Hayward: El Salvador’s Millennial President Warns U.N. May Go the Way of Blockbuster, Takes Selfie

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Richard Drew/AP Photo

President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador began his address to the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday by pulling out his cell phone, snapping a selfie, and sending it to the “new world” that could not be present in the chamber but was accessible via “the largest network in the world, a network where billions of persons are connected in real-time and share almost every facet of their lives.”

Perhaps Bukele was unaware that General Assembly proceedings are streamed live on a variety of services including YouTube, so the interconnected online world did not really need his smartphone selfie to feel like they were in the chamber hearing him speak.

“Believe me, many more people will see that selfie once I share it than will listen to this speech,” Bukele insisted, simultaneously underselling his own speaking skills, shortchanging the reach of the United Nations communications shop, and overstating the appetite of the global public for still photos of random smiling bearded dudes standing behind podiums.

Bukele’s amusing selfie stunt was meant to introduce his point that “the Internet is increasingly becoming the real world and this format of governing in person is becoming increasingly obsolete.”

The Salvadoran president needled the U.N. for being “stuck in time” and looked forward to a day when vast amounts of money could be saved by replacing the General Assembly with a series of teleconferences, a day futurists believe could arrive as soon as 2005 with enough funding for research and development.

“Ask yourselves: is it really true that we are still relevant?” Bukele challenged. “Speak to your children, your grandchildren, when you leave this meeting, and do so perhaps using WhatsApp on your smartphone, and ask them: What are they expecting? What grabs their attention?”

“It’s not that the United Nations or the General Assembly is obsolete, although if we don’t embrace change we may very well be. But we still have a major opportunity to take advantage of this major network tying people together that is being built before our very eyes, to not only ensure that we remain relevant but also increase our relevance exponentially,” he urged.

If this opportunity is ignored, Bukele fretted, the U.N. might go the way of “Kodak, Blockbuster, dinosaurs, and the Teen Choice Awards.”

Bukele was very rough on the United Nations, pronouncing it all but irredeemably obsolete in an interconnected world of people power where billions of individuals ostensibly have no further need to send representatives to participate in small elite organizations.

“All of the speeches by heads of state delivered in this assembly throughout this week will have less impact than a single video by a famous or well-known YouTuber,” he pronounced. 

The U.N. camera operator chose this moment to pan over to the delegation from Mauritania, one of whose members looked as if he was trying to become a famous or well-known YouTuber by using his phone to upload Bukele’s speech.

“One image posted by a member of the people can trigger a revolution, so the time has come for us to be more inclusive, to accept and recognize that in all countries, at every hour of the day, we are connected,” Bukele said.

Some elements of Bukele’s bold vision for virtual-reality United Nations foundered on the rocks of reality, for the U.N. already does a great many of the things he suggested, such as uploading videos of speeches for delegates and the public to watch later.

He repeatedly expressed enthusiasm for getting more young people involved in U.N. activities, perhaps unaware that there are already plenty of teenagers hobnobbing in Turtle Bay, and the results of their involvement have been decidedly mixed. His fervor for getting millions of netizens involved in a huge interactive General Assembly might diminish if he took a peek at the comments flowing through the live chat window on the General Assembly’s livestream site.

One of Bukele’s grand ideas for U.N. reform was to replace current deliberations and expert panels with an open competition for young people, with a $10,000 prize awaiting every kid who manages to solve a pressing world issue.

“Imagine how much we would save, and how much we would achieve, if we only opened our minds to this possibility!” he gushed. He was probably correct about the savings; $10,000 essay contests are indisputably less expensive than U.N. council meetings and research grants.

Bukele rhapsodized about opening the “Pandora’s Box” of the “collective creativity of billions of human beings, billions of minds thinking at the speed of light, connected at the speed of light, seeking out solutions to problems, which under this archaic format we have adopted and followed for the last 74 years, we have not been able to resolve.” 

He sounded a bit confused about what Pandora’s Box actually contained, although his metaphor might be an apt prediction of what would happen if global affairs were decided by real-time Internet polls with a billion participants, many of them not yet old enough to legally operate a motor vehicle.

“In my own country, El Salvador, we have more smart things than people,” Bukele claimed, dropping a sound bite his interior ministry might want to polish up a bit before printing it on any T-shirts.

Bukele credited El Salvador’s high degree of Internet connectivity with helping to tear down “a hamstrung bipartite system that has exercised hegemonic power for many decades.”

“I reached millions of citizens using Facebook Live while my opponents held town halls with perhaps a hundred at most of their adherents,” he boasted. “The change in format, not just in message and of content, meant that the people of El Salvador elected me as president.” 

“This is how we are governing as well,” he continued. “I have a landline phone in my office, but I have never used it. When I need information, I ask it directly of my ministers, without needing to involve intermediaries or middlemen, without needing to convene meetings that case delay. Communication today is direct and more democratic. There are no filters between me and my ministers. We all have a voice that we can raise.”

Bukele related an extended anecdote about how a viral video of poor children attempting to stage a patriotic parade made it to his smartphone and alerted him to the squalid conditions of the town, at which point his ministers coordinated via WhatsApp and sprang into action to begin making such improvements as paving the roads and putting up street lights. He evidently thought this was a ringing endorsement of technocratic government, while others might ask why a functioning nation-state needs to chance upon viral videos to alert the government to pockets of desperate poverty.

“Societies have made progress organically, but the United Nations has not. We remain moribund, stuck in time. We must change, adapt, and accept the progresses of reality,” Bukele said.

“Today the citizens of the world are more empowered than ever before. Let us give them the voice that they deserve in the General Assembly, and not simply restrict this to the handful of privileged persons who meet here as if we were the owners of absolute truth,” he urged.

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