like face to visitors. The narrow windows and tall, forbidding security fence signal a defensive posture, anxious and aggressive at the same time. "Perhaps it is typical of the first decade of the 21st century that public space, which once looked like a promise, is now perceived as a threat," wrote the architecture critic of the respected Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper in a piece to mark the building's inauguration. "The stranger, who was once the projection surface for the most beautiful collective and private fantasies, could be a terrorist, have AIDS or be transporting the plagues of globalization like factory closures, migration flows or bird flu."
Every decade has its motto. If the 1970s could be summed up in the phrase "love, peace and happiness" and the battle cry of the 1980s was "let's party," the 2000s' slogan would be "security first."
Another consequence of 9/11 is the return of religion into the public consciousness, and yet it is not a pleasant return. Instead, it is a hysterical conflict between Islam and a world that is influenced by Christianity but which is essentially secular.
Ever since fanatical Islamists brought down the Twin Towers in New York, there are those in the West who have succumbed to an excessive fear of offending the religious sensibilities of Muslims. And many Muslims, for their part, are quick to accuse others of having offended their religious sensibilities.
The long list of such cases includes the dispute over the Danish caricatures, a production of the opera "Idomeneo" in Berlin, a papal remark about the Prophet Mohammed, an ongoing discussion about the wearing of headscarves in Germany and, most recently, a referendum in Switzerland that approved a ban on the construction of minarets.
The world has become religiously charged, and yet it hasn't become more contemplative. Instead, a combative mood has taken hold.
What began as a decade that promised to be peaceful, once the wars in the Balkans had ended, became a decade of permanent war. After Sept. 11, the Americans and their allies first attacked Afghanistan and then Iraq. The invasion of Iraq ended quickly, but it was followed by a period of terrorist attacks that continues to this day. And in Afghanistan, where the fighting is as vehement as ever, the Taliban and al-Qaida have remained all but unbeatable.
The West has proven to be helpless in these asymmetric wars, where NATO's highly trained and well-equipped soldiers are unable to prevail against sandal-wearing warriors whose most deadly weapons are homemade bombs.
These wars were also begun in an effort to bring democracy to the societies in which they are being fought. But after battling terror for eight years, the societies in some NATO countries have also changed, and not just as a result of security measures.
Taking its Toll
America has lost its reputation as the moral leader among the powers fighting in Iraq. Never before has the countenance of a democracy turned so ugly than America under President George W. Bush. His administration was racked by scandals that included prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib, government-sanctioned torture at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and a justification for going to war in Iraq that turned out to be a lie. Even current President Barack Obama, the man the world had pinned its hopes on, is not doing away with Guantanamo as thoroughly as had been expected.
The conflict in Afghanistan has also taken its toll in Germany, where war is creeping back into a society that had been entirely civilian for almost six decades. No other issue has shaped the headlines in recent weeks as much as the order given by German Colonel Georg Klein to bomb two kidnapped tanker trucks in Afghanistan.
Postwar Germany, which set out determined to become an eminently good nation, has lost its innocence in the process. The Klein scandal led to the resignation of Former Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung and sparked a public relations crisis for current Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg.
Germany has veterans once again, a new armed forces memorial in Berlin and a new military medal for bravery, and there are media reports from the war almost daily. This, combined with the resurgence of religion and the post-9/11 security measures, highlights the way the war on terror has changed the face of Germany in many unintended ways.
The Financial Crisis
At the beginning of the third millennium, a man from the 19th century is suddenly in vogue once again. Karl Marx was born in 1818 in the western German city of Trier. In his landmark work "Das Kapital," he would quote a trade unionist as having said: "Capital is as terrified of the absence of profit or a very small profit as nature is of a vacuum. With suitable profits, capital is awakened; with 10 percent, it can be used anywhere; with 20 percent, it becomes lively; with 50 percent, positively daring; with 100 percent, it will crush all human laws under its feet; and with 300 percent, there is no crime it is not willing to dare, even at the risk of the gallows."
Marx's words proved to be true. Fearing a depression after the attacks of Sept. 11, central banks flooded the financial system with liquidity, which in turn prompted financial managers to devise a surfeit of ways to put that liquidity to work.
An exuberant mood took hold in America, where anything that was new was suddenly declared to be beneficial. Talk show host Chris Matthews, a former speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, said that the US was the "fastest country" in the world. For many people, the biggest issue of the 2000s was money: How can I make as much as possible, as quickly as possible?
Fear of a Capitalist Planet
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) tried to convince the skeptical Germans that their fear of turbo-capitalism was unfounded. According to a 2006 IMF report, the new system, which divided risk into small pieces and distributed it among many people, was safer than the old system.
It was a fatal mistake. In mid-2008, a gigantic bubble that had developed, primarily in the US real estate market, burst. Banks tumbled like dominoes and the real economy collapsed. By the end of that year, Germany's gross domestic product had shrunk by 4.5 percent, which was by far the worst decline in the country's postwar history.
The Sept. 11 terrorists destroyed far more than New York's Twin Towers, parts of the Pentagon and thousands of human lives. As a delayed consequence of their actions, capitalism collapsed.
The conventional world was temporarily turned upside down. Politicians, previously despised by bankers, were suddenly called upon to rescue the financial system. There was even talk of a return of politics. Capitalism and bankers were both discredited and confidence had evaporated. But, as it turned out, the financial system had merely experienced a brief setback and soon returned to its old ways. The thirst for profit is back while politicians, paradoxically, are the ones left with the problems.
Today political energy is being channeled into efforts to stabilize the financial markets. Without the state, there would be the risk of a grim 1930s-style depression, complete with the prospect of mass unemployment and possibly even starvation.
Capital is currently needed to jump-start the money supply in stalled national economies. In 2008, the world's stock markets lost $1 billion (€694 million) in value every 24 minutes. Since then, governments have done their utmost to prop up and stabilize the banks, the auto industry and real estate.
Government borrowing has reached unprecedented levels. The lost decade is also the most expensive decade in world history, at least in times of peace.
The G-20 countries are currently spending about $1.5 trillion to rescue their own economies. Taxpayers will still be paying the interest on their governments' various bailout and economic stimulus programs in 100 years' time, so that total payments will amount to several times the original principal. This distracts attention from other important issues and also means that less money is available to address those problems. The German social welfare state, for example, is not equipped to handle the aging of society. The problems that are not being addressed today, because politicians are forced to focus on the effects of the economic crisis, will plunge government budgets and social security funds into new turmoil in the future. When that happens, bankers will likely criticize politicians for not having done enough.
These are primarily the West's problems. China, on the other hand, has managed to accelerate its march toward world power status during the crisis. The country has foreign currency reserves of more than $2 trillion, compared with Germany's $180 billion. The Chinese have a private savings rate of 40 percent, while Americans save only about 4 percent of their income. As a result, China has been able to combat the crisis by drawing on its cash reserves.
For the Chinese party and government leadership, the worldwide collapse of export markets was a welcome opportunity to satisfy pent-up demand for investment in the interior of the giant country. The Chinese economy is already growing again, and is expected to grow by over 8 percent in 2010.
The Chinese are also turning this economic strength into political might. The West, unable to cope with the consequences of the financial crisis alone, needs emerging economies like China and India.
The rules that govern the world's financial markets are no longer being written exclusively in places like London, Berlin and Washington. And China, for its part, is not necessarily interested in rules that will help solve the West's problems.
The new Asian contender, which intends to expand its markets in Shanghai and Hong Kong into a new global financial center, loves speculation. Shanghai's Pudong financial district wants to become the new Wall Street, and its stock markets are the world's wildest, freest -- and riskiest.
Western politicians are concerned. But Western capital feels magically drawn to Asia. For several years now, more companies have been listed on China's stock exchanges than on US markets. It is quite possible that the next financial crisis will begin in China.
Paul Volcker, a former chairman of the US Federal Reserve and currently an economic adviser to Obama, shakes his head in disbelief when confronted with the frenzied activity of governments, central banks and financial investors. He advised the president to break up the country's biggest banks, and he has argued in favor of creating a separation between speculation and lending. Volcker, it appeared, wanted to make the banking profession boring again.
But the White House rejected his proposals. Volcker is convinced that the crisis isn't over yet, because its lessons haven't been learned -- or even understood. The world is still intent on behaving irresponsibly. The lost decade hasn't come to an end yet.
The Climate Crisis
The sky was blue and the waves were breaking gently against the Baltic Sea beaches when it became clear that something was wrong with the current world order. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was chatting with her G-8 counterparts on the beach at Heiligendamm, where the leaders of the world's leading industrialized nations were meeting for the 2007 G-8 summit. She was trying to sweet-talk then-US President George W. Bush into making a few concessions on combating climate change. She also made time to meet with the leaders of emerging economies and African countries, who had flown in for short visits only to find that they were being treated in a somewhat superficial manner.
But after Heiligendamm, it also became clear that that kind of treatment was no longer acceptable. The clear blue sky over the Baltic Sea could not hide the fact that something awful was happening in the atmosphere, and that the cooperation of poorer countries would be needed in the future to come to grips with climate change.
The Heiligendamm summit offered a taste of global government, and yet the emphasis was still all wrong. The meeting was dominated by the club of the rich, the West. That was in June 2007. Now, at the end of the decade, little of that 2007 mood remains. The credit crisis, together with the financial crisis, has dramatically changed the world order.
In early 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of leading climatologists, published new figures predicting that the temperature of the Earth's atmosphere could increase by up to 6.4 degrees Celsius (11.5 degrees Fahrenheit), with potentially catastrophic results. Back in 2001, the IPCC had predicted a temperature rise of 5.8 degrees Celsius, a figure that wasn't much less catastrophic, and yet attracted very little attention.
It wasn't until the 2007 figures were published that some politicians became aware of the risk of an impending catastrophe, as they began to realize that the Earth could face horrific floods, storms and droughts if humans continued to pump so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In his film "The Day After Tomorrow," German-born filmmaker Roland Emmerich envisioned what these problems could look like. In Emmerich's fictionalized account of catastrophic climate change, extreme weather events render New York uninhabitable.
In one respect, Emmerich and the terrorists behind the Sept. 11 attacks were thinking along the same lines. To deal a devastating blow to the West, something awful has to happen to New York, the capital of consumption and a city that epitomizes the Western way of life.
Now this way of life was being attacked for a second time within one decade. The IPCC's message was clear: You are buying and traveling your way into disaster. Since then, the mainstay of Western society -- striving for a better life, expressed in the form of ever faster cars, ever bigger houses, ever longer trips and constantly growing consumption -- has been seriously called into question. Is this still the right way to live? This is the dominant question we now face, at the end of the first decade of the 21st century.
The auto industry has been particularly hard-hit by the effects of changing attitudes toward consumption. The SUV, that gas-guzzling off-road vehicle driven mainly in city and suburban traffic, is finding few buyers these days. After an initial decline in sales brought on by high gasoline prices in 2008, many are now realizing that the SUV isn't exactly the right status symbol in an era of global warming.
The shift in consumers' car-buying habits represents a small step in the direction of a new way of life. The climate crisis has changed politics more than it did in the past. In the spring of 2007, German Chancellor Merkel convinced her fellow European Union leaders in Brussels that strict climate protection goals are necessary.
But Europeans are now realizing how little the example they set counts. Even a man like Barack Obama, who seemed to epitomize the hope for a better world, is cautious when it comes to climate protection. In the United States, in particular, many still believe that protecting the climate makes life worse, not better. Americans are alarmed by the prospect of having to reduce their consumption levels. This has made the country hesitant, a global leader that is unwilling to lead, just like in the fight against the financial crisis.
Obama's attention is fixed on China. Because it sees China as its biggest competitor, America is loath to take on costs that could prove to be an advantage for the Chinese. The thinking in Beijing is exactly the same.
On the surface, the Chinese benefit from the climate crisis. It has saved them from another Heiligendamm. Nowadays, when global issues are being discussed, the Chinese have a seat at the table -- as do the Indians and the Brazilians. Because climate change does not recognize international borders, and because the traffic in Mexico City or an outdated coal power plant in India also pose a problem for cities like Hamburg or Miami, the cooperation of governments in the most populous countries is urgently needed to achieve an effective climate protection treaty.
This is a completely new situation, as Western countries realize that they are also dependent on the poorer regions of the world. At the end of the 2000s, a reshuffling is taking place in global politics. Emerging and developing countries have suddenly acquired power that they can use to apply pressure to the more developed world. They insist on acquiring the trappings of a Western lifestyle, the big cars, trips to faraway places and rampant consumption. But if they succeed in reaching that goal, the atmosphere will be hopelessly poisoned.
The West, most of all America, is now saying: You are the ones who stand to lose the most when storms devastate your crops and your land is flooded by rising sea levels -- so do something. The others say: You're right, but then our people will flee disaster and migrate to your countries, and you'll be in just as much trouble -- so you do something.
Cooler heads on both sides say: Those who impose strict rules for climate protection early on will stimulate the kind of investment that secures prosperity in the long term, prosperity that will include cars, travel and consumption, except that those things will impose a much lighter burden on the climate. This is the kind of thinking that the 2000s could contribute to the future. But it has a long way to go before it becomes widely accepted.
The Democracy Crisis
Although not everyone was equally enthusiastic about the biggest sports event of the decade, it was certainly a pleasant experience for the American swimmer Michael Phelps, who won eight gold medals at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. It was also a triumph for the 51 Chinese medal-winners, who put their country at the top of the medal count for the first time. In Beijing, China presented itself as a world power.
But the experience was far from pleasant for Teng Biao and Hu Jia. In September 2007, they published a letter calling on the international community to monitor the human rights situation in China in the run-up to the Olympics. Hu Jia was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison, and Teng Biao lost his license to practice law.
Teng Biao is now forced to realize that his case plays no role whatsoever in world politics, an experience he shares with oppressed Tibetans and Uighurs. Human rights activists protested against their treatment at the hands of the Chinese, as did a handful of politicians, but not emphatically enough. China is too big and too important to be the subject of harsh criticism.
Soviet dissidents were heroes to the West because they opposed a system that the West saw as its enemy. But Chinese dissidents are more inconvenient, because, although their suffering is perceived as a moral injustice in the West, any efforts to help them could adversely affect business. This dilemma is not new, but it has recently become more pointed. It also became an expression of the crisis of democracy. Over the last decade, the Western political system has lost its claim to global preeminence; it is no longer certain whether democracy will eventually prevail everywhere. In fact, it is not even certain that it will last forever in Western countries.
Nothing damaged the standing of democracy as severely as Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. "The days of lecturing are over," Singapore intellectual Kishore Mahbubani said in a 2008 SPIEGEL interview. "I know many Chinese intellectuals who have often discussed human rights with the West. Everything is easier since Guantanamo, they say. They ask: 'Where is the difference? You mistreat people, we mistreat people. We are absolutely the same.'"
While the West is contrite, a new self-confidence has developed in Asia. From 2000 to 2009, the Chinese economy has grown, year after year, at rates of 8.3 to 13 percent. It has overtaken Germany and one day it could overtake the United States, still the world's largest economy. This meteoric rise was possible without democracy. During the Cold War, the Europeans, Japanese and Americans believed that only democratic countries could guarantee prosperity to the masses.
Nowadays, affluent Chinese do not appear to be demanding a political say as vehemently as European citizens did in the 18th and 19th centuries. They are choosing instead to go their own way.
In addition, democracy in general isn't doing that well, and not just because of Guantanamo. In Germany, for example, ordinary people are increasingly disenchanted with democracy. The major parties are losing members and voter turnout is on the decline.
In the first decade of the 21st century, there was no political movement that could have generated any real enthusiasm, nothing that could have sparked passion. Only 47 percent of Germans in the former East Germany believe that democracy has generally been a positive development.
The advertising campaign's message is that something has changed in our lives. The ads, which have appeared on bus shelters and billboards across Germany in recent weeks, show snapshots which look like they were taken at random, each accompanied by a sentence such as "We google the opening hours of the baker across the street" or "We speak to Mom on the phone and check our e-mail at the same time."
Christian Schwarm is the person who developed the campaign, which is designed to promote a German daily newspaper. Schwarm, 37, is the head of the Dorten advertising agency in Stuttgart, and is the living embodiment of the message on his posters.
When he isn't in meetings, Schwarm is sitting in front of his computer and online. He receives e-mails every few minutes, which he usually answers right away. He never leaves his office without his iPhone. He reads the news on the Internet, watches videos on YouTube and periodically checks in to see what's happening on his social networks. Schwarm has 320 friends on the Germany-based social networking platform Xing, but not quite as many on Facebook -- "just 120," he says, but that number is likely to increase soon. Schwarm's life is so intertwined with the Internet that he can no longer imagine an entirely offline existence.
1.7 Billion Global Internet Users
"The entire Internet on a mobile phone is pure propaganda," the respected German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote in 1999, calling the idea an "unachievable expectation." Nowadays sales of Web-enabled mobile phones are booming.
The number of Internet users worldwide has grown to about 1.7 billion. Two-thirds of Germans are online today, compared with only one in eight Germans 10 years ago. Our use of Google, the largest search engine on the Internet, has become almost second nature, so much so that we have come up with a verb to describe that activity. The verb "to google" has already been in use -- and in the dictionary -- for several years.
In his book "The Big Switch," IT analyst Nicholas Carr compares the Internet with the electricity grid. What happened to the generation of power a century ago is now happening to the processing of information, Carr argues, comparing Google to a gigantic information power plant.
The Internet has connected us to the most remote corners of the Earth, allowing us to chat with people in Tokyo, Sydney or Rio, or watch someone wash his car in Minneapolis. There is everything imaginable to be seen in the social networks of Web 2.0, and we have become eyewitnesses for the entire world. Although much of what we see is banal, some of the content is important.
In Iran, the opposition not only used Web 2.0 technology to organize after this year's disputed election, it also made itself visible to a global audience. In the 2008 US presidential election, Barack Obama was the first candidate to acquire a large share of his supporters and donors through the Internet.
But what does this mean for politics and society? Can an interactive medium invigorate a community? At the beginning of the millennium, the hope was that the Internet, with its transparency and networking aspects, would strengthen democracy. Iran and Obama represent the opportunities the Net provides. But in these cases the Internet was merely a platform for the expression of popular anger against a totalitarian regime, in Iran, and, in the United States, of enthusiasm for a charismatic politician. In Germany, which has neither a totalitarian regime nor charismatic politicians, the Internet has done nothing to change the political apathy of citizens. Instead, Germany is a case in point for the drawbacks created by the Net's constant noise.
An Information Glut
The biggest problem of the Internet is the flipside of its biggest benefit: the glut of information. When knowledge is constantly available, we expect to have it constantly. As every bit of news and every e-mail consume our constant attention, introspection is lost and we become increasingly anxious.
In the 2000s, we allowed the Internet into our everyday lives, but we still don't know quite what to do with it. The flood of information overwhelms us. The anonymity that many forums offer seduces us into insulting other users. And no one knows exactly what happens to the data we leave behind in the Internet, to all of our e-mails and all the information about what we buy.
In the best case, the Internet can create a global forum for public debate, a foundation for political decisions in a world that needs global government.
Return of History
The Singapore-based intellectual Kishore Mahbubani recently wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times titled "End of Whose History?" He discusses Fukuyama's famous thesis with his characteristic self-confidence. History, he writes, has returned -- to the delight of Asians. "The only question is: Will the West join them in these celebrations, or will they keep waiting for the end to come?"
The West's interpretation of Fukuyama was that the Western model would dominate the world in the future. Mahbubani calls this "Western hubris." But, he adds, things did not turn out as the West had expected. "One prediction I can make confidently is that the Western footprint on the world, which was hugely oversized in the 19th and 20th centuries, will retreat significantly."
Is this truly the lesson to be learned at the beginning of the 21st century, that the West is losing some of its significance? The 2000s confirm this. The Western way of life is coming under pressure from two sides at once, Islam and climate change. In Guantanamo, the United States betrayed its own basic principles. The fear of terrorist attacks is eating away at civil liberties, while an unbridled free market has perverted many players in the financial system. And for many citizens, democracy is no longer sufficiently important to warrant spending one or two days a year going to the polls. This is an exceedingly sad state of affairs.
The situation is reflected in the growing importance of an authoritarian country like China. The G-8 has served its time as a global forum. Now the G-20, with China as one of its key players, is in charge. All of this supports Mahbubani's theories.
But there are many arguments to refute what he has to say. In addition to its many weaknesses, the West displayed astonishing strength in the 2000s.
The iPhone, Google and YouTube could only have been invented by people who believe in unfettered communication, and who believe that it makes sense for everyone to be able to gain access to information and for everyone to communicate his or her opinions to the rest of the world. In other words, the most important inventions of recent years are based on a deeply Western idea, an idea they broadcast to the entire world.
The first countries that took climate protection seriously were the members of the European Union. They too were hopelessly late in recognizing the problem, but they became pioneers. This means that a significant portion of the Western world has the power of insight and the ability to correct its mistakes.
That decision was also based on the realization that combating climate change, though it may initially appear to be an obstacle to economic development, in fact secures our prosperity for the coming decades. If the West can put its inventive spirit to use in developing renewable sources of energy and other green technologies, it will preserve its economic power.
No Mechanism to Keep the Peace
The first decade of the 21st century has shown that the world is growing together and becoming more interdependent, but that it still lacks the necessary political structures. There is no effective mechanism to keep the peace. There is no global financial supervision authority. There is no international governing body that can permanently address climate change. The G-20 is merely a beginning.
The European Union is often derided for reaching consensus at such a slow and cumbersome pace, and for being organized along such bureaucratic lines. But at least a political community of nations is gradually taking shape in Europe. Europe can be a model for the rest of the world. For this reason, the situation at the end of the 2000s, though gloomy, is not hopeless. The West has done many things wrong, but it has also sent a few signals of hope.
It now comes down to drawing the right conclusions. The West can still be strong, provided it remains true to itself, its concept of humanity, which is based on Christian ideas, and democracy. The first decade is a lost decade, because it was a decade of excesses, exaggerations and overreactions.
If the West finds a happy medium, it will once again be in a position to play a leading role in the return of history and the search for a global governing structure.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan