It is not different this time, and nothing has changed.
By February 4, 2024– Published on
My goal was to show that history is a movie that plays on repeat.
An objective look at the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and British Empires (and the rise of the Americans) will reveal a consistent pattern of behaviours every single time.
Identifying this “empire blueprint” is helpful because it gives us some hints at where we might be in the current cycle.
Both pieces received abundant feedback.
Today, I wanted to discuss one of the most common questions/comments I received.
Many people asked, or challenged, that due to modern technology and the future being so different from the past, these historic cycles may no longer apply to us.
It is easy to understand this point of view. Our world is more connected, more centralized, and more rapidly evolving than any empire in history, and as a consequence, the old rules may not apply.
But since it is easy to make that argument, today I will argue the opposite - that it is not different this time, and nothing has changed.
I will argue that the cycles of history are driven by human nature, and not by the available technology.
Wish me luck, and I hope you enjoy it :)
I will begin by acknowledging that our world is different than it has ever been.
We can travel, transact, and share information in ways that we never could in the past.
And it is true that today, we live on the cutting edge of disruptive emerging technology - technologies that will change our world forever.
But it is also true that every year of human history, since the discovery of stone tools and likely before, we have lived on the cutting edge of disruptive emerging technology.
Technologies that would change our world forever.
We harnessed fire. We domesticated wild animals and plants. We created spears, then arrows, then gunpowder.
In each case, we created a divide between the haves and the have-nots and altered the course of human development.
After infinite generations of “knowing”, we discovered that the blue abyss at our shores did not lead to a cliff but to entirely new worlds filled with strange people and animals, unrecognizable, speaking in tongues we could not understand, believing in gods we had never heard of.
Imagine the disruption at the time. We had discovered aliens, in our true understanding of the word.
The consecutive centuries are filled with fascinating stories like the one below:
In 1839, Commissioner Lin Zexu, a high-ranking Chinese official, was tasked by the Emperor to investigate the source of the opium trade and shut it down at its origin.
In Edwards Rutherfurds' “China”, he fictionalizes a conversation between Commissioner Lin and a subordinate, Shi-Rong, immediately preceding the Opium Wars.
“The Fan Kuie - the red-haired devils bring the opium into the kingdom.”
“And what do we know about them?”
“It seems they are not all the same. They come from many countries. And only a few have red hair.”
“The largest criminals are from a country called Britain. Nobody seems to be sure exactly where it is. Do you know?”
“No, Excellency. Shall I make inquiries?”
“Perhaps. Though it does not matter where these inferior peoples dwell. I have learned, however, that this country is ruled by a queen.”
It is a simple story, and a fictionalized conversation held between historical characters, but I love it because it demonstrates the timeless confusion of our world.
We think that today our world is moving too fast and running away from us. But we shouldn’t trivialize the experiences of our ancestors. They lived through the same disruptions and complexities.
We have been here before. A hundred times over.
Let me tell you another story - this one is about my dad.
My dad was born in 1942 and grew up in rural Saskatchewan. He was one of nine siblings. He grew up in a house with no running water.
His family did not lack running water because they were poor. They lacked running water because nobody in rural Saskatchewan had plumbing in the 1940s.
It gets very cold in Saskatchewan - far below freezing for many months of the year.
With no running water and a landscape frozen solid, where do you think they got drinking water?
All winter, my dad and his brothers would hike down to the river, break up big blocks of ice, and haul them back to the house to be melted in the living room.
This was the water they drank, washed, and cooked with.
Melted river ice.
In the 1950’s, he was harvesting drinking water from blocks of river ice.
In the 1990’s, he was sending emails.
Think about the mechanics required behind each of these activities: one, hiking down to a river to harvest ice, and the second, sending an email.
How many moments of disruptive emerging technology had to have occurred between one activity and the other?
I imagine him sitting at his desk, discovering the internet. The world was on the cusp of crossing the Rubicon - a moment that would define history and change our future.
And it did. The world did change. It became unrecognizable from what it used to be.
But not my dad. He’s the same kid who used to haul blocks of ice from the river.
The tools we have are different. But the behaviours that drive history are timeless.
You could put a rock, gun or iPhone in my hand. But I am still driven by fear and greed, by love for my family, towards pleasure and away from pain.
And this is why the cycle is not different this time. The tools in our hands shift. The human using the tool does not.
Let me put this in the context of money.
In financial media, there are hot debates about reckless monetary policy, money printing, inflation and the need for a hard, fixed currency.
Both the gold and the bitcoin communities believe they have the solution - that if we depart from our fiat money system and move towards a fixed, hard money standard (digital or physical), wealth disparity, currency manipulation and corruption will fail.
It is a promising thought - until we visit any preceding empire, ever.
The Sumerian Shekel of 6000 years ago was tied to a portion of barley. The American dollar was tied to gold. Every currency in between has had a season of hard money ties, and every single time, we abandoned it.
The issue has never been the technology. The issue is us. Regardless of what the future tools will be, as long as we are the holders of these tools, nothing will change.
And that’s not a bad thing.
We build it, we break it, we build it again.
Because here is the thing - I pride myself on being a student of history - but I’ve still had to learn every valuable lesson the hard way.
I need to experience it, to know it.
And that's why every generation needs to make the same mistakes. And every cycle needs to find its end.
Just so we can start all over again.
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