Cornelius Vanderbilt and the Unseeable New

We can’t see our culture very well because we see with it.
– William Gibson

Joseph Banks was the naturalist who came along with Captain James Cook on his voyage of discovery in the HMS Endeavour. When, in 1770, they first sailed into what is now known as Botany Bay, Banks was to write of the natives “Not one was once observd to stop and look towards the ship; they pursued their way in all appearance intirely unmovd by the neighbourhood of so remarkable an object as a ship must necessarily be to people who have never seen one.” The Europeans weren’t actually invisible to the native Australians, but they were so far out of the norm that there was no mental landscape in which they belonged. They could be seen, but they didn’t fit. Being dislocated in mind, they were rejected in place. In this extra-ordinary sense they did not yet exist.

Seeing is not merely physical. You can’t see something that doesn’t fit in your eyebox.

This beauty was called the Mastodon

I recall this story whenever I think about looking at objects across time. We have to remember always that we see the new with old eyes and the old with new eyes. For example, we can’t look at a picture of a steam locomotive and see it as the new thing it once was. For us it is a quaint and ancient object, forever static, black and white. You can’t see it with 19th century eyes, not for what it was then. To some it was smoke and noise to no good purpose. To others it was the equal of a supersonic jet, the most incredible piece of high-tech machinery on the planet. Sleek and novel and speaking of worlds to come.

Some people are better than others at grasping the implications of the new. I recently finished a book, The First Tycoon, about Cornelius Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt was America’s pre-eminent baron of steamships and railroads. He was able to see, with remarkable clarity, the leverage points of the new industrial economy. In Vanderbilt’s time, people had a hard time thinking about corporations as independent from the people who owned and ran them. Stock ownership was new. The amounts of capital and debt in play were unprecedented. The relationship between public good and competition was understood in a very different way. If competition from a new company wiped out the value of an older company, the sympathy was often with the older company, with the loss of that value. Many people decried this unbridled, value-destroying competition. But the new world was upon them and there was no turning it back. Cornelius Vanderbilt had an intuitive grasp of the new thing, and on it he built an empire.

Yep. That’s him.

We see a similar pattern with others who followed. John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, and still later, Bill Gates. They saw the new thing, and they steered straight for it, making bold bets at every step. Most of the rest of us can’t make out what’s happening, because we don’t have their eyes. We see them stepping onto clouds. We rub our eyes and say, “That can’t be right.” How strange to think, in a few years those same clouds will be our sturdy mountains, obvious to all.

What is emerging now that we can both see and not see? What is obvious but invisible, because it lacks a mental mail slot? Cryptocurrency, non-fungible tokens, quantum computing, metaverses? What do we see when Cook’s floating island first swims into our Botany Bay? Maybe it’s an unfocused blob. But we’ll see it soon enough, and when we do, we’ll lose the art and the memory of not seeing it.

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