A year of disruptions and disruptors
Alot has happened in 2014, many tragedies, natural disasters, political crises and also social turmoil. But if one has to underline a trend in the events of the outgoing year, one will find disruptions recurring over and over.
Even as the reported discovery of the wreckage of AirAsia Flight 8501 yesterday seemed to provide clues to the mystery of the plane’s disappearance, family members of those onboard Malaysia Airlines flight 370, which has yet to be found after disappearing in March, are still waiting to learn the fate of their loved ones. These two airplane tragedies disrupted the long-held illusion of a smoothly-run modern world. People know that air travel, like any other form of transportation, carries certain risks but before flight 370, few suspected that a plane could simply go missing without a trace. After all, the skies are dotted with satellites, mobile apps can track your whereabouts by the minute and spy agencies boast an ever-stronger ability to eavesdrop on our every move, how difficult could it be to track a jet with hundreds of people on it? It turns out to be more difficult than we think because of the lack of coordination between international aviation authorities.
The downing of another passenger plane, Malaysia Airlines flight 17, by missiles fired from a region controlled by pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine in July scatters another illusion: that war is an outdated affair in the modern world, taking place only in failing states and has no impact on people other than those directly involved in it. The aggressive strategy of Russia to annex Crimea and to engage in a thinly veiled proxy war in Ukraine seems to turn back the clock to Cold War times. The idea that globalization has rendered old-fashioned land-grabs obsolete is no longer true. In the Middle East, the rise of the jihadist Islamic State also resurrected an ancient idea, that of the caliphate, ruling over parts of Syria and Iraq with its reign of terror.
The world also realized this year the weakness of international health authorities. The quick spread of the Ebola pandemic in West Africa reveals mostly not the well known weak infrastructure of undeveloped countries but the astonishing lack of readiness of top health bodies such as the World Health Organization (WHO). Funding cuts amid the global recession and the entrenched bureaucracy of the WHO resulted in a void that allowed Ebola to spread unchecked in the first months of the year.
In Taiwan, the seemingly endless food scandals have basically taken away whatever public trust still existed. Moreover, it represents also a disruption of long-held beliefs that Taiwan is a “Food Kingdom” populated with honest people selling inexpensive delicacies. While there are no doubt many honest restaurateurs in Taiwan, the nation now finds itself in a soul-searching moment with similarities to what South Korea faced after the sinking of the ferry Sewol: Have we compromise too much for speed and affordability?
Disruptions in 2014, however, were not all bad. The rise of social media and smart devices created many disruptions to long-established orders. Start-ups like Airbnb and Uber are bringing a sea change to the hospitality industry and taxi businesses. More importantly, technologies enable people to quickly organize events and spread information, resulting in “political disruptors” that seems to come from nowhere and suddenly take over. Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement in March and the recent Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong are the most obvious examples. Thanks to these social media-armed disruptors, Ko Wen-je, a physician running as an independent candidate, made history by becoming the first non-Kuomintang candidate to take over 50 percent of votes in a Taipei mayoral election. Ko wasted no time in his first days as mayor to differentiate himself from traditional politicians. For better or worse, he is presenting himself as a disruptor.
2014 was the year when the people came to recognize the realities of the world. This loss of innocence started with the 2009 financial meltdown, which revealed the utter incapability of the sociopolitical elites whom people used to trust. In 2014, people learned that the world does not run on autopilot, that the “leaders” alone cannot fix all problems (in fact, they can sometimes be the problem), More importantly, they realized they have to participate. Efforts to contain Ebola are seeing results recently because of the sacrifices made by brave volunteers. If 2014 was a year of painful reckonings, let us hope it will also be the beginning of an era of actions.