We talk a lot on these pages about the benefits – even the virtues – of the virtual world. But after my recent trip to Europe, I was reminded once again of the transcendent rewards of the physical world.
The centuries-old promenades lined with magnificent monuments from eras gone by; the names of architects chiseled into stonework that would be plasterwork anywhere else in the world; even the modern, minimalist interventions with their own whispered splendour; all of which is a stark reminder that, for all the talk of “The West” as if it were a singular thing, it’s very much a house divided.
Indeed, the Old World is not the New World.
Given how broad, vast, and naturally beautiful is the New World, most of us stay right here most of the time. And maybe that’s mostly okay.i But from this little pioneering peephole, certainly with the distance of generations, it’s easy to forget what it was (and is) like to live in the Old World. Indeed, the trade-offs we’ve made in the name of humanism and short-term profit are only put into such denuding contrast when we skip across the pond.
Compared to what’s over there, what’s over here is a built environmentii somewhere between barely functional and morally reprehensiblyiii – with just the odd relic “here and there” of semi-respectable days gone by – is it any wonder that over here we walk the streets glued to our phones on our way to virtual meetings before going home to watch Netflix while simultaneously scrolling Instagram? The alternative is looking outside of our windows and getting riled up for reasons not immediately clear but undoubtedly related to the abject ugliness of so much of our physical surroundings. Is it any wonder that we all work ourselves to the bone, barely with a moment to breath or think, running on hedonic treadmills to acquire more and more stuff over here? To collect, in the words of English poet Ruth Podel, in an effort “to assert control over what’s unbearable.” Immensely moreso than our Western counterparts over there?
To summarise my current view on the New/Old divide:
And yet this is why the New World is so perfectly suited to the crypto-economy, which we might understand in this light as a sort of crypto-escapism. Of course nothing is either good nor bad but thinking makes it so, and with this in mind, the New World and its virtualised successors in Web3, for all of their foibles, are still very much the first choice for the parts of the world still looking to make it.iv I’m just increasingly convinced that it’s not the first choice for anyone who’s made it.
So good people, lend me your ears… and throw down your phones! As the Old World knows all too well, and is being reminded of as I write this, the physical still matters. Bullets, buildings, and babies still matter.
And they’re worth fighting for.
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- Although being so myopic certainly doesn’t help our foreign affairs game. ↩
- The immense difficulty and resource intensiveness of moving atoms relative to bits is all you need to know about the inherent value of the former. Indeed, moving atoms is like buying NFT collection “grails” while moving bits is like buying floors. One of these might make you more money but which is the bigger flex? And what are future generations going to remember more? ↩
- This spinning superficiality and soulless urbanism is also incidentally what makes New York so unbearable, and yet so quintessentially American and so symbolically representative of New World culture. Indeed, the attacks of 9/11 couldn’t have wounded a more sacred target, which is what makes the Daniel Libeskind-masterplanned Memorial there so unbelievably emotional. The depth of the black granite-lined infinity pools are very much the depth of the scars in the nation’s psyche.
- Ask a random Bangladeshi whether they’d rather move to Houston or Voronezh. The answer won’t surprise you. ↩