Vienna, the capital of Austria, was the place to be at the end of the 19th century. Unlike Paris and London, it was quite small: You could walk across it in half-an-hour. It had operas, theaters, museums for natural history and the arts, good banks, a stock market and some of the best universities in the world.
It was almost impossible not to constantly meet friends, colleagues and relatives on the street. Even the most famous and powerful people were close:
Opera singers, stage actors, and members of the royal family [were on the streets]. When a famous singer walked by, or one of the more than sixty archdukes drove by in their carriage, people would greet them with spontaneous applause. […] Yet the best example – and almost unbelievable for us today – was [emperor] Franz Joseph himself, who frequently departed in just his carriage from the […] palace. Anyone could walk within reach […] and lift his hat to the white-haired emperor.
Within two generations, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert appeared on Vienna’s stages in rapid succession, something that is without precedent in history. Passion for music united all strata of the population. In the words of William Johnston: “Slovenliness might be tolerated in politics, but not in musical or theatrical performance.”
The elites did not confine themselves to exclusive social circles and ivory towers. In cafés, the Viennese met to talk business, exchanged ideas, debated issues and met people who worked in various fields. For students and young intellectuals, school was very hard at the elite gymnasiums, much closer to modern college than high-school, but their education did not stop outside the classroom: the cafés were also a place to learn and grow.
The better cafés subscribed to the major international journals of science, art and literature. Designed for the entertainment of customers, these subscriptions made the cafés function as a kind of private library.
Cultural density and the small size of the city made the latest achievements of science and the arts unavoidable for everybody, from the housewife to the emperor.
The analogy is not perfect, but I think that the Internet now gives us many of the same advantages as turn-of-century Vienna gave its citizens. The important thing is not the ratio of good to bad – I suspect that even Vienna at its best produced lots of crap, it’s just that now it is forgotten – but the availability of ideas. On the net, anyone can find quality information about almost anything, if not directly, at least recommendations of books, films, magazines, etc. Many leading intellectuals and artists are available, if not for a two-way conversation, at least their thoughts and ideas can be published. Social bookmarking sites (Digg, Reddit, etc) act as Vienna’s streets did; people randomly meet people and ideas. Once again, the quality ratio might not be impressive, but it is still better than the alternative of not having these communities.
I know that I would be a lot dumber without the Internet. It might not be the case for everybody, but I live in a very boring city without much access to science and arts and I rarely meet people face to face who want to talk about these things. Without the Internet, there are hundreds of books that I would never have read, hundreds of artists I would never have heard or seen, and whole fields of knowledge that I probably would never have gotten interested in. I wouldn’t be the same person, and wouldn’t have as many tools to keep improving.
Just like Vienna made many people who they were – including many geniuses – the Internet is currently making a whole new generation, a much bigger one in absolute numbers. Lets hope that just like Vienna had a huge positive influence on Europe by making ideas more available, that this new Internet generation can have a positive influence on the world. It’s too early to tell what the ultimate impact will be, but there’s reason for hope.
Quotes from Mises: The Last Knight of Liberalism