People write books about what turned Col. Joseph-Désiré Mobutu from a charismatic young man riding a wave of popular support, encouraged along by the guns of his men, into the office of president after his second coup1 into a broken failed dictator at the end hardly even feared. But, though the proximate causes are multiple and complex, the heart of the answer is simple. Insulation.
Mobutu lived the Life of Riley, or at least of an African despot, he did not mix and mingle, people came to him not he to them. He received only the information that his circle of paid sycophants chose to offer him. Few offered information that would trouble or annoy him. Would you tell a croc that it looked ugly, or a lioness that she needs dentistry?
As a result he was cut off, out of touch. Living in a fantasy world in Gbadolite (his “presidential village” in the back of beyond – though with its own international airport and huge cellars of champagne) or on his boat.
Although Congo/Zaire is a country the size of Western Europe, with few roads that are passable by Landrover, his downfall came almost as fast as his opponents could walk from the border to Kinshasa (1600Kms), in November 1996 his government ordered Tutsis out of Zaire, on May 16th 1997 he was the ex-dictator.
What has this to do with you and me, and Google? Well Google filters its search results, offering each user a prioritised selection according to their interests (and what will win Google most advertising revenue). This is great, if you are interested in Medieval history and not 20th century weaponry a search for “saracen” will not lead to (too much) information about armoured vehicles. But it is a disaster if you want to know what is real and true about the world we live in.
For all our other media are already censored and selected to tell us what we want to hear – TV is renowned for its triviality and superficiality, preferring celebrity scandals to mass starvation any day. Newspapers have their backs to the wall trying to find new revenue streams while fighting tooth and nail to protect the old ones, do you think they can afford the luxury of telling you anything except what you want to hear? So, without the Internet we live in a media bubble as pernicious and dangerous as the one that sheltered Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga.
But if we discover the Internet using a tool like Google, which tailors the results of our searches to our “interests” that tool too has failed us. Our knowledge of what is really happening in our world is a circumscribed and as biased as any tin-pot dictator’s.
- After the first he gave power back to the politicians. [↩]