The next Dark Age

Are we on the brink of another Dark Age?

I started thinking about Dark Ages last week when I attended a speech at the American Book Expo in Washington DC by Carly Fiorina, ex Hewlett-Packard CEO, now touting her upcoming autobiography. Fiorina studied Medieval History at Stanford and, in her talk, she explained she chose this period because of her morbid fascination with how neo-classical civilization plunged into the Dark Ages.

Plunging  into the Dark Ages... Isn't another dark age -- the crisis of culture, the collapse of moral authority, the disappearance of political legitimacy -- exactly what we are on the brink of now?

I'm not alone in thinking about the Dark Ages. Today, Nick Carr called my attention to an article entitled "The New Middle Ages" by John Rapley into the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs. Rapley's piece suggests that three global developments are simultaneously occuring: the collapse of the traditional nation-state, the emergence of an international strata of economic elites (what Robert Reich calls the "secession of the successful") and the "privatization" of law-and-order by gangs in the world's post-industrial metropolises.

Rapley suggests that these three political phenomenon are combining to recreate what he calls "the postmodern Middle Ages." As the traditional state shrinks/withdraws, elites shift their allegiance to international corporations or institutions, while the poor are forced to rely on local thugs to maintain order in their neighborhood.

How does the information technology revolution tie in to these New Middle Ages? According to Rapley:

"There has long been a chasm between the planet's rich and poor. What is unusual about the incomes gap today is that it has widened just as dramatic improvements in communications technology have filtered down to even the most impoverished villages. The world's poorest citizens are thus more exposed than ever before to images of how the richest people live, creating an expectations gap between what states can offer and what their citizens demand. The gap has often been filled by private agents, who are more flexible than states and better positioned to exploit current opportunities,"

Rapley's theory of communications technology creating an "expectations gap" is particularly pertinent. Yesterday, I was critical of Eric Schmidt's scheme to wire up Africa. In the New Middle Ages, I fear that the bringing of the Internet to Africa will only create a continent wide expectations gap, thereby sparking the emergence of fundamentalist movements of rage and resentiment. Such a development will benefit neither the rich nor the poor. And it will plunge the world deeper into the darkness of Rapley's New Middle Ages.