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The European Journal
The European Journal
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Elif Shafak

20 in 20/20

A leading author’s view on the year ahead

2020 will be the year when language was lost. We will still be using the same vocabulary, but we won’t be referring to the same things anymore. Words will be emptied of their meanings, stripped of their universal and specific histories, and they will start floating in the air like helium balloons whose strings have been cut off. We will enter a topsy-turvy world where traditional political language will be systematically distorted and destroyed. Concepts that used to be “progressive” will become associated with illiberal tendencies, and words heretofore identified with authoritarianism will be redefined, repackaged. The new extremists will call themselves “democrats”. Meanwhile, more and more “liberals” will abandon the label like an old pair of shoes nobody wants to walk in anymore. Emboldened by each other, as much as by the international conjuncture, dictators across the world will stop working with their PR agencies, instead they will fully focus on new social media, and invest heavily in bots and trolls. 2020 will be the year of disinformation.

Many leading pundits will continue to fail in their predictions, but in a world where something unexpected is happening every week, and there is no time to digest the news, it won’t really matter. Brexit won’t have the international domino effect across Europe that people once thought it would have. Instead, Europe’s populist parties will rewrite their manifestos, change their rhetoric, restructure their alliances, and postpone their “exit from the EU.” 2020 will be the year of collective amnesia.

Here in the UK, elections will be over but the underlying divisions in our society will be with us to stay–in particular, generational, regional, and educational divisions. We will lose the ability to communicate across echo chambers. We will become more resentful towards “the other side” in the Brexit debate.

In 2020, there will be an abundance of information, but less knowledge, even less wisdom in the public space. We will see the rise of clever analysts with rich data and poor emotional intelligence. We will see lordly orators with no listening skills and zero empathy. Moderates on both sides of the ideological spectrum will feel intimidated by the hullabaloo. Those who are not angry enough will find themselves seized by apathy and fatigue. Slowly, they will retreat into their neighbourhoods, their houses, and then eventually, their back gardens. The public space will be dominated by hardliners, who will be ever more passionate and vociferous. Those who are angry will become more certain of their own truths, their own tribes, and the more certain they become the more they will be repeating themselves. Anger as a driving force is, and has always been, repetitive.

For every major political scandal and economic crisis, we will see the emergence of a new trend in daily life: from glittery manicure to glitzy parties. This is a pattern that has been observed in other parts of the world where there has been a rise in uncertainty, tension: social gatherings will become more important, family dinners more intense. People will party to forget.

Back in the early 2000s, there was such optimism a young Egyptian couple named their newborn daughter Facebook. Not long after a family in Israel named their third child, Like.

As the challenges facing the world become steadily more complicated, global and opaque, the need for “simplicity” will also become overwhelming. Demagogues and agitators will benefit from this paradox. At a time of massive global challenges (from climate change to the dark side of big tech), it will be the forces of nationalism and nativism and isolationism that will be on the rise.

Politics will become more pervasive, urgent, omnipresent. Civic spaces that were previously semi-political or apolitical will go through interesting transformations. Literary festivals will become more politicised. Even at fancy art galleries and art festivals there will be panels about contemporary, controversial issues. More artists will speak up.

Collectively we will become more anxious, less trusting people.

Not all will be so gloomy though. Alongside an inflation in anxiety levels, we will see an increase in civic participation and engagement, especially among younger citizens. The faster we consume information the deeper will be our longing for knowledge and wisdom. Despite fast consumption we will feel the need to slow down, go within, and we will read novels. Values such as kindness, compassion, humanism will prove themselves harder to erase. We will start talking in more detail and with more appreciation about seemingly minute things– flowers, hiking, food.

In 2020 we will know without a doubt that ours is the age of pessimism. It will be hard to remember that it wasn’t so long ago when the world felt full of promise, East and West. Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s many celebrated the triumph of liberal democracy. Back then digital platforms promised to bring us democracy, connectivity. There was such optimism at the time that a young Egyptian couple named their newborn daughter Facebook. Not long after a family in Israel named their third child, Like.

Today, I think about those children often–Facebook in Egypt and Like in Israel. What are their lives like? We have transitioned from the age of optimism straight into the age of anger, fear, resentment and frustration.

2020 will be the year of emotions.