Tuesday marked the 10-year anniversary of the passing of my old boss,
Here's an extended excerpt:
-- If you had been a security policy-maker in the world's greatest power in 1900, you would have been a Brit, looking warily at your age-old enemy,
-- By 1910, you would be allied with
-- By 1920, World War I would have been fought and won, and you'd be engaged in a naval arms race with your erstwhile allies, the
-- By 1930, naval arms limitation treaties were in effect, the Great Depression was underway, and the defense planning standard said "no war for ten years."
-- Nine years later World War II had begun.
Wells keeps going, but you get the point. At any period in our lives, even modest predictions about the future are very unreliable. Outside theoretical physics, time moves in a linear, arithmetic progression: i.e., one day at a time. Life works differently. I can predict what the date will be 100 years from now with perfect accuracy, but I can't begin to tell you what life will be like.
And yet, many people make straight-line projections about politics, technology and all manner of things. "Trend X has been going in this direction for the last few years," people say, "so trend X will continue inexorably into the future." (OK, few people actually say it like that, but you get the point.) Intellectuals are often guilty of this kind of thinking, partly because they make a living looking for patterns and trends.
Writing in 1946, George Orwell argued that reflexive belief in the "continuation of the thing that is happening" amounts to a kind of "power worship." At various times, everyone was sure the
Sometimes people put their faith less in the idea of power and more in the power of an idea, convincing themselves that there is an unseen algorithm guiding events. Marxism was a classic version of this. The impersonal forces of the universe guaranteed that utopian communism was the last exit of history.
But other ideas have similar power. When Orwell wrote "1984," it was widely believed that the state -- Big Brother -- would use technology to oppress people. Later, people became convinced that technology would keep Big Brother at bay by liberating people. With the rise of the internet, this idea has taken hold in much of the West. The truth is that neither proposition is an iron law. Technology helped spread the Arab Spring, but it is also helping
Shortly after the fall of the
Which brings me back to
The passage, widely misunderstood, contained a powerful insight: We cannot outsource life to the clockwork of the universe. There is no teleology, no "right side of history." We make the world we want to live in, and we have a responsibility to do that work. Bill's friend