The Roman Empire fell unnoticed.

About 475 years after the birth of Christ, the last emperor resigned. Rather than be killed, Romulus Augustulus read the writing etched into the wall and stepped quietly off the throne, letting the nation that had once encompassed the Mediterranean finish its crumble into barbarism, but there were, at the time, no great historical crises written of, no sad proclamations of an era at an end. Rome had been falling for centuries, and the final thud, the event that lives even today in infamy, passed with nary a written word on the subject. Most vestages of the great empire had, in fact, already disappeared: Roman coin had given way to barter and roman religion to Christianity centuries before. The fields still needed to be tilled, the flocks tended, the children fed, the newly discoved myteries of faith further explored, and the lack of a man in a palace sent fewer shockwaves cascading through the populace than might be expected. Roads don't collapse the instant their upkeepers go away. It wasn't until decades later, in fact, that officials of that new superpower, the Church, began tentatively to write of a turning point in 473 A.D.

The date remembered later is not always the one noted at the time. Henry Ford mass-produced cheap cars; who now remembers the inventors of the rich men's playthings that came before? The airplanes of the world wars changed strategy forever, but the fields of Kitty Hawk still sit more firmly in the minds of schoolchildren (not to mention the licence plates of two states), even though the Wright brothers' historic flight changed nothing at the time.

We like to think of ourselves as poised at the threshold of an information age. Computer processing power has doubled every 12 to 18 months for the past few decades. A mathematical task that would have taken a 386 during the first Bush presidency an hour to complete can be accomplished in 30 seconds by a Pentium III during the presidency of the second. The genome has been, if not deciphered, at least written down. Time and Newsweek have run cover stories on the "promise and peril" of human cloning. A new era of global terrorism wraught by the global reach of technology has been thrust upon the secular world. Nanotechnology hovers enticingly just over the horizon.

But it was when TV commercials spoke of Morning in America, when bell bottoms were mocked, when Gorbachev had missiles trained on us and Macintosh was the Next Big Thing and MTV actually played music videos, that the term Cyberspace was coined. Jazz was still dead and terrorists were still Irish and Michael Jackson was still black when the word and concept of nanotechnology first graced the pages of scientific journals.

Romulus is dead. The transistor is king.

Welcome to the future.