What if the Web Doesn’t Win? Thoughts that give me the Fear

“You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning…

And that, I think, was the handle–that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting–our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave…

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark–that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Hunter S. Thompson

I read the book 3 or 4 years ago and haven’t really thought about it since. I remember it being influential in my Tucker Max column, but apart from that it had slipped into being a vague memory. Then about a week ago, the quote above slipped into consciousness and has been echoing in my head since. If you want to break the book down–find the root of the escape or the demon Thompson was chasing–this is the place. Vegas in the late 60’s was the hollow, empty hole in America. It was the Gatsby parties for a new era, the place where people pursued pleasure instead of acknowledging pain. The idealism and the vision of the time crested and crashed in the Nevada desert.

I think this is relevant now because we are in a very similar cycle. The rhetoric and the revolutionaries have never been louder. All sorts of wild promises are being thrown around–the end of newspapers, the citizen journalist, the fall of Hollywood tyranny, a brand new world. Well what if it’s all just talk? What if it doesn’t happen? TheExecutive is fond of saying that the “Studio is like the house, and the house always wins.” A lot of these predictions just have no chance of coming true. Can technology really change people? Can a new delivery system ever deincentivize laziness or the tendency to rush art? Won’t we always be susceptible to sensationalism? And aren’t many of our consumer habits based on social motivations instead of personal tastes?

One of the questions I keep coming back to is “What happens if we don’t win?” What will become of all this progress if it doesn’t crush its enemy totally? I read a cool script a while back called Terra Firma and the short plot of it was that revolutionaries began to speak in this new telepathic language to connect with each other directly–instead of through the clogged lens of corporate advertising, bias and capitalism. Well, the catch is that you find out that advertisers were the ones who created it, and now they had access directly to our thoughts.

As the Web 2.0 wave rushes through us and we buy into it, we are in essence creating a whole new game. It’s a world where the typical barriers between consumer and creator have come down, where our tastes are right out in the open, and where the costs of production fall to almost zero. The same men who ruled the last one can come back to power here–or at the very least, their tendencies can come to roost in the next generation of leaders. And what worries me is that all the idealism has left us unprepared to deal with the possibility. Not only that, but we’ve created an infrastructure designed to be taken advantage of. A massive high is almost always followed by a massive low. Have we considered this? The exuberance won’t die easy, but anything less than what we’ve demanded is going to be crushing. That’s the thing too, for the first time we’ve really asked for something–and we asked for a hell of a lot. We sat at our computers and poured our hearts out and wrote down exactly what we wanted. But what if they don’t listen? What then? There is that Xenophon saying “it’s not for the conquerors to surrender their arms.” I’ve spent a bit of time in Hollywood now and both sides think they’ve got the power. Which might just leave the world with a compromise or a long war of attrition; neither are great options. We’ve ventured way out into Persia and if we have to battle our way home, most of us won’t make it back.

I’m not saying that I’ve lost faith, but I think I am getting the Fear. But like Thompson said, that’s what happens when you get real close to the savage heart of the American Dream. It’s not as simple as playing the Reveille and watching as the world changes. We must got to the mattresses if change is to really occur. And even then, it’s still a long shot. So temper the rhetoric with a taste of history every now and then or you’ll see it happen again right before you.

Written by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as Grammy Award winning musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.