June 13, 2002

Everyone loves to piss and moan about how awful things are today. The boomers complain about how lazy their kids are (usually only after their own parents are safely in the grave, lest said kids become puzzled by Grandma and Grandpa suddenly spasming over in laughter), kids complain how tough it is, environmentalists complain how greedy it is, religious wacks complain about how decadent it is, the liberals complain about how restricted it is while the conservatives complain about how unsafe it is.

It's also pretty fashionable to admire all the stuff that ancient peoples accomplished. Show after show comes on the History Channel and Discovery and A&E talking about how bloody amazing these ancients were by building stuff that we can't build any more.

It's all crap. Every bit of it. In some places it's bad, yes, but no worse than it has ever been before, and in most places without question we are living in the best of all possible times and best of all possible places. We build things so outrageously amazing that it would simply be beyond the comprehension of anyone born before about 1850.

It wasn't always like this. Because of the cyclical nature of agrarian societies, a surprisingly large portion of our ancestors were born, raised, and passed away surrounded by the ruins of civilizations they knew were better than what they had. You'd end up with cities that were built and rebuilt on top of each other, again and again. The piles got so high that in many places today you can still see them, huge mounds rising out of the desert wastes like the overturned hulls of half-sunken luxury liners.

There were two reasons this kept happening. First, the warfighting technology of the times was primitive enough that brains, charisma, ruthlessness, and a life on the steppe were all you really needed to crush even the brightest civilization. And so barbarian hordes would periodically rush through civilized lands like a hurricane through a Louisiana trailer park.

The other reason was economics. Ancients really knew only one form of true wealth, and that was land. Everything they worked toward was meant for one purpose only: real estate. The problem with land is that you either have it or you don't. You can't make more land just because you're smart, and you can't make more land just because you have a clever idea and want to work hard. As the land became more and more scarce it got more and more valuable, to the point that in the really highly developed ancient civilizations landowners commanded wealth on a scale that we literally cannot comprehend.

But this obsession with dirt caused wonky things to happen to a civilization. Everyone today knows that real estate is a money sponge. It gets more and more valuable until eventually you end up with this asymptotic growth curve where all the money in the world literally won't get you any land. But the ancients never got their heads around this fact, and so when the bubble burst it took the whole economy with it.

If all you care about is land then when land is unaffordable money becomes worthless. Unfortunately in an era before nationalism most really advanced civilizations paid cash for their army, and no cash meant the army started to take the land (causing the civilization to collapse in the ketosis of civil war), or would simply walk away, typically just in time for Chuckles the Barbarian to start his latest world tour.

The real genius of the Renaissance was not the rediscovery of ancient learning, but the development of increasingly sophisticated economic models that valued cash more than land. Unlike land, you can make money, sometimes with nothing more than an idea (c.f. "Gates, Bill"). And just because you had a lot of money didn't mean your neighbor, and his neighbor, and his neighbor, couldn't have just as much. And there were so many different ways to make money in so many different places that failure at any one point simply couldn't tear the whole thing down. And the really funny thing was that if you spent money and were clever about it, you'd make even more money.

A feedback loop got started in the shops and harbors of a bunch of Italian towns with funny names and bad attitudes that is still spinning up today. Suddenly it paid to take risks, so for the first time money began chasing ideas. People would work, and work really hard, because unlike land they could always get more money. At first the money got spent paying clever people to come up with more interesting and efficient ways to turn your enemies' insides into outsides, but the piles just kept getting bigger and started squishing out all sorts of unexpected corners, like golden play dough.

Eventually war with your immediate neighbors just got too expensive, because all your neighbor had to do was jingle a few more coins at your clever people and the bastards would go work for them. You didn't want to kill the clever people, because then you wouldn't be able to jingle even more coins to get them to come back. So instead you turned your guns outward toward all those dark, scary places where the heathens and barbarians lived, and gave them a taste of gunboat lovin. Since the rest of the world simply hadn't caught on to all this economic nonsense (and in truth the Europeans were barely in control of it at that point), they were helpless before the onslaught. And the rest is, as they say, imperialist history.

The cycle of barbarian destruction and economic collapse had been broken, and it gave the civilized world a cultural continuity simply unheard of up to that point. The Europeans equaled, and then surpassed, the achievements of their ancestors about three centuries ago, and the world has never looked back. The philosophical explosion of the Enlightenment was as much about the west coming to terms with this fact as it was about some sort of flowering of a "superior" European culture. Rome had come so far that they'd been living in its shadow for a thousand years, and being better than them took getting used to.

And money-driven economies made things happen fast. In the old days it took awhile to buy, borrow, or steal enough land to turn it into a power base, but it only took one lucky ship full of spices to turn a beggar into a burgher. Since it was all running on ideas and information, there were powerful pressures to make communications faster and better. Printing presses allowed more and more smart people access to more and more information, and with no barbarian hordes to worry about this information never got lost.

And so instead of an intellectual revival that lasted a few decades, we got one that (so far) has lasted more than five and a half centuries. We stand not on the shoulders of giants, but rather of countless generations of men and women whose thoughts, dreams, and ideas simply weren't allowed to be forgotten.

A pyramid is quite impressive, yes, perhaps even more so considering the tools they used, but when compared to the Petronas Towers the pyramids are just big piles of rock. A katana sword may be the finest medieval weapon ever invented, but an entire army of samurai are simply helpless against one man in an F-15. And the lighthouse at Alexandria may have been a wonder of the ancient world, but a Saturn V is taller and it goes to the freaking moon.

And when it comes right down to it, we're not as brutal as our ancestors. We're just not.

The media makes you think we are, but that's just because they were sleeping off their frat beer bash during history 101. Rwandas and Somalias and Ethopias and Croatias used to happen every day. It was once considered routine to hack the penises off your conquered foes and allow them to bleed to death, or kill every man, woman, and child in a village just to inconvenience a guy in a castle. Dashing babies heads against rocks is enshrined as "pleasing to God" in the bible.

And it's not just acts of mass terror. Jack the Ripper isn't remarkable because of the brutality of his crimes, but because it marked the point where it became unacceptable to do that sort of thing to a prostitute. When a child dies before they're three it's treated as a tragedy, and if the mother dies in childbirth it's treated as a crime.

The closest anyone's come to a real sack of a city in modern times is the Rape of Nanking. And that's still remarkable because what was once considered merely a perk of the conquering army is now so vilified the country that promulgated it is too ashamed to even admit some Chinese may have been inconvenienced during the affair.

So are we there yet? What, do you live under a rock? Every age of humanity, from cave man to hoplite to sultan to victorian to space man is still being experienced by someone somewhere to this day. Just because it's not as bad as it used to be doesn't mean we can't make it better. It properly is a tragedy for the world when a child dies or is drowned because it doesn't have a penis or is taught to believe rather than think. This new economy runs on ideas people, and anyone that isn't given a shot at having some cheapens us all.

And we must never forget, the barbarians still rattle at the gates. There are still those who would take, rape, and destroy just for the sheer pleasure of it.

And unfortunately there are far too many people out there in the world that would help them.

Posted by scott at June 13, 2002 06:58 PM

eMail this entry!

Terrific! You have some amazing verbal images.

Posted by: Pat on June 13, 2002 07:29 PM

Change it back to the original please

Posted by: Pat on August 24, 2002 03:58 AM

I had forgotten how really good this essay is. Maybe you should post it somewhere so more folks could read it. Or I will comment and bump it up .

Posted by: Pat Johnson on October 7, 2002 07:07 PM

Sharp and clear-minded. An excellent read! Good work and keep it coming.

Posted by: Anderx on October 8, 2002 02:11 AM
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