I am not prone to anxiety. I inherited from my parents a relatively robust mental constitution. I am rarely introspective and have never sought psychological or psychiatric help. Last week, however, I experienced an uncontrollable panic attack.
The trigger for the attack was a few intemperate e-mails, 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, it seems, I stand up in front of an audience, summarize 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.
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. Did your Amazon ranking slide from three digits to four? Did your number of followers or subscribers go 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 polarization. This is partly because of human nature: Even in quite small social networks, we human beings tend to self-segregate into like-minded clusters (the phenomenon known as homophily). But it is also because the algorithms that drive the network platforms incentivize the posting of fake news and extreme views. On Twitter, for example, political tweets are 20 percent more likely to be retweeted for each moral or 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 because you seek the validation of popular approval, but because you live in mortal dread of public humiliation. 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 United States 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 soccer manager 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, but there have already been more than 40 resignations and firings.
In the immortal words of Aussie rockers AC/DC, “It’s a long way to the top if you want to rock and 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.”
In the course of my sleepless night, I found myself wondering if 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 “The Rise of the Meritocracy” (1958). My assumption 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 that fate was random. The Rota Fortunae — wheel of fortune — was so over-used an image that, by Shakespeare’s time, it furnished material for comedy.
From the Renaissance onward, men grew increasingly confident that they could determine their own fates. No more. The lesson I have learned 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’s new book is “The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power from the Freemasons to Facebook.”