Too real: a horror story
There’s a dreadful moment in every man’s life where he shows up at a bar that he liked to go to a for a long time, where he used to have a good time, but then he looks around and he says to himself: “Damn, I’m too old to be in here.”
The self-reflective man has a subsequent moment, though, and that one is worse. That moment is the one where he asks himself, “Did I notice that I’m too old to be here first or had everyone else noticed that a long time ago?”
Moments aren’t necessarily flickers in time. Sometimes moments string out for a while. Sometimes moments can only be noticed in hindsight.
I’ve been making my way though the 1999 book “The Sovereign Individual: Mastering the Transition to the Information Age,” by James Dale Davidson and William Rees-Mogg. Based on the title, the topic is ostensibly the internet and knowing what’s to come of it.
Why would a person in 2020 want to read that?
It sounds simply bonkers that anyone could think they could know anything about the worldwide web (of all things) in 1999 knowing now as we do about all the completely unpredictable things that have happened on that non-place which is also the most important place. I mean, right?
Here let’s just dip back into the Internet Archive and take a look at the website of… let’s say The Philadelphia Inquirer back around the time this book came out.
Have a look: October 5, 1999.
So why am I reading this? Mainly because some people said I should. I have it on pretty good authority that this is a book that loads of people in Silicon Valley read. Especially anyone who has anything to do with cryptocurrency. They love it.
And I have to say: You start reading the book and you see the writers are winding way, way back, digging deep into the archives of history to look at what they like to call “megapolitical trends” and it starts to make more sense that they could see some broad sweeps going forward.
I’m not really here to review the thing. I just want to draw your attention to the megapolitical argument that they make which is the kind of observation, if accurate, is haunting. At least, it’s haunting if you’re one of those people who likes to think about big topics, bit trends, the sweep of history.
And your place in it. I think about all those things. Often. Guilty as charged / draw your own conclusions.
Drawing on the work of historians they like rather than their own original research, Dale and Rees-Mogg contend that the "Fall of Rome" (which is discussed a lot in a sort of shorthand way throughout the West) was a long, slow thing. The kind of gradual event (moment, if you will) where, looking back on it, historians would say the Roman Empire had fallen long, long before it was gone. For many lifetimes, maybe even longer than the United States has even been a thing so far, it had fallen but the state still carried on.
If you’re the sort of person who might think that they can do something positive in the world, the implications of this must be unkind to your equilibrium.
If you step back and realize that a state or an institution or a company can be dead for a very long time without realizing it’s dead, if it might even be able to meet payroll (giving you a very strong incentive to convince yourself your employer is still a going concern), then you realize that there’s a very real danger that you might devote your whole life to, and make sacrifices for, something that was a dead letter before you even walked in the door.
But you couldn’t see it either!
Worse: If — like the middle aged man who thought he was going to enjoy a night out at his favorite watering hole only to have an existential crisis — you’ve given years of your life to something and then you stumble on a book like The Sovereign Individual and it hits you that all your energy has been pouring down an oubliette.
That’s a very much “too real” horror story.