The Day I Became a Hegelian

I remember distinctly 14 April 2000, the day the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 617.78 points, or 5.7 percent, to 10,305.77 (Fuerbringer, Jonathan and Alex Berenson, “Stock Market in Steep Drop as Worried Investors Flee; NASDAQ Has Its Worst Week,” The New York Times, 15 April 2000, p. A1). The company where I worked offered options and stock purchase plan heavy compensation packages and it was the first really precipitous drop in the stock market since the online discount stock brokers like E-Trade went really big. At the office where I worked nothing got done that day: no one could do anything but watch their portfolios plummet. I remember a group of us going out for lunch. This was in Seattle and the Harbor Steps II was still under construction. At that time it was just a reinforced concrete skeleton and a kangaroo crane. As the group of us walked down — I don’t know — probably University Street, I looked up at the concrete stack of Harbor Steps II and the bustle in and around it and it occurred to me that if the stock market were to continue to fall like it was, the development company might halt construction — that building would cease its coming into being. At that moment, I saw that it was primarily a blueprint, an architect’s vision, a developer’s profit and loss projections, investor expectations. It was less matter and more idea and at that moment I first thought that maybe there was something to this Hegel fellow.

Abandoned construction, Bangkok, Thailand, approximately Sukhumvit and Soi 8, 2 December 2006

Similarly, when S. and I were in Thailand, we stayed in a neighborhood a few blocks from an abandoned, half finished concrete skeleton of a building. They were actually fairly common in Bangkok. So quickly had this construction project been abandoned that there were places where the rebar had been put in place and half the concrete had been poured when work had stopped. A pillar ended in a jagged mound of concrete with the remaining half of the uncovered rebar simply jutting skyward. I took one look at that building and said to S., “That’s probably left over from the Asian financial crisis.” That’s how suddenly and ferociously the Asian financial crisis struck: people simply walked away from multi-million dollar building projects. When the beliefs don’t pan out, the rock and the steel cease to fill out their imagined dimensions.

Ten thousand years ago ideas played almost no role in human affairs or history. Today they play a significant role, perhaps already the better part of every artifact and interaction. The Pattern On The Stone as Daniel Hillis called it. The stone is inconsequential: the pattern is everything. It is a part of the direction of history that ideas gradually at first, but with accelerating speed, displace matter as the primary constituent of the human environment.

And that, as I read it, is Hegel’s Absolute