yesterday I was having an interesting conversation with two fine ladies. I was arguing that we, as human civilisation, are getting richer with every passing year. On the contrary, they opposed that we are poorer in some respects and that some of my arguments are not important. I’ll try to sketch the main points of both sides, giving you an impression of the ebb and flow of the discussion, and then elaborate a little before ending with a little twist.
My point is that nowadays (beware: I’m speaking of the average western-like country) we have more riches than in the past. The epitomic argument is that a family with a less-than-average income lives in a better place than the kings of France in the eighteenth century: light is available at the flip of a switch, every room is warm without smoke from fireplaces, fresh water is abundant. In nearly every aspect we have more and better services than, say, twenty or more years ago: better education, more access to information, good medical care, personal mobility to almost every corner of the world is taken for granted. Even wars are less frequent and less deadly than in the past: to have some background a good starting point can be found at this link. In general, my feeling is that we have more possibilities than in the past.
On the other hand, the ladies objected, in past times people did not have such needs as those we have today. Their reasoning was intelligent to the point of recognising two facts: on one hand, no one could feel the need for something she did not even know existed or was extremely scarce; on the contrary, some of our wants are inculcated in our minds by sleazy marketers. People, it is often said, were happier with less. The stability of a more rural and slow life can indeed be seen as a richness that we are somewhat losing or are struggling to achieve. Lastly, there is a growing gap between the rich and the poor ones.
Later in the evening, I went on thinking, moving at first from the extreme cases. It is clear that we are faring better than cavemen: they died before forty years of age, they led brutal lives and had much less than a millionth of the knowledge we have now. Beware! I’m not implying that they weren’t or couldn’t be happy! Simply, I argue that we have more options than they had: we can go living in the wild, they could not live on Fifth Avenue. We can eat Paleo; they could not eat cookies. We can reason about the ins-and-outs of quantum mechanics; they did not even know what the sun was. Humanity progressed, there can be no doubts. Maybe we had some stop-and-goes, cruel and destructive global wars, Middle Ages were an extended blackout, but in the long run, the curve goes upward. More options. More opportunities. More knowledge. If I could wave a magic wand, those are what I’d ask for. That’s what “modernity” (funnily enough, in spite of its name one of the oldest concept invented by humanity) is about.
So, what is the force that brought us such prosperity? How could we build richness on richness? The image of an anthill came to my mind. Now, this may be silly, outrageous or foolish, but in some sense, we are 7+ billion creatures incessantly working on our home, blue planet Earth, and on our civilisation. Now and then we have a part of the anthill fall, but on average we are progressing forward. A big difference is that ants know only one way to build their homes, while we can keep track of previous attempts and try something new every time. Thus, every attempt is both benefiting from past failures (remember: I said on average, this is not true every time) and of previous constructions (be they physical or intellectual).
It can be easy to look at what people did in the past and think that they performed a lot of unnecessary work (like the farmers plowing all those fields by hand, or constructors shaping the land with shovels) with very few global improvements (like the invention of the plow) coming out of more “mature” intellectual work. You’d like to think that the percentage of time you devote to knowledge work is higher than in the past, and this is mostly true, I guess. What I’d like to think, is that in the future people would look at what I did and think “Oh, see, a lot of useless work and a few lucky breaks”, because this would imply that I had some breaks and that my labour and that of my fellow earth-dwellers contributed in elevating the state of mankind. The more(dern) of today will turn into the ant-ique of tomorrow.
What about the supposed “stability” and “happiness” of the good old times? I’m optimistic; I like to think that homo faber fortune suae, latin for “man is the crafter of its own fortune”. Man can always find meaning and happiness in his life, regardless of external conditions.
Oh, you may still be wanting to know the little twist at the end of the discussion. Well, one of the ladies, a few minutes after having preached the unnecessity of some new gadgets, said that she hoped that her daughter would buy a cleaning robot for her house, to save some time. I think this pretty much says it all 🙂
Until next time, go forth and add your contribution to this ball of mud we call home.
P.s.: I’ve added a “Books I Read” page to the blog, you can access it via this link.