Stranger Than We Can Imagine

From individualist to networked; finding solace in John Higgs’ alternative history of the 20th Century

I’ve just finished reading John Higgs’ book, Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century. It’s a history not of countries and politics, but of philosophy, art and science. Relativity, relativism, modernism, individualism, nihilism, sci-fi, chaos, pop, capitalism, postmodernism… it’s all covered, in a very accessible and fascinating way. I really, really liked it.

What I most liked was that it’s positive and hopeful about the present and the future. Not utopian, but a long way from nostalgic or dystopian.

The thesis of the book is that the two biggest defining movements of the past century were individualism and relativism. Those two broke apart long-established social institutions and mores. But the networked world is joining us back together, informed by the concept of the individual and better than we were before.

Higgs compares it to the alchemical concepts of solve (taking things apart, reducing them to indivisible components) and coagula (putting things together, making them whole).

The individualism of the twentieth century can be likened to the process of solve taken to its logical end. Everything was isolated, and in isolation it was understood. The network allows the process of coagula. Things are being reconnected, but with transparency and understanding that we did not have before the process of solve.

Events of 2016 — that is, the UK referendum on Europe and the US presidential elections — might make it seem that things are not getting better. But we can hopefully ascribe this to the relative youth of the network, that we’re all just going through a (painful) transitional stage.

This transition was notable in the clash between old and new media in both the UK and US political upsets, where ‘post-fact’ politics successfully exploited a media in turmoil. As John Herrman put it:

In media business terms, it is now clear, the 2016 election could not have arrived at a more precarious moment, as industries defined by their futures struggled to handle what was happening in the present. A new business model had not replaced an old one — not yet. There was, for the duration of the campaign, effectively no model at all.

But if John Higgs is right — and I hope he is — this is the passing of an old age, not the resurgence of it.

This [networked system] does not mean that the hierarchies of the past or the individualism of the twentieth century are not still alive and kicking. Like all old ideas, they refuse to go gently and instead attempt to tear down what threatens them.
The networked system is being tested, and it will only survive if it is strong.

I hope that’s right. I hope we’re strong. I want to believe.

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