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A Little Dark Age Ahead?
say no to utopia; I'm an optimist, baby; a little dark age as a treat and the rise of piracy (again)
I’m an optimist not a utopian. Our world can get much better and I sincerely believe it’s going to. But I don’t believe realizing any ideology is going to lead to a perfect society.
Do I think our society is going to get drastically better over night? No.
What about through a glorious political revolution? Also, no.
Could the world get worse before it gets better? Yes. And that might even be more likely. Perhaps it has already gotten worse and now we’re in the process of getting better. It’s hard to argue that many people’s lives haven’t gotten worse since 2019. We’ve even adapted fairly well. Perhaps too well!
But Baby, I’m an optimist. [warning: punk music]
Being an optimist is a dominant strategy. You want to believe in your own agency and the possibility of making a positive influence on the world. You want to believe in your friends and their ability to solve the problems that capture their attention. At present, I believe far too much attention is focused on narratives that don’t believe in a good future. These are loser ideologies. The stories that we tell ourselves matter. Memes matter.
However, I do concede that pessimists play a vital role in helping optimists to realize their visions. As my friend, Muhammad, put it, “Pessimism is always hugging you, protecting you from unnecessary risks.”
That being said, the past few books that I’ve read have been kind of depressing: The Revolt of the Public by Martin Gurri, The Tyranny of Merit by Michael Sandel, and The Decadent Society by Ross Douthat. Reading this kind of critical analysis is valuable but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bum me out. Being aware of problems and the potential constraints that we face is important for any non-naive optimist.
OK, now to the title. Queue it up!
I haven’t finished this one yet but I also started reading Dark Age Ahead by Jane Jacobs. The introduction starts by articulating that the world has experienced numerous dark ages. A time when collective knowledge—primarily transmitted directly peer-to-peer, rather than through media—has regressed.
During a Dark Age, the mass amnesia of survivors becomes permanent and profound. The previous way of life slides into an abyss of forgetfulness, almost as decisively as if it had not existed.
Jacobs recalls the history of fifteenth century China. Their civilization had the most advanced naval fleets in the world at the time. A significant amount of resources was allocated towards treasure seeking and exploration. This knowledge was lost and China turned inward.
…a political power struggle was waged between two factions in the Chinese imperial bureaucracy. The losing faction had championed treasure fleets and taken an interest in their leadership and well-being. The winning faction asserted its success by abruptly calling a halt to voyages, forbidding further ocean voyaging and dismantling shipyards.
A dark age is a real possibility. Certain types of knowledge, particularly that which is transmitted orally and through practice, may be degrading. For example, as families spread throughout the world certain kinds of wisdom is lost from one generation to the next.
If you have children, it is unlikely that they will have the same sort of relationship with their grandparents that you did. Those little aphorisms of accumulated wisdom your grandma used to share will be replaced by whatever Google serves them when they run into trouble. That may or may not be significant!
But is the internet even a bulwark against a dark age?
People often say “anything you post on the internet will exist forever.” This is a good heuristic—you will likely be better off by pretending it’s true—but it may be completely false. Anyone know where I can access Yahoo Answers? What about Geocities? I’ve heard smart arguments on both sides of this debate.
Our cultural loss could be significant as we have pivoted towards streaming all data and away from owning our own copy of media. If you own VHS tapes, they are likely in decay and perhaps do not even work. If you own DVDs, pretty soon you might not be able to play them.
It’s not hard to imagine Disney, just to pick one example, deciding to destroy their own IP. There have already been examples of streaming services editing films because aspects are problematic for their current brand image. The reasoning for any given piece of media may seem good now but what will be lost to time?
We might need to side with the digital treasure voyagers to prevent our own cultural dark age. Perhaps the golden age of piracy is in our future, not our past.
I wrote a different version of this post on Sunday but it was too long and half-baked. Sorry if you missed me on Sunday. My intention is to share some great reads with y’all this weekend. See you then!