Fragmentation, Frontier, Fourth Turning, Future Is Our Past
New countries begin with new stories.
Once we’ve dislodged the “arc of history” from our heads, that thing we didn’t even know was there, the story that told us of the US establishment’s inevitability and institutional goodness…once we’ve realized just how similar that story is to the USSR’s similar narrative of inevitability and institutional goodness…once we’ve realized we can’t count on the US establishment to be the “leader of the free world” or even to successfully manage its domestic affairs anymore…what’s left?
We’re going to need new stories. Movies where the big decision doesn’t end up on the US president’s desk, where the US military isn’t counted on to save us from aliens. News feeds that don’t put American events by default on the frontpage. Supply chains and digital services that don’t rely on an increasingly unpredictable and anarchic America. Stories that decenter the US, in other words, but that still give the world hope.
That movie point is a disorienting one, isn’t it? You might be tempted to say it’s not important. But it’s all-important. We don’t tell fictional stories about the Kazakhstani military saving the world because it wouldn’t be realistic. And after 2021, it isn’t realistic to make stories about the US establishment saving the world either.
For example, a movie like 2011’s Contagion that depicts a competent CDC is now just too far away from reality to permit suspension of disbelief. So instead we get a movie like 2021’s Don’t Look Up, which depicts a chaotic America that’s still somehow the center of events, still the country which the world relies on, but whose internal chaos causes it to fall short. The next movie in that imaginary trilogy will probably not center America. What could it center instead?
Unfortunately, the default right now would be to center China. The Chinese are after all putting out blockbuster movies like Wolf Warrior 2 and Battle of Lake Changjin where they beat the Americans, save the world, and end up as number one. They have that civilizational confidence. And these movies are not laughable like they would have been even a decade ago. China is a real contender for the crown, unlike Chad or Chile. So that’s the set of stories that is waiting in the wings.
One response is to deny this and double down on American nostalgia, rolling out Top Gun: Maverick and electing people born in the 1940s forever. This is what the US establishment is currently doing, hanging on for dear life to the postwar order, denying that any change is underway — and thereby refusing to gracefully adapt.
Another response is to come up with new stories that center neither China nor America, but that do center certain universal values - and that give a bridge between America and what comes next, as America itself was a bridge between the British Empire and the post-WW2 world.
We give four concrete examples in this chapter. But to be clear, just because a story decenters America doesn’t mean it has to be punitive. That is, these stories don’t have to condemn the US, anymore than the postwar order of 1945-1991 put the UK in the dock, or the 1991-2021 order really beat up on the Soviets that much. Indeed, a new story could well feature past aspects of the US in laudatory ways. The main commonality is that we need new stories that no longer assume the US establishment will continue to be at the center of the world, or else people will be psychologically unprepared for that eventuality.
Another way of thinking about it is that the right kind of new story turns constants into variables. Just as Bitcoin turned the constant of the US dollar into a variable, we need new stories that turn the constant of the US establishment into a variable. By decentering the US establishment in our mental models, we enable decentralization. We envision a world where the US may not be there for us, because it was not always there in the past, and may not endure far into the future.
Here are four such stories. The first is the tale of the fragmentation of the postwar consensus. The second is a generalization of Fredrick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis. The third recapitulates the Fourth Turning concept from Strauss and Howe, as well as Turchin and Dalio’s work, all of which predict significant conflict to come in the West. The fourth talks about how our future is our past, how the mid-20th century is like a funhouse mirror moment, and how we are now seeing a bizarre phenomenon where we repeat past events but get opposite outcomes.
All of them turn constants into variables, as they describe a pre-American era where the US didn’t yet exist, and thereby prepare us for a post-American period where the US in its current form no longer exists.
The Sovereign Individual, written in 1999, is an incredible book that nailed many aspects of our digital future decades in advance, Bitcoin prime among them. We won’t recapitulate the whole thing here, but in short the thesis is that after many generations in which technology favored centralization (railroads, telegraph, radio, television, movies, mass production) since about 1950 it is now favoring decentralization (transistor, personal computer, internet, remote work, smartphone, cryptocurrency).
So by this measure, peak centralization was about 1950, when there was one telephone company (AT&T), two superpowers (US/USSR), and three TV stations (ABC/CBS/NBC). Even though the 1950s are romanticized in the US, and there were certainly good things about the era, that level of centralization was not natural. This was an enormous degree of cultural homogenization, conformity, and sameness relative to the pre-1914 world just a few decades prior. Many aspects of individual initiative, creativity, and freedom had been dulled down or eliminated in the standardization process.
Read William H. Whyte’s The Organization Man or James Burnham’s Managerial Revolution for a portrait of this midcentury time period. At the time, the mid-century US was more corporatist than entrepreneurial. Yes, the system was capitalism, but a highly managed and regulated sort of capitalism. It was all about joining the big company and working your way up, not founding one, except for the rare and just beginning startup phenomenon on the West Coast, which was a million-fold less common than it is now.
Everything was significantly to the economic left and social right of where it is today. Yes, the USA wasn’t communist, but it did have 90% top marginal tax rates, to stop any new people from getting rich and potentially threatening the system FDR built. Similarly, the USSR was far more socially conservative than is commonly remembered, doing things like taxing childless women to reduce their status if they didn’t reproduce.
Typically, those who complain about filter bubbles are actually complaining that there is more than one. Namely, they are annoyed that all information doesn’t derive from establishment sources only. That situation actually did obtain in the mid-century US, when tens of millions of Americans all assembled in their living rooms at the same time to watch I Love Lucy.
Then it all decentralized, fragmented. The story is told in essays like Paul Graham’s “Refragmentation,” and in The Sovereign Individual. And we call this the Fragmentation thesis.
In the late 1800s, Fredrick Jackson Turner gave an influential talk on the concept of the frontier as the crucial driving force in American history. At that time, it was understood that the free land of the frontier was crucial to the US in several ways - as a way for the ambitious to seek their fortunes, as a national aspiration in the form of Manifest Destiny, as bare land for social experiments.
Today, of course, the concept of the frontier and Manifest Destiny is not only not admired, but has been pathologized since the 60s by the same deconstructionism that is one half of wokeness. You know the story: the American frontiersmen, like Columbus before them, were racists, colonialists, and imperalists.72
But two points on this before we proceed.
The first is that there were N tribes fighting in the Americas before the arrival of the Spanish, the British, and the like. The Europeans simply represented tribes N+1, N+2, and so on. Had one of the Native American tribes developed a technological edge over any of the European tribes, had they invented oceanic navigation, they would likely have invaded Europe. We can infer this because (a) when the Mongols had a similar technological edge they did invade Europe and (b) many North American tribes were by contemporaneous accounts people accustomed to war. So, it’s old-fashioned, but it’s probably healthier to think of the Native Americans more like the 300 Spartans than as helpless victims — brave warriors who fought valiantly but lost to superior forces.
The second is that if you read books like Reich’s Who We Are and How We Got Here, it makes clear that history is a boneyard. Contra the opening notes of Microsoft’s recent Ignite conference, there’s probably not a single ethnic group on the planet that simply peacefully occupied their plot of land since “time immemorial.” One tribe’s homeland was once their distant ancestors’ frontier.
So, with that as preface, let’s generalize the frontier thesis. One way of thinking about it is that the frontier actually opened in 1492, well before the founding of the Americas. What’s little known is that Columbus’ voyage to the New World was in part driven by the Ottoman blockade of the Eastern Mediterranean; it was an attempt to find an alternative path to India around the Ottomans, but it ended up using technology to reopen the frontier in the face of political roadblocks.
From 1492 to 1890, Europeans had what they considered a frontier. It started with transatlantic navigation and the discovery of the New World, then proceeded to European colonialism, and from there to the independence of the US and Western expansion via Manifest Destiny. Towards the end of this period, authors like Charles Nordhoff in Communistic Societies of the United States noted how important the frontier was, how bad it would be if that avenue for ambitious men was closed off, and how nasty the Trade-Unionists were getting.
Hitherto, in the United States, our cheap and fertile lands have acted as an important safety-valve for the enterprise and discontent of our non-capitalist population. Every hired workman knows that if he chooses to use economy and industry in his calling, he may without great or insurmountable difficulty establish himself in independence on the public lands; and, in fact, a large proportion of our most energetic and intelligent mechanics do constantly seek these lands…
I do not doubt that the eagerness of some of our wisest public men for the acquisition of new territory has arisen from their conviction that this opening for the independence of laboring men was essential to the security of our future as a free and peaceful state…
Any circumstance, as the exhaustion of these lands, which should materially impair this opportunity for independence, would be, I believe, a serious calamity to our country; and the spirit of the Trades-Unions and International Societies appears to me peculiarly mischievous and hateful, because they seek to eliminate from the thoughts of their adherents the hope or expectation of independence. The member of a Trades-Union is taught to regard himself, and to act toward society, as a hireling for life; and these societies are united, not as men seeking a way to exchange dependence for independence, but as hirelings, determined to remain such, and only demanding better conditions of their masters. If it were possible to infuse with this spirit all or the greater part of the non-capitalist class in the United States, this would, I believe, be one of the gravest calamities which could befall us as a nation; for it would degrade the mass of our voters, and make free government here very difficult, if it did not entirely change the form of our government, and expose us to lasting disorders and attacks upon property.
Nordhoff was right. The aggression of the Trade-Unions eventually led to the communist revolutions which killed tens of millions of people globally, led to “lasting disorders and attacks upon property”, and generally became the bane of the world.
We can attribute some of this to the pause, to the closing of the frontier in 1890. That closing took away paths for ambitious men, and ensured that they couldn’t easily become founders on their own plot of land - they had to become union organizers, or revolutionaries, or demagogues of some kind. Without the frontier, it all became zero sum. And thus we entered the steel cage match of the 20th century between fascism, communism, and democratic capitalism. There were some important frontier-related technological developments during this period in space shuttles (and cruise ships!), but the frontier itself was not open.
Humanity managed to survive through a bloody 20th century. After 1991, the frontier reopened as commerce on the internet was legalized. By the late 2010s, the combination of centralization and wokification (in the West) and Xi-ification (in China) threatened to close this frontier too, but BTC and web3 and the open metaverse have given the digital frontier a new lease on life.
Today, if we assess where we’re at, there are four possibilities for the frontier: the land, the internet, the sea, and space. Right now, there are 7.7B people on land, 3.2B on the internet, about 2-3M on the high seas, and less than 10 currently in space.
So, practically speaking, an “internet frontier” is easier than the other three. If we’re lucky, we’ll be able to use the concepts from the network state to reopen the physical frontier, through a hybrid internet/land strategy, as described in this book.
To summarize, (a) the period of European greatness corresponded to the open frontier from 1492-1890, (b) the period of total war corresponded to the closing frontier from 1890-1991 which ushered in a necessarily zero-sum world, (c) the peaceful reopening of the digital frontier could lead us again to a time of greatness, (d) the American and Chinese establishments are trying to close that frontier and trap us into the same steel cage match of the 20th century, (e) but with sufficiently good technology we might be able to escape these political roadblocks and (f) reopen not just a digital frontier, but a physical one: on remote pieces of land, on the sea, and eventually in space. This is what we refer to as the generalized Frontier thesis.
The Fourth Turning and Ages of Discord both predict very significant unrest within the US in the coming years. Ray Dalio does as well in Principles for Dealing with the Changing World Order, though he confines most of his comments to monetary apocalypse. Their models are somewhat related.
The Fourth Turning came out in 1997 and is based on a quasi-cyclical theory of Anglo-American history, where conflict erupts roughly every 75 years. If you believe in these patterns and want a possible underlying driver of them, 75 years is about one long human lifespan. So perhaps those who do not remember73 history really are doomed to repeat it.
Turchin’s predictions came out around 2008 in a Nature article, and he’s written them up at length in War and Peace and War. He has impressive timestamped graphs with specific forecasts as to why conflict will rise, using various measures for societal instability like elite overproduction and the wage share of the masses.
Dalio’s thesis is that we’re about to experience events that have never happened before in our lives, but have happened many times before in history. He goes back further than the Fourth Turning to the British and Dutch empires, and has some quasi-quantitative analysis to support his view.
All three of these works predict significant physical and/or monetary conflict in America in the 2020s, and (in Dalio’s case) a consequent changing of the world order. We call this the Fourth Turning Thesis.
Take a look at this video of unmixing a fluid. Isn’t that bizarre? You can see the same process going backward in time, in an unexpected way. This is not the kind of trajectory we expect to see, but it happens under certain conditions.
And it’s one model for what’s happening in the world, as we redecentralize after a century of centralization. In other words, an important consequence of the fragmentation thesis is that our future may be more like our past. If peak centralization was around 1950, with one telephone company (AT&T) and two superpowers (US, USSR) and three television stations (ABC, CBS, NBC), we grow more decentralized as we move in either direction from that point.
Essentially, the invention of the transistor in 1947 is like a mirror moment. And as you go forward and backward in time you start to see events repeating, but as funhouse mirror versions of themselves, often with the opposite outcome. Our future is our past. Let’s go through some examples:
- Today, the internet frontier reopens; back then, the western frontier closed.
- Today, we experience COVID-19; back then we experienced the Spanish Flu.
- Today, we have tech billionaires; back then we had the captains of industry.
- Today, founders like Elon Musk and Jack Dorsey seem to be winning against establishment journalists; back then, the likes of Ida Tarbell demagogued and defeated Rockefeller.
- Today, we have cryptocurrencies; back then we witnessed the era of private banking.
- Today, we have a populist movement of digital gold advocates; back then, we had a populist movement against gold in the form of the Cross of Gold speech.
- Today, we have the inflation and cultural conflict of Weimar America; back then, we had the inflation and cultural conflict of Weimar Germany.
- Today, in Weimar America, we have right and left fighting in the streets; back then, in Weimar Germany, we had left and right fighting in the streets.
- Today, the capitalists successfully teamed up with the generals against a sitting president; back then, the generals sided with the sitting president against the capitalists.
- Today, we have what Turchin considers antebellum-like polarization; back then, we had what we now know to be antebellum polarization.
- Today, we have Airbnb; back then, we had flophouses.
- Today, we have Uber; back then, we had gypsy cabs.
- Today, The New York Times sides with Ukraine to fight nationalist Russia; back then, The New York Times sided with communist Russia to starve out Ukraine.
- Today, we see the transition from “neutral” to yellow journalism; back then, we saw the transition from yellow to “neutral” journalism.
- Today, figures like Mike Moritz think of China as energetic and America as laconic, but back then folks like Bertrand Russell thought of America as energetic and China as laconic.
We can think of more examples, with respect to the emerging Second Cold War.
- Today, we’re seeing the Chinese and Russians again line up against the West, except this time, the Chinese are the senior partner in the relationship.
- Today, we may see a third group arise outside of the Cold War axis, except this time rather than being the “Third World” and non-aligned, it may be “Web3” and economically aligned.
- And today, depending on how the economics play out, that third faction may come in first, the Second World may come in second, and the former First World may end up last.
And if we go back further in time:
- Today, we see a US that’s gradually federalizing into individual states and an Indian state that’s unified many subcontinental ethnic groups. Back in the late 1940s, we saw an India that was gradually centralizing away from individual princely states, and a United States that unified many European ethnicities.
- Today, we’re seeing so-far unsuccessful calls for wealth seizures in the US; back then, we saw Executive Order 6102, the successful seizure of gold.
- Today, we’re seeing the rise of the pseudonymous founder and startup societies; back then, in the 1770s, we saw pseudonymous founders of startup countries.
- Today, we’re seeing the re-encryption of the map; further back in time, before 1492, maps had terra incognita.
The careful observer will note that these events aren’t all happening in exactly the same reverse order. It’s not A/B/C/D and then D/C/B/A like a melody. Moreover, the first set of events is more spaced out over time, while the second is highly clumped together, with internet-era events years, rather than decades, apart. Finally, the repetition of each event is often not exactly the same as the previous, but often a “version 3.0.” For example, Bitcoin is not simply the same as gold, but a version 3.0 that combines some aspects of gold and some aspects of digitized fiat currencies.
Still, there seems to be something going on. What’s the unifying theory here?
One model, as just discussed in the Fragmentation Thesis, is that technology favored centralization in the West and especially the US from arguably 1754-1947 (Join, or Die in the French and Indian War, unified national government post-Civil War, railroads, telegraph, radio, television, movies, mass media in general, and mass production). And technology is now favoring decentralization from roughly 1950 to the present day (transistor, personal computer, internet, remote work, smartphone, cryptocurrency). So, in the West, the grip of the centralized state has begun to slacken. The East is a different matter; after a century of communism, socialism, civil war, and Partition, China and India are more internally unified than they’ve been in a long time.
Before we immediately jump to thinking that world is ending, though, we should note that during the rise of Western centralized power people (understandably) complained about centralized power and homogeneity, just as today during the fall of Western centralized power they are complaining about fragmentation and lack of common voice. That doesn’t mean we’ve come full circle, exactly. As per the helical theory of history, we might have progressed or regressed. But there may be an underlying cycle: “the empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide.”
Anyway, this model would explain why we’re seeing an inversion: there was an upward arc that favored the centralized State, but now we’re in the middle of a downward arc that favors the decentralized Network.74 So various historical events are recurring with the opposite results, like the fluid flowing in reverse. And that’s the thesis on how our Future is Our Past.