“The Baroque Cycle”: The Moment I Realized History RTs Itself

This post is part of a series in which Influencers describe the books that changed them. Follow the channel to see the full list.

Around ten years ago, I read this historical fiction trilogy by a really influential science fiction writer, Neal Stephenson.

At that point I had relinquished all management control of the site I started, was doing pretty intense customer service, and I was thinking about what it all meant.

My nerdly take is that The Baroque Cycle’s about the invention of the modern world, in the social normalization of attitudes and inventions including:

  • The Enlightenment perspective
  • Scientific method
  • Calculus as a possible “system of the world”
  • Representative democracy
  • Revolution via social media

It influenced the way I think about my own creation, and to cut to the chase…

Baroque Cycle helped me understand how “history retweets itself,” how people use social media to get big things done. Over time, human social contracts evolve via punctuated equilibrium wherein things slowly get better.

Improvements are not continuous, though. Normally, things are in balance, equilibrium, until we hit some kind of tipping point, which punctuate the flow of history. That’s something I learned from Victor Hugo, as often paraphrased: “Nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come.”

Until recently, the cost of getting your idea out there was very high; you needed your own printing press, or maybe TV station.

However, the Internet changes all that.

The way I look ahead and plan was substantially altered. My focus is not only getting stuff done in the here and now, but I’m considering what I learn and how it affects stuff in the long term (twenty years) and the longer term (two hundred years.) The work done by the historical figures in the trilogy are still playing out today.

(Yes, I’m writing in a far more nerdly manner than I’ve written in years, and to be clear, I’m going old-school nerd here.)

Okay, specifically, Baroque Cycle helped me understand a lot about the way people and history work. For example, I finally began to understand the ways that social media has been used, throughout history, to change the social contract and how we govern ourselves.

Specifically, I realized that people including John Locke (not the LOST guy) and others used blogging to effect the Glorious Revolution of 1688. It was (relatively) bloodless and short, and least compared to the preceding Civil Wars and for that matter, compared to the Wars of the Roses, etc.

The books helped me understand how the Glorious Revolution led to bloggers including Ben Franklin and Tom Paine, who helped create American independence and our own form of representative democracy. Then, I realized how Martin Luther blogged his way to major religious and social change. He used the efforts of a nerd, a guy Johannes Gutenberg, to great effect. (Gutenberg got great stuff done, but it was Luther who got big stuff done; Gutenberg also learned about venture capitalists the hard way. check out Jeff Jarvis‘ “Gutenberg the Geek.”)

Then Robert Wright helped me understand how Saint Paul used the social media of his time to get the word out regarding Christianity.

More recently, The Writing on the Wall by Thomas Standage documents all of this, from the Roman Republic through now. (Spoiler: looks to me that Julius Caesar was not only a blogger re the conquest of Gaul, but he kinda invented journalism in its most literal sense.)

The deal is that The Baroque Cycle helped me get this on a gut level, and that’s inspired all of my subsequent efforts.

In Stephenson’s book we see how people, working together, separately, and sometimes in competition, how they created major tipping points which came together in a perfect storm to create the modern world. (Sorry to invoke the cliche.) [Justyn, ask me about creating an internal link to the apology.]

Added to this, I think I finally understood what a latter-day Martin Luther meant by “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” My take is that he was talking about what the books teach.

So, ten years ago I started to internalize all this and to figure out what to do about it, acknowledging that, well, I’m a nerd. Helping along a global tipping point is not in the nerd job description, which requires a lot of charisma, energy, and a lot of intuition to understand of the way people work.

However, the nature of the Internet suggests we’re not looking at the “strong man theory of history” anymore. Real and massive change will come from people who learn to lead by example, through their ideas, and from some intuitive knowledge of how to move ahead with ideas whose time has come.

I love The Baroque Cycle and recommend everything by Stephenson. However, it’s way more important to act on what it depicts, and my deal is to try to give a voice to people who never had one, and then to share their work. My stuff to date gives me a bit of a bully pulpit that I don’t need for myself. However, I use it on a daily basis to get the word out on behalf other others.

My joke, occasionally tweeted, is that I retweet a lot because 1) it’s good to share, and 2) it spares me the burden of original thought. Well, #2 has some truth to it, but #1 is the big deal for me, inspired by the actions depicted by Stephenson.

That’s not altruistic as I view it. I guess it’s just a reflection of the abnormal social affect and dysfunction of myself and sometimes of my nerdly peers.

After all, a nerd’s gotta do what a nerd’s gotta do.


Photo: Wikipedia