Things aren’t suddenly getting worse
Whenever I read about how today’s world is moving faster, competition is greater, people are more separated, more together, or whatever superlative that supposedly sets our time different than any other, I think of this quote
Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority, they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.
This quote defines our time, doesn’t it?
Except that it was written centuries ago. I’ve seen it attributed to Socrates, but I’ve seen people claim it’s much younger, but still generations old.
Every generation changes its values from the generation before it. The generation before, evaluating the new generation by its (the older generation’s) values, it always fails. So the youth appear from their perspective to fail — another example of the worst problem in the world.
Different may seem worse, but that’s just from one perspective. Different isn’t necessarily worse. It’s just different.
So any time you hear someone say the latest generation is any way degenerated from any other, remember it’s only different. Every generation has looked worse than every previous generation by the same amount.
People often say things like the pace of life has never been faster than with today’s technology. But the pace of life is relative. Everyone always compares it with a generation or so before. Lo and behold it always seems faster. We have cell phones and satellites that communicate messages faster than anything before. We can’t imagine anything faster.
Well, when people used the pony express it was the fastest ever. Same with the train, the telegraph, the radio, the telephone. Each time people thought, “Before things were slow. Now they’re effectively instantaneous.”
Today we think the internet makes things instantaneous and nothing before came close. But nobody waiting for the first airmail thought “Oh man, planes are so slow compared to next century’s technology.” They couldn’t conceive of an internet. They only compared airmail to boat mail and said, “Holy cow, planes cross the Atlantic in hours instead of days, it’s nearly instantaneous.”
Today we say the same thing — “Holy cow, email take milliseconds instead of days for regular mail, the internet makes things instantaneous,” but we don’t compare it to something we can’t imagine in the future. I guarantee something in the future will make today’s communication look slow. If you can’t imagine delivery times shorter than milliseconds, think of higher bandwidth.
People perceive the same pattern with amount if information as with information flow. People say we have more data today than ever before. They look at all the stored data they can quantify on all the hard drives in the world and say it’s more than ever. They may even say we have more knowledge than ever before. If you look at data as just bits on computers and that the flow of those bits constitutes the main flow of information and knowledge, I would agree.
The information that matters to your life is how much enters your mind, which goes through the bottleneck of your senses. That bottleneck has remained constant. And the information available doesn’t only have to come from computers. People living thousands of years ago didn’t think “Man, we’re a bunch of idiots living in a world devoid of information.” They had plenty of information — in particular, the same amount passed their senses into their brains as with us today. They may have looked at trees, predators, prey, weather, and other things instead of computer screens. Something tells me if you put one of them and one of us in their environment, they’d be overwhelmed with information we were blind to. They might look at us today at missing most of the information around us, not valuing the bits on our computers.
My point is that the past always looks quaint, slow, and stupid compared to today, which always feels cutting edge, fast, and smart in comparison, but that means today will look quaint, slow, and stupid one day too. If someone tries to convince you that today’s technology should make you feel stressed or that you live in a time that makes life harder, they’re just looking from one perspective.
We’re still people in a universe containing infinitely more information than we can process. Now, as then, we create models for the world and most of our interaction is with our models.
There’s no more reason to be stressed today. We have just as much ability to create models that make our lives calm, happy, and rewarding. Creating those emotions doesn’t depend on bits stored on computer or traveling by fiber optic. It depends on our ability as individuals to understand and manage our emotions.
Somebody someday will call today the good old days so you might as well live like they are. We might look at their worlds from our perspectives and say their lives back then were so much simpler. They don’t have problems like we do. We should be so adept at looking at our worlds and to see how we don’t have problems either. We just have a world to make great lives with.
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