With this article, I offer a world-historical hypothesis about why we’re going through such turmoil. I've written this as a companion to the video presentation I linked earlier. Of course, you might not want to sit through an hour and a half of me talking—or rambling—about this. So, while this is a pretty long article, you can probably read it a heck of a lot faster than I can say it. Plus, writing it out requires a bit more thought, and I think it's probably organized and more cogent than the video presentation. In any event, here it is.
The world isn’t a nice place. We all know that. Despite the enormous economic and technological advances of the last 120 years, there's a sense that things are all starting to go...wrong. Geopolitically, the US has just ended a 20-year war in Afghanistan, where we apparently accomplished nothing of any great significance. Russia has invaded Ukraine, sparking fears of a nuclear WWII for some. Chine seems prepping to invade Taiwan.
Close to home, things don't seem much better. Inflation has been on the rise. Political division is at an all-time high. Traditional rights have been under assault by a government that wants to control "misinformation", a catch-all term for nearly any form of heterodox thoughts, whether it's about the role of corruption in the government, vaccines, climate change, and much else. Indeed, many government officials have begun openly claiming that the First Amendment has some sort of "hate speech" exemption. The government has tried to criminalize concerned parents at school board meetings. In furtherance of these assaults on free speech and thought, we've seen collusion between the government and Big Tech companies to silence critics. We don't even need to cover, in detail, government attempts at both the state and federal level to largely deprive Americans of access to firearms, either through bans, or simply proposals to make firearms ownership too ruinously expensive to afford.
Then there's what appears to be a two-tiered justice system that frees habitual criminals to walk the streets through lack of prosecution, while politically disfavored January 6th rioters are held in jail for months, without bail, in pre-trial confinement. Meanwhile, the politically connected know that they'll never be prosecuted for corruption, and Congress can exempt itself from insider trading laws to fatten their bank accounts in the stock market.
Cognitive dissonance abounds on both the left and right. "Trump is a fighter for traditional values who just happens to have cheated on all three of his wives." "Cops are racists who can't be trusted to enforce the law justly, and they should be the only people who have guns."
There must be some explanation for all this. Why are the governments of Western nations, who so recently championed freedom, now so keen on silencing opposition? Why are global financial elites at the WEF so determined that we'll "own nothing and be happy" (Honestly, while I'm sure they want us to own nothing, I doubt they care much one way or another of we're happy). Are they sure that living in our pods in our walkable neighborhoods and eating the bugs, with the occasional lab-grown meat as a special treat, will truly appeal to us? Why do they want us to use a digital currency that can track all of our purchases, and prevent us from purchasing disfavored goods? Why are farmers being driven out of business by regulations that threaten the steady and reliable production of food, and by extension, the global food supply? What has prompted this desire for totalitarian control over our daily lives?
Well, I have an idea about that, but to explain, I need to tell you a story. It’s a bit of a long story…
In 330 AD, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire under Constantine. This decision was the beginning of The Roman Catholic Church's rise in power in Europe. Over the next 1,100 years, the Church increased its cultural, spiritual, and, ultimately, political control over the entire continent.
For instance, the Church controlled nearly all production of knowledge. This control started from necessity, as the Church remained one of the few literate institutions remaining in Europe after the Western Roman Empire collapsed. But later, the Church flexed its power to control any and all heterodox thought.
That included political thought, as well. Bishops and cardinals crowned kings and emperors, and the Pope had, in his pocket, the power to excommunicate any wayward Christian King. And, of course, one had to be a Christian in good standing to maintain the Lords—and the Pope's—favor. While the Pope rarely used that power, it was always available, and a heretical King wouldn't in most cases, be able to retain his throne.
Of course, the church's power was never so monolithic as a modern totalitarian dictatorship. The Church's spiritual and religious power was no match for a King like France's Philip IV, who installed a French cardinal as Pope Clement V, who moved the papacy from Rome to Avignon, where it remained for 67 years.
Indeed, sometimes the Pope couldn't even control his own church. Religious disputes between the Sees of Rome and Constantinople, propelled largely by the Pope's claim to Papal Supremacy and Universal Jurisdiction led to the Church breaking into eastern and western denominations in 1054.
Despite this rocky path, the Church became the most powerful institution in Europe by the end of the Middle Ages. Like all powerful institutions, the Church became increasingly corrupt. Cardinals and bishops were chosen through nepotism. Once installed high Churchmen led lives of rather amazing debauchery, taking multiple mistresses, and using Church coffers to fund lavish lifestyles. So much for vows of poverty and chastity.
Of course, it's important to note that these trends were all localized to Europe. Other nations and regions around the world had their own elites, with their own problems and issues. But what was about to happen would usher in a fundamental change: The creation of the first truly global age.
In 1450, a German craftsman named Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable type printing press. Like most world-changing inventions, the printing press didn't spring fully formed from his head out of nothing. Like all inventions, there were important precursors:
Once it became possible to perform precise castings for very small objects like printed letter forms, the printing press was possible. Once, he'd invented it, he used the new invention to print his first book, a beautifully constructed Bible. It was, ironically, the printing of this Bible that led directly to the End of the Church age, and, ultimately, the fall of the Church from supreme temporal and spiritual power.
Gutenberg surely didn't mean to overturn the entire cultural foundation of Europe with his pretty bible. But it happened all the same, and it's important to understand why the Age of the Book completely changed first Europe, then the entire world. Why did the invention of this simple—even primitive—method of pressing ink onto a page usher in a new global age?
Prior to the invention of the printing press, all books had to be laboriously copied by hand. It could take months—even years—for a monk, toiling away in the bowels of a monastery, to produce a single book. Books were, therefore, both rare and expensive. To afford a single book, one needed to be relatively well-off. To afford a library, one had to be rich, or at least a member of a wealthy institution, like a university. Or, you know, the Church.
The process of storing knowledge in books was slow, and the knowledge stored therein was restricted to a very small number of people. While we probably underestimate the overall literacy of common tradesmen and craftsman in the Medieval world, the fact is that average people had very little opportunity to actually read a book.
The printing press changed all that. Books could be produced more quickly and more cheaply by an order of magnitude by a relatively small number of people. And, as printing exploded across Europe, the Church simply lost their near-monopoly on the production of knowledge and the restriction on new ideas. By 1500, there were already too many printers to fully control. Moreover, printing branched out to small pamphlets and newsletters. (Though it took until 1609 for the first recognized newspaper to be published.)
It was much easier to control everyone's access to knowledge when the Church was the primary creator and publisher of knowledge. But with the printing press, that control began to slip. After all, the Church couldn’t search every medium-sized building in Europe for printing presses to place under their supervision. They had to fall back on banning publications after they'd been printed.
Such as they did with the first printed work of pornography in 1524, Marcantonio Raimondi's I Modi (The Positions), whose title pretty much tells you what the book was about. One also notes that porn beat newspapers to the printing press by 74 years. I'm sure there's a lesson to be learned there, though I'm not sure if I want to know what it is.
With the exploding availability of books, there was a similar explosion of literacy, at least among the upper and emerging middle classes. As both content, and the ability to read it, became more readily available, so did the dissemination of heterodox ideas. The most important of which, from the Church's point of view, was the publication of Martin Luther's 95 Theses in Wittenburg, Germany in 1517. This act began the Protestant Reformation. The 95 Theses were a direct attack on the Church's earthly and spiritual authority, and it was quickly translated and reprinted all over Europe. From the printing of the first book in 1450, to the beginning of the Protestant Reformation that overturned the Church's monolithic control over the spiritual and cultural life of Europe, a mere 67 years had passed.
With the printing press, information now be cheaply and permanently stored and easily disseminated. In other words, information, and access to it, was democratized. This democratization led to an explosion of new ideas, all of which tended to reduce the power and influence of the Church Age elites. The primary political and cultural result of the Book Age was that the Church Age elites lost all real temporal power. Popes, cardinals, and bishops were forced to retire largely from political life. The aristocracy was increasingly marginalized, and even kings were forced to accept constitutions. Or revolutions.
Not that the Church Age elites went willingly into that good night.
The Protestant Reformation led to religious warfare, such as the 30 Years War, which killed millions, and left 1/3 of Germany’s population dead. The net result of which was a Northern Europe where Protestantism was even more deeply entrenched than it had been before the war. In the end, the Roman Catholic Church became one of many spiritual authorities, but less and less an institution that could impose its authority in a monolithic fashion. (Indeed, governments had learned an important lesson in Protestant countries, where the Protestant state churches, like the Church of England, were intentionally subordinated to the government.)
Charles I, King of England, started a civil war over the very thought that he might have to be subordinate, in any way, to parliament, and paid for it with his head. All future English Kings would face an increasingly active parliament, and decreasing political power.
The Book Age's displacement of Church Age elites couldn't be stopped, nor could the Church Age elites maintain more than semblance of the power they'd held in their age of ascendancy. In 1450, Pope Nicholas V had no idea that Gutenberg had destroyed the Church Age. He just thought Gutenberg's Bible was gorgeous.
The Book Age created its own new—and evolving—class of elites to take the place of those from the former age.
The new Book Age Elites were, in many ways, fundamentally different from the elites of the Church Age. In the Church Age, status was largely inherited. Fame was relatively unimportant. In the Book Age, the reverse was true. Just as information was vastly democratized, so was the ability of common people to attain elite status through their own efforts, rather than an accident of birth.
Even more importantly, Book Age elites were no longer big fish in a small pond, as they'd been in the Church Age. The Church Age was restricted to Europe, a relatively small portion of the world. But printing, transportation, and technological improvements made the Book Age a world-wide age. Information could be stored and disseminated anywhere and everywhere. For the First time in human history, the Book Age made the existence of a shared, global culture possible. As European nations expanded through colonization and empire, they brought their books with them, ensuring that this stored knowledge would eventually permeate the entire globe.
The Church Age was local. The Book Age was global.
But even if the Book Age elites were different and more numerous than the elites of past ages, they were also the same as their forebears in one important respect. Elites protect their own status. As their power increases, so do their efforts at self-protection. After all, the more you have to lose, the less you're willing to lose it. "Power," as Lord Action famously said, "tends to corrupt. Absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely." In the 20th century, which was destined to see both the peak of the Book Age—and its end—this corruption slowly and increasingly made itself more manifest, and noticeable.
Before the 20th century, pretty much anybody could publish in scientific journals. In 1905, a little-known patent clerk in Austria named Albert Einstein, published four papers that fundamentally changed the entire scientific enterprise of physics. Indeed, a papers chances of publication often depended solely on the arguments presented in the paper itself, not on the scientific or academic pedigree of the author.
This wasn't universally true, of course, but it was largely true. There were always important scientists who were willing to act as gatekeepers for anything that might disprove their favorite theories, From W.H. Holmes against claims for earlier humans in America than the Clovis Culture to Harlow Shapley denying galaxies existed. But gatekeeping was, prior to the mid-20th century, much, much harder.
After WWII, however, for a number of reasons (not the least of which was government interest), scientific papers were increasingly subject to strict peer review prior to publication. Peer review isn't a bad idea in and of itself, but it did ultimately give both journal editors and their favorite reviewers the power to quash new ideas that they didn't like. It gave them the power to decide what scientific papers could be published or peer reviewed.
Outside of science, regular publishers exercised their own gatekeeper functions for writing of general interest. Publishing houses decided what books would be printed, and which would be rejected. It was possible, barely, to self-publish your works here and there, if you had the money to do so. But for the most part, rejection by publishing houses meant that your work wouldn't see the light of day.
The same held true for news publications and other periodicals. Editors had the final decision whether your work was appropriate for their journal. It's fairly certain that a lot of rejections are given out because, well, the submitted work just wasn't that good. It's also fairly certain that a lot of rejections stemmed from the personal or political animus of editors or reviewers.
The media also became adept at hiding information from the public, or providing the public with information that just wasn't true. For instance, we know that William Randolph Hearst essentially got America involved in a war with Spain by claiming the Spanish had sabotaged and destroyed the Battleship USS Maine in Havana harbor. People generally trusted the media, however, well into the 20th century. Each night at 6:30, for example, millions of Americans would tune into Roger Cronkite for a half-hour. He'd tell us at the end of every broadcast that what he'd just told us was "the way it is". But was it?
In the 1930s and 1940s, the press knew that FDR was made paraplegic by polio, but they never showed him in his wheelchair, or even in the vicinity of his wheelchair. In the 1960s, a number of people in the White House press corps knew that Jack Kennedy wasn't, shall we say, a fanatic about keeping his marriage vows. What else were they not telling us?
On July 20, 1969, humans walked on the surface of the moon, with half a billion people watching, live, on television. The moon landing was an enormous scientific and cultural achievement. For the first time in the entire history of our plant, earthling stepped on the soils of a different world. And we did it five more times over the ensuring three years. In December 1972, the last two humans, out of the twelve that had landed there, left the moon's surface. We haven't been back since. The giddy expectation of the 1960s was that Mars was next, and moon and Martian colonies would inevitably be built before the turn of the century. Instead, we've never left low-earth orbit since.
What happened? Why don't we do things like that anymore? In the 1970s we had supersonic airliners flying between New York, London, and Paris. They're gone too. Indeed, it seems like those peak years, roughly between 1969 and 1975 were the apex of the Book Age.
Sure, technology, especially computer technology has developed rapidly. And that's great, but the big projects and big dreams see to be...gone. "Decline is a choice," we're told. But who made that choice for us? This is not simply an academic question, but one that affects nearly everyone.
I often think of a challenge put forth by Eric Weinstein: Look around your Living Room. Ignore everything with a screen or keyboard. What do you see that tells you that you aren't living in 1973? After all, 1973 was 50 years ago, surely there must be something fundamentally different about our lifestyle now. But, when I take that survey, I don't anything that would frighten or confuse the average housewife from 1973 to my living room today.
And whether you realize it or not, in the modern world, that's just weird. If you compare the lifestyle and amenities that were available in 1973 to what was common in 1923, you'd notice a massive difference in convenience, comfort and lifestyle. Dial it back another 50 years, to 1873, and the world would be largely unrecognizable. Nearly everything that makes the modern world function—electricity, telephones, personal vehicles, aircraft, movies, washers and dryers, dishwashers—wouldn't even exist.
Where has the pace of technological change that improved our daily lives slowed so much? Why have wages been stagnating or falling since the 1970s? The period between 1873 and 1973 saw the greatest revolution in daily life and affluence that the world has ever seen. But that seems to be over now. Well, for most of us anyway. There's a small group of very wealthy people whose share of income has been growing since then. Perhaps not so oddly, they all tend to be members of the Book Age elite.
There've certainly been advances here and there, but, with one exception, none of those advances have fundamentally changed our daily lives. On the other hand, that one exception is a pretty big one, because it means the Book Age is dead.
Since the 1980s, people have said we're living in the Information Age. But we weren't really. We were living in the run-up to it. Computers are a vital component of the Information Age, but they, like a number of other things, are really a precursor to it. The Information Age began in 1991, when the Internet was opened to the public.
Just as the printing press had precursor technologies, so did the Internet, which required a couple of different elements to make it work:
1991 was a pivotal year not just because the Internet was made publicly available, but also because a revolution in computer power and affordability began. While there were early adopters of home computers in the 1980s, they tended to be very expensive, and relatively limited in what a home user could do with them.
In 1991, however, you could buy a much more powerful computer with a graphical UI like Windows, that had a ton of commercial software available to do just about anything you needed to do. They were immediately useful right out of the box for an average person, where many computers of the 1980s were largely curiosities. Large-scale, ongoing improvements were constantly making personal computers both cheaper and more powerful.
An explosion in computer sales meant that personal computer sales, which were about 1,000 per year in 1980, rose to 20,000 per year in 1990 to 140,000 per year in 2000, then 180,000 in 2004. By 1997, affordable and reliable connections to the internet were widely available, and by 2008, smartphones could put the power of a desktop PC, along with wireless access to the internet in the hands of anyone who wanted it.
After the invention of the printing press, it took almost a century for printing to become relatively common in Europe. It only took 20 years for Internet access to become global.
From the beginning, the Internet provided another order of magnitude increase in the democratization of information. In 1990, if you wanted to find some information, you probably had to go to a library. If they didn't have it, you could order a book that did through the inter-library lending program, and have it available in a few days or weeks. Today, if you want to know something, even something relatively obscure, all you have to do is pick up your phone. Nearly all human knowledge is available to you within seconds.
This universal access to knowledge is great, but the Information Age provides something truly new. Not just the democratization of information, but the democratization of information production. Do you want to publish a book? Fine, then you can self-publish it for free through Amazon. Would you like to make a television show? Cool, then you can set up a television studio in your home and begin streaming directly to Twitch, YouTube, or Rumble. Want to publish your own thought on matters that interest you? Great, you can get your own website quickly and cheaply, get some free blogging software, and begin publishing every day.
The Book Age gave us access to knowledge. The Information Age gives us access to publishing. That's great for us, but not great for Book Age elites who don't want to be displaced in the new age that's dawning.
Book Age elites are losing their gatekeeper status in the Information Age. Increasingly, it doesn’t matter if the media doesn’t report on something happening. People who are there can simply report it directly on social media via text or video. Moreover, since so many academic, governmental, and public records are now digitized and openly available, independent journalists can access current source material directly and report on it. Thus, it becomes harder and harder for Book Age elites to prevent us from knowing things they'd rather we not know.
Take the origin of Covid-19, for instance. Book Age elites decried suspicions of a lab leak in Wuhan as "misinformation" or a "conspiracy theory". Supporting the lab leak theory could in fact, get you tossed off of social media platforms like Facebook, incurring temporary or even permanent bans. Not that it helped for long. Scientists, doctors, and even plain old independent reporters looked at the evidence of spread, the lack of intermediary cross-species infection like we saw with Bird Flu, and were able to conclude that the balance of the evidence rather strongly supports the lab leak theory. Of course, because the Chinese government obstructed the investigation of Covid's origins, helped along by the UN and national governments, we'll never truly know. But, 30 years ago, we wouldn't have had any way to contradict the governmental narrative.
This incident also confirms that the Book Age gatekeepers are corrupt and dishonest. But, happily, they're also anchored in the Book Age, where their narratives had overwhelming weight, and there were precious few avenues for contradicting them. So much information is now so freely available that Book Age narratives are increasingly struggling to keep up with crowd-sourced means of falsifying them.
As their gatekeeping becomes less effective, the Book elites are increasingly turning to force and coercion to impose their narratives, and to defend the prerogatives of their elite status. And they're not going to willingly stop. That's why governments are suddenly concerned with "misinformation", "disinformation", and "hate speech". They aren't really trying to protect you. They're trying to protect their own privilege.
Furthermore, they couch calls for censorship in terms of "making everyone safe", and "preventing hate". That's for public consumption, because they can't publicly admit that what they want to call "misinformation" is generally just heterodox thinking that they don't want to become widespread. Unfortunately, their claims are bolstered by many people who take the elites' reasoning for censorship at face value.
As much as we might like them too, the Book Age elites aren't going to go quietly, any more than the Church Age elites did. How far are they willing to go to defend their privilege? We don't know yet, though I'm afraid we're about to find out. Everything is unsettled, massive change is occurring, and while we might be able to predict the eventual outcome for the Book Age elites, we can't predict how difficult the struggles will be along the way.
But, there's also a bright side to this uncertainty that might give us hope. You see, the Book Elites are in a box. Sure the Information Age is a huge threat to the Book Age elites, and it's a threat they'd prefer to go away.
The thing is...it can't. The Internet is now woven into every aspect of life. A huge portion of the global economy is almost totally dependent on the Internet. It's the central operating mechanism for trade, currency exchange, logistics and supply chain management, and much, much more. It's not like we can just turn it all off, because it's so central to our everyday lives, in a thousand ways we're not even aware of, that trying to go back to the Book Age would be impossible. At least not without millions of deaths, widespread poverty, and an angry citizenry looking for someone to blame. And if that happens, they won't be blaming the truck driver who isn't delivering their bacon to the supermarket anymore. No, they'll be hunting for the scalps of people who are much higher on the food chain.
When the In formation Age started, the Book Age elites saw only the ways in which the Internet would increase their financial power in the short term. They didn't see the long-term disruptions that are coming.
Bypassing informational gatekeepers is going to become commonplace. In many ways, it already is, but as access to information increases, along with the ability to find that information, preventing information from being assessed by the public is going to be increasingly difficult.
The Information Age will lead to the rise of new Information elites. That will, of course eventually be a problem. I'd hope that it's a problem for some time in the future, when the Information Age gives way to something else. But the activities of our current Information Age elites in Big Tech are a cause for concern, as is their willingness to submit to governmental requests for censorship. Of course, we can question whether these Big Tech companies are really just Book Age holdovers, using Book Age Business models while they still work. We don't really know who the true Information Elites will eventually be, just as no one in 1450 knew who the Book Age elites would be. Book Age elites, on the other hand, who are unable or unwilling to move with the tide of history, will be swept away. Most of them will never make the transition to Information Age elite status.
We can expect information to tend towards becoming increasingly easier to access. And it's reasonable to suppose that, with more freedom of information, there'll be more heterodox thought. More people with new, unusual, and even outlandish ideas. That's both a good and bad thing. It means that another Einstein can appear to spontaneously provide insights that overturn a century of science and reveal new, hitherto unexplored vistas of knowledge. On the other hand it also means four or five yahoos who convince millions of people that Hollywood actors are lizard-like space aliens in human suits who've come to our planet to eat us. "It's a cookbook! A cookbook!" We'll have to take the bad with the good. But if we try to stomp put the bad, we'll probably never get the good at all.
Naturally, there's also be dangers that accompany the Information Age. Fundamental cultural, social, and economic changes are always unpredictable. We're in for a lot of uncertainty, as we're faced with new dangers we've never had to overcome before. We'll have to address new, and possibly frightening, questions.
Is AI a boon for mankind that will release us from drudgery and enable more economic and leisure opportunities. Or is SkyNet already lurking among us, preparing for the End of Man and the Rise of the Machines? Will reactionary Book Age elites, like the Church Age elites of the 17th century, be willing to wage war against their enemies for 30 years? Or will the new Information Age elites come up with some novel way to reduce us to technocratic slavery?
We don't—and can't— know the answers to these questions yet
The Information Age is only 35 years old, and as big as the changes have been, we’re only going through the initial disruptions. This is the beginning of disruption. We're living in what my podcast colleague, Michael Wade, calls the "Frothy Time". We have a lot of questions, and few answers. Likewise, we see a multitude of problems, and few solutions. But this is normal. We're moving through a period of massive cultural change that's only beginning. Uncertainty always abounds at such times.
We know we can expect both good and bad changes, but we must accept that many of these changes are going to be novel and unpredictable. Without knowing what changes are coming we can’t really ameliorate them ahead of time. We have to accept that we live in a time of disruption, change, and uncertainty.
We should expect more, not less, weirdness. As the Information Age begins to truly take hold, we should expect a greater frequency of change, along with new challenges, obstacles...and opportunities.
You might, at this point, be asking, "So, um…what do we do?"
I dunno. No one does. This is a global civilizational upheaval, with unknown effects on politics and culture. The best we can do is arm ourselves with the knowledge that we live in a time of fundamental change, and prepare ourselves to face and overcome new challenges. One thing is sure, though: We can’t go back to the Book Age. The only path forward is…forward.
Welcome to the Age of Information.
We’ll have to figure this out as we go.