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The Past is Flat, But the World is Round by goosecommerce

Or, Gibson, Friedman, and #FirstWorldProblems

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How evenly distributed was the future, in the past?

Yesterday, Alexis Madrigal distilled novelist Teju Cole’s tweeted critique1 of what’s wrong with #firstworldproblems – as a concept – and it got me thinking.

His post goes into a bit more detail (and explains what #firstworldproblems signifies), but here are the key lines of Cole’s analysis:

I don’t like this expression “First World problems.” It is false and it is condescending. Yes, Nigerians struggle with floods or infant mortality. But these same Nigerians also deal with mundane and seemingly luxurious hassles. …

… people don’t wake up with “poor African” pasted on their foreheads. They live as citizens of the modern world. … the interesting thing about modern technology is how socially mobile it is–quite literally. Everyone in Lagos has a phone.

Quite so. The approach that twitterers using #firstworldproblems take to the developing world mirrors, in no small part, the approach Europeans (and later, Americans) took to the “new” worlds of the Americas, Africa, and Asia. To assume that no one in Lagos is frustrated with her iPad’s inability to sync properly is to assume that Lagos exists in a different stage of history, a different time – pace Gibson, “[t]he future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” But listening to Cole, it seems the future is actually very well distributed – at least geographically; in our brave new world, wealth forms more of a barrier than oceans.2

The key difference in both usages is history, represented by technological gadgetry (and sometimes infrastructural abundance). Time passed, in this view, is progress achieved — a view echoed, from another vantage point, in a related meme-driven complaint about the lack of flying cars. In this, as in so many ways, our way of seeing the world is an iron Enlightened Victorian imperialist cage, albeit one with some of the sharp edges sanded off.

It’s been this way for a while, of course. Early modern Westerners, as they pushed the boundaries of their power into everywhere that wasn’t Europe, classified others as more “primitive” and by that they meant both poorer, less technologically adept, and, crucially, as living in the past. (I’m not a enough of an intellectual historian to feel confident outlining the precise history of seeing different human peoples as occupying distinct stages of history, so assume I’ve made some gestures toward various Spanish theologians, Scottish moral philosophers, and French salonistes and we’ll go from there). The key move here was to map societal and economic structure onto historical stages of civilizational development – such that more “advanced” societies must necessarily be farther down the path of progress, and thus farther along in “history.”

The problems with this worldview are numerous, and quickly complicated once you start to play language games. To present just one: everyone living at a given moment, by virtue of their coincidence, must have roughly the same number of ancestors – some early marriages or generational gaps notwithstanding – and thus the same amount of “history.” You and I, dear Reader, are of the same time: we share, in a significant sense, the same past, present and future. So in this very real sense, we are all living through the same “modern” time. Hence iPhones in Lagos.

But the barrier presented by wealth – the idea that societal structures are what define different stages of history – is a crucial one. Certainly, it presented problems for the Americans of the past. So though in long run and in the aggregate these lines between “present” peoples and peoples of “the past” (or, worse, people “without history”) were quite sharply drawn, these theories had flourishes you might not expect. For example: a politically significant number of Americans wanted to keep the US at a “less advanced” stage of economic development so as to ward off the moral ills that came with commercialization — at least, that’s what Jefferson et al. claimed on their more lucid days.

When the U.S. was young, when even its most loyal citizens were ambiguous about the nation’s chances for survival (never mind prosperity!), and when the political culture of the nation was in the grip of a republicanism that did not taken European structural superiority for granted, also for reasons of progress in history — well, then, the intellectual gears could grind against each other in interesting ways.

China, in particular, posed a problem – where in history to put it? Though long , it was also acknowledged as wealthy and powerful. For some theorists – especially those, like the French physiocrats, who looked to agricultural productivity as the key measure of progress — it provided a positive example. Thus, you can find Jefferson citing China as an desired outcome in his correspondence:

You ask what I think on the expediency of encouraging our states to be commercial? Were I to indulge my own theory, I should wish them to practice neither commerce nor navigation, but to stand with respect to Europe precisely on the footing of China. We should thus avoid wars, and all our citizens would be husbandmen.2a

TJ is being a bit glib here – and his motives are complex, driven in no small part by his frustration that his independent nation was still dependent on European capital. Even so, I think it’s not too much to say that China is at least an ambiguous instance of historical development for him; the empire’s landed wealth and administrative mitigating other minuses in the progress column (non-Christian religion, despotic political system, etc).

Samuel Shaw, one of the first Americans’ to go to China, also struggled with this problem — though at first glane, it might seem as though he did not. The published version of his memoirs — issued over fifty years after his death — his biographer advertised the work as still up-to-date, because of the “unchangeableness of Chinese habits and policy.”3 And he at times emphasizes the static nature of the Qing Empire, taking it out of history by emphasizing how little changes there were. For example, he argued that “the nature of the commerce,” at Canton, was “exceedingly uniform” – meaning its structure was set, and unchanging.4

Elsewhere in his writing, Shaw – a product of that earlier, Revolutionary moment – was less sure. He took pains, in one of his reports home, to note that the vaunted agricultural production of the Qing Empire was rendered useless by poor administration. Its people were, he said, starving:5

Though little can ever been known of China by persons restricted to such narrow limits as are the foreigners who trade here, yet we see enough to give us very unfavorable ideas of its government. The laws may be good, but its police is extremely defective. It would should your humanity, were I to give a sketch of the misery which is here daily exhibited; and what excites the indignation of every foreigners is, that the number of these wretched objects being inconsiderable, it is evidently in the power of the magistracy amply to provide for them.

As if to refute Jefferson’s theory directly with observed facts, immediately after reporting on the troubles of the Empire, Shaw asserted that political structure – not just laws but administration as well – was the key variable, and the key benefit Americans held in their favor:

From this painful view of the effects of despotism, I turn with pleasure to the contemplation of what happiness which an American enjoys, under the government of equal laws and a mild administration. Surely, if we avail ourselves of the experience of other nations, and make a proper use of the advantages with which Heaven has pleased us, we cannot fail in due time of becoming a great and a happy people.

Absent the context of this debate over stadial theories of history (development economics), Shaw’s reports can seem randomly assembled; he zooms from counting ships to speculating on the value of North American ginseng and back to analyzing why British merchants treated him rudely. The even distribution of the past in an unquestionably round world was still at issue for Shaw and his coincident interlocutors. It was not a settled thing that Americans, dependent, by design and in practice, on agricultural surplus, would prosper in the modern world — why else would an American visitor feel the need to suss out the reasons behind Chinese hunger?

After all, it mattered little to his trade, or that of the rest of the Americans at Canton; the purchasers of their goods were not impoverished Chinese, but rather the elite. But Shaw cared because what was at stake was a question of development under new, and untested institutions – republican government – which was, in turn, a question of the distribution of the future.

This was a brief moment. Later China traders, like Shaw’s biographer, were more fully convinced of their own self-same superiority, and of the fundamental identity between American and British modernity – and, as a result, less disposed to see China, or the Chinese, as anything but backward. But that too was a creation of history.

(1). Alexis Madrigal, “What’s Wrong with #FirstWorldProblems?”, The Atlantic, 21 Nov 2011.

(2). I fear in sharing all this I’m revealing how low the thread-count actually is, in the skein of quotes that makes up my mental model of the world. But did you know that “skein” is a synonym for a flock of wild fowl, like geese? Maybe that saves it all in the end.

(2a). Thomas Jefferson to G. K. van Hogendorp, Paris, 13 October 1785, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition, ed. Barbara Oberg and J. Jefferson Looney 33 vols. (Charlottesville, Va: University of Virginia Press, 2009), Main Series, 8:633.

(3). See: Samuel Shaw, The Journals of Major Samuel Shaw: The First American Consul at Canton: With a Life of the Author, Josiah Quincy, ed. & comp. (Boston: Wm. Crosby and H.P. Nichols, 1847), vi.

(4). Shaw, Journals, 342. Needless to say, in these moments Shaw and his biographer are showing their ignorance; the Canton system they regarded as unchanging was an invention of the early 18th-century. Further, even as his memoirs were being published (in 1847), the China trade was undergoing huge changes – with significant consequences for China as a society and an empire.

(5). Shaw to Secretary for Foreign Affairs (John Jay), Canton, 21 December 1787, in Shaw, Journals, 354, 355.

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