Consider instead two main classes of people in society, who tend to navigate and interact with the world in fundamentally different ways. The first are those people who work primarily in the real, physical world. Maybe they work directly with their hands, like a carpenter, or a mechanic, or a farmer. Or maybe they are only a step away: they own or manage a business where they organize and direct employees who work with their hands and buy or sell or move things around in the real world, like a transport logistics company. This class necessarily works in a physical location or owns or operates physical assets central to its trade.
The second class of people is different. They are, relatively speaking, a civilizational innovation. They don’t interact much with the physical world directly; they are handlers of knowledge. They work with information, which might be digital or analog, numerical or narrative. But in all cases, the information exists at a level of abstraction from the real world. Manipulation and distribution of this information can influence the real world, but only through informational chains that pass directives to agents who can themselves act in the physical world—a bit like a software program that sends commands to a robot arm on an assembly line. To facilitate this process, these people build and manage abstract institutions and systems of organizational communication as a means of control. Individuals in this class usually occupy middle links in these informational chains, in which neither the inputs nor outputs of their role have any direct relationship with or effect on the physical world. They are informational middlemen. This class can therefore often do their job almost entirely from a laptop, by email or a virtual Zoom meeting, and its members have recently realized that they don’t even need to be sitting in an office cubicle while they do it.
For simplicity’s sake, let’s call these two classes the Physicals and the Virtuals, respectively. This division maps closely onto another much-discussed political wedge: the geographic split between cities, where most of the Virtuals are concentrated, and the outlying exurbs and rural hinterlands, where the Physicals remain predominant. No coincidence that partisan differences between urban metropolitan cores and provinces have become one of the defining features of politics across the Western democratic world.
But the most relevant distinction between Virtuals and Physicals today is that the Virtuals are now everywhere unambiguously the ruling class. In a world in which knowledge is the primary component of value-added production (or so we are told), and economic activity is increasingly defined by the digital and the abstract, they have been the overwhelming winners, accumulating financial, political, and cultural status and influence.
A friend texted me the other day: “What do you think of Ukraine?” A perfectly understandable conversation-starter, to be sure, but at the same time, a small part of me is struck by the absurdity of it. What does it matter what I think about it? I’ve been spending ten hours a day dealing with warehouse logistics and box-loading for the last month. What possible insight am I going to have that can’t be found anywhere else? I recognize, of course, that the purpose of such questions is less about a request for information and more about reassurance, like a verbal pat on the shoulder. “Scary world we live in, huh? Let’s talk about it.” More and more, though, I feel that the most moral response to weighty issues is a respectful silence. I find myself increasingly repulsed by the Virtual tendency to turn everything, absolutely everything, into just another narrative, another talking point, another hashtag. As the philosophical troubadour Olivia Newton-John, a self-avowed Physical, lamented, “there’s nothing left to talk about.”
In his latest essay, Justin E.H. Smith, reflecting on world events, starts with an observation: “My self-understanding as a pacifist, it has recently come to seem to me, may amount to little more than a rationalization of cowardice.” Again, it’s perfectly understandable to reassess oneself in light of new information or perspectives, and I don’t sneer at anyone for expressing uncomfortable honesty, but also again, a small part of me is struck by the ease with which a stunningly obvious insight can sneak up on an extremely clever professor of philosophy. Making a virtue out of a necessity? Is there anything more time-tested, other than possibly the tendency of intellectuals to outsmart themselves and look foolish? I don’t mean to be harsh here. Smith is one of my favorite online writers to “think with.” I’m not implying that he should stop all this feeble philosophizing and go dash off to Ukraine like Lord Byron off to Greece in order to prove his manliness. I just fear that this is another example, in itself inoffensive, of the Virtual tendency to turn everything into just another narrative. Smith is at least thoughtful and worth reading; much of what follows from others will surely be more of the same performative garbage that already pollutes the environment. I expect to soon see numerous think-pieces and hot takes that use Ukraine as the backdrop for selfie-essays that lament our own cultural weaknesses and failings. Self-flagellation is just an extreme form of self-absorption, after all. Nothing escapes the black hole of our narcissistic obsession.
I think of Ukraine in particular the same way I think of geopolitics and social issues in general — a chastening reminder that very little is in our control, and the best we can do is to be grateful for our good fortune while going about our ordinary business. If I could figure out how to repeatedly rephrase that truism in exciting new ways, maybe I’d have a career in the narrative-shaping business too.