In the pre-internet age, there were very few ways the commoner could seek to influence the world beyond their immediate community. For those with talent or good looks, there was always the promise of stardom in music, sport or acting. For the lucky few there was a publishing contract. For the astute, perhaps a career in politics. But for most, influence extended no further than the local church, social club, union branch, factory floor, company board. People’s worlds were small back then.
These are the ponderings within, as I reevaluate my role in the world once more: had I been an adult in the 1980s, what influence would I have had? Perhaps the extrovert would find a nighttime role performing spoken-word poetry in obscure venues to young activists, or be found strutting the boards in amateur dramatic productions in the local theatre scene. But what of the shy character, plodding away in middle-management, collecting an average salary for mundane work, who returns to his family each evening for dinner and an evening spent reading the newspaper, supervising homework and generally flopping on the sofa?
The vast followings, fan clubs and groupies were reserved back then for manufactured boy bands, pop stars, famous actors, gorgeous models and brilliant footballers. Sure, for every Bono there was a Benjamin Zephania: always an alternative scene to the mainstream. For every Rushdi, a Siddiqui; for every Michael Jackson, a Paul Heaton. Little people everywhere always found disciples in their communities, in circles of varying influence. But it was not like now.
Now is the age of reach, when a nobody living in a little market town in the middle of nowhere can hammer words on a keyboard and others, even thousands of miles away, can read them nearly instantly, to digest, celebrate or rip apart. Here a poorly educated office worker spilling words into a blog, read by a few in Europe, North America and Arabia. Over there, an unemployed graduate firing off incendiary tweets, acclaimed by ten thousand followers.
For thousands of years, most men and women had no influence beyond the boundaries of their plot of land, if they had one. Perhaps some were well-known in their village or town. Perhaps on Sundays they preached sermons that stirred the souls of dozens. Perhaps once in a while they stood on a chair on the factory floor and roused passions amongst workers, agitating for change. And if not, perhaps they could cause a rabble to fall about in laughter, playing the jester at their local drinking house, or in the office on Monday morning. In the natural order, men like me have no reach or influence beyond our immediate vicinity.
Thus do I interrogate myself. If this has been the way of man for millennia, why worry if you should withdraw? For those before you, withdrawal was the way of the world. In olden times — not long ago at all — it was normal for a man to be concerned only with his family, his neighbourhood and local community. If I go, millions of far more worthy voices remain. In the chatter of a billion voices, one voice will not be missed. Only the vanity of the ego holds otherwise. Today we enjoy a reach and influence never granted before us. We have to remind ourselves that it is not the norm.
Could I withdraw back into myself, and withhold my public pontifications? Could I disappear, become unknown, forgotten and ignored? Could I restore the natural order of just two decades ago, before the world was in the the palm of our hands? Could I restore the obscurity of human life before the web? Could I be nobody again? Or has the world changed for good?