I live in dread of the web’s new Wheel of Fortune

 To this anxious writer the Online Age can seem destructively medieval

I am not prone to anxiety. I inherited from my parents a relatively robust mental constitution. My skin has been thickened by vicious ad hominem criticism of my books and TV shows. I don’t dwell on setbacks, any more than on successes. I am rarely introspective and have never sought psychological or psychiatric help. Last week, however, for the first time since I went through the emotional trauma of divorce, I experienced an uncontrollable panic attack.

If you’re an anxious person, you’ll know the symptoms all too well. You’re tired, and yet you can’t sleep. It’s cold, and yet you’re sweating. You’re lying in bed, and yet your heart is racing as if you’ve just run the 100-metre sprint. You try to read, and yet your mind can’t escape the doom-loop of whatever is worrying you. I slept not a wink. The following day I was a zombie propelled by caffeine. And without the help of a sleeping pill it would have been the same story the next night.

The trigger for the attack was a few intemperate emails, inadvertently forwarded to unintended recipients. My wife, who is made of sterner stuff, read them and laughed. Why was I hyperventilating over such silliness? But my reaction was so extreme that I was forced to reflect on its deeper causes.

Two things struck me. First, since the publication in October of The Square and the Tower — my book on networks in history — I have been almost incessantly on a book tour and therefore in the public eye. I have given umpteen interviews. Every other day, I have to stand up in front of an audience, summarise the book’s argument and then take questions.

I have been through this before, of course, more than a dozen times. But when I began publishing books (more than 20 years ago), there was no Amazon, no Facebook, no Twitter, no YouTube. Book publicity mainly consisted of appearing on Start the Week, and then traipsing from one bookshop to another, signing books, until the Hay festival heralded the summer holidays. Today, by contrast, an author is expected to hype himself through every available social media channel.

In the old days you had to deal with a finite number of reviews of the book, of which perhaps five really mattered. Today the feedback is incessant. Has your Amazon ranking slid from three digits to four? Has your number of followers or subscribers gone up? How many “likes” did your latest utterance elicit?

This would be bad enough in itself. But the worst feature of the Online Age is not the frequency and precision of the ratings. It’s the vicious atmosphere that pervades every online forum.

A central theme of my book is that the internet, especially since the advent of social media, has exacerbated political polarisation. This is partly because of human nature: even in quite small social networks we human beings tend to self-segregate into like-minded clusters (a phenomenon known as homophily). But it is also because the algorithms that drive the networks incentivise the posting of fake news and extreme views. On Twitter, for example, political tweets are 20% more likely to be retweeted for each moral and emotive word they use.

Having written about all this, I am now living it. And the effect is best described as frazzling. You become involuntarily addicted to the accursed apps on your phone and laptop, not (as is commonly claimed) because you seek the validation of popular approval, but because you live in mortal dread of public humiliation. And abasement can come at the drop of a single brick. One faux pas — one off-the-cuff comment deemed by some group of militant victims to be “offensive” — and the digital mob is on your case, moral and emotive words at the ready.

The second reason my nerves are in shreds is that I have been on the book publicity circuit at a time when the reputations of a succession of eminent men have been destroyed with stunning speed. I am not thinking only of the celebrities brought low by accusations of sexual harassment — more than 70 in the US alone. I’m referring to a more general tendency. The average British chief executive now spends just 4.8 years in the top job; the average football manager — even if you count Arsène “22 seasons” Wenger — just 1.2 years.

There’s also something unnerving about the remarkable brevity of political careers these days. The Trump administration is just 15 months old, and there have already been more than 40 resignations and firings. Anthony Scaramucci was appointed communications director on July 21 last year and fired a mere 10 days later, destroyed by a reckless phone call to a journalist he considered a friend.

In the immortal words of the Aussie rockers AC/DC, “It’s a long way to the top if you want to rock’n’roll.” But it’s now a very short way to the bottom.

You may say that these are all signs of a greater accountability. Yet justice has not been done in at least some cases I can think of. Some careers have been terminated for transgressions that were committed long ago and violated no law. Other cases seem to be investigated according to the principle of “guilty until proven innocent”. As for the Trump administration, turnover is now higher than in The Apprentice, the reality-TV show the president used to host, which would lose 17 people each series.

In the course of my sleepless night I found myself wondering whether I any longer trusted that my world was just. Growing up in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s, I had unthinkingly accepted the system described (critically) in Michael Young’s 1958 book The Rise of the Meritocracy. My assumption, based on the Calvinist culture and Enlightenment ideals of middle-class Scotland, was that if I studied hard, worked long hours and behaved with honesty and integrity, I would prosper.

It was not until I visited what was then Soviet-controlled eastern Europe that I encountered societies where arbitrary acts of injustice were routinely perpetrated against the likes of me. But only recently have I fully grasped that injustice can also occur in the West, and it can befall not only its traditional victims at the bottom of the social heap, but also smug meritocrats.

Ancient Roman and medieval writers, not least Chaucer, understood fate was random. “Thus kan Fortune hir wheel governe and gye,” writes Chaucer in The Monk’s Tale, “And out of joye brynge men to sorwe.” The Rota Fortunae — Wheel of Fortune — was so overused an image that, by Shakespeare’s time, it furnished material for comedy (Pistol and Fluellen discuss it in Henry V).

From the Renaissance onwards, men grew increasingly confident they could determine their own fates. No more. The lesson I have learnt this year is that the Rota Fortunae is back. The blind goddess now resides on the internet. And that funny revolving beach ball that Mac users see shortly before their computer crashes — what Apple calls the “spinning wait cursor” — is actually Fortune’s new wheel. Beware, for it is not only computers she causes to crash.

Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford

 

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