The History of Western Civilization Through Social Media

The history of western civilization, as far as I can tell, is the substitution of institutional, coercive, control over people’s lives with diffused, softer, and “social” controls. First, the church, your lord, your husband, and the difficulty of human life ruled over you. Very few people had power to direct their lives each day as they saw fit, and the power that they had to direct others was stern and violent. Remember, legal courts are a comparatively new thing. If someone didn’t like what you did, it was likely that they would just kill you themselves or find someone with power that looked out for them and have them kill you.

Then the church lost its power and slowly but surely, over the course of roughly two hundred years, individuals won the right to practice the religion that they saw fit. But the freedom from excommunication and being burned at the stake by the church was replaced by legal requirements instituted by various governments, and then even those slowly died away as society finally realized the ability to. In a way, religion might be our collective sneak peek at what happens to ALL institutions and systems of value. First, they rule everything, then they are up to the state, then up to the economy, then up to the individual, and then they cease to matter altogether (as I believe will largely happen to religion, or will it have staying power? That would be interesting to see). One might say that a system of values starts its death the moment that those who believe in it cannot summarily kill those who do not.

The same thing happened with the economy. First, people owed their labor to their lord. In fact, there was slavery at the beginning of most societies, but the intermediate step was serfdom or vassalage. A huge class of people created food so that others might live. Then property became somewhat more democratized in that more people could own it, but land was still largely restricted to certain people and labor was still largely immobilized by the difficulty of travel and the power of nobles of all stripes. Also, taxes were set up to almost make sure that certain people could never participate in the economy. In France, the nobles were the ones who DIDN’T have to pay taxes for a long time, because they just didn’t want to and the king did not want to tangle with them. Today, everyone can have property to roughly the same degree. If you have the money and the skills, you can get land, cash, machines, information. Anything you want. If you have the cash. (Addendum: this trend is further backed up by a short look at the history of lending. The dispersion of capital into the economy has massively democratized access to $$)

Same thing happened with the state. At first, the state was nothing more than a group of people who had weapons or commanded the power of other people with weapons. Offending the laws of a place was a good way to die. Since that brutal starting point, the legal controls on the average person have loosened in a host of ways (though they still exist). For one thing, people can now elect their rulers. They play a role in who will rule them, to some degree. That is the legacy of the advance of democracy. Also, the state cannot do certain things. That’s never really true in practice, but there are much more barriers to outright discrimination, pogroms, and the like then in the past. That is the legacy of liberalism. Finally, breaking the law is almost never a ticket to death. There are courts, appeals courts, and finally prisons. There are many, many MORE laws because society has become so much more complex, but they do not carry the absolute and unbending character that they used to.


In this post though, I want to focus on the economy at large. Here again, we are witnessing a substitution of one type of obvious power with a more subtle more dispersed power. The example I’m thinking of is social media and the internet. As the economy had evolved up until the 20th century, people were entitled to property of various kind by paying for it. The problem was that if one didn’t have money, one became poor. If you were poor before public transportation, you had to find a ride another way. If you were poor before food stamps and the like, you were hungry (soup kitchens being the exception).

But these days, a lot of things are eliminating that barrier by providing things for free. For example, news is now free, because sites provide them along with advertisements. Facebook is free, because they want you to give them all your personal information. Thousands of other services are provided not for a monetary cost (the old way of restricting people to goods), but by transacting over someone’s personal data.

This fits with western civilization thus far. Goods and services are made available to more and more people. Yay! Anyone can go to theatlantic.com and read pretty high quality writing about a range of interesting topics. Anyone can connect with friends and family via google voice, facebook, email, and on and on. The tradeoff though is made in terms of less understood and “softer” forms of restriction. Cynicism is the name for this and I predict it will grow as an extremely unhealthy force in our society.

In the old economy, if I wanted to buy steel, and you wanted to sell it to me, I knew why you wanted to sell it to me. You wanted my money. This was a type of honesty. As many have pointed out, it was also callous, since I didn’t care about you, but only your money. I maintain though that because everyone knew that money was the trade off, it created an activity and a respect similar to sports. If I played you in basketball, I know you wanted to win, but we both knew the purpose of our interaction. Same with negotiations and creating business. People know what they are getting into when they enter the marketplace. They expect to engage in economic competition (as I’ve argued elsewhere, the value of this competition is exactly the reason we need public education and wealth redistribution, so that this competition is meaningful). But now, when you go to get something, there is an element of fakery that breeds cynicism. Rather than posting a price that Facebook expects you to pay, it plays an ongoing game that most people do not KNOW ABOUT or PAY ATTENTION TO regarding what they will and will not do with your information. They want badly to do whatever they want, but they are bound to care about the community because they need the “community” to continue to extract the information that it needs. Thus there is a very amorphous dance that goes on about the service and what it entails rather than a price transaction which focuses the consumer on what they are buying. This type of transaction makes it very clear to the consumer what they are giving up.

The same things goes for news sites that make money through eyeballs. Rather than asking you to pay for what you read if you like it, there are now gadgets an procedures at every turn to keep your eyeballs on the site. Such things can be distractions, redirects, and prettier and prettier advertisements. But the point is simply to deluge you with advertisements. This is much less callous than simply asking a price, but it’s much more insulting. The purchase of things is becoming indirect. Rather than trying to get your money, facebook wants you to be willing to make it easier for someone ELSE to get your money.


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