Obsolete People

February 4, 2012


In the past two centuries, humankind has seen an unprecedented acceleration in technological, social and economic change. At the same time, people have not really changed very much at all.

Fuller said of old people of the 1960s that they were time travelers from an obsolete time. When he was writing, it was perfectly possible for a woman to have come across the prairies of the midwest in a covered wagon drawn by oxen to homestead in a sod house and live to see Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. That is a tremendous amount of change to experience in a single lifetime. When my grandfather was a young man, none of the following had happened:

His experience and understanding of the world were largely the same as a young man growing up during the reign of Napoleon. A young person of Napoleon’s France (1810) would find so much in common with someone growing up in Marseilles of Henry IV (who died in 1610).

A young person who turns 12 in 2012 has so many differences in their world from all these. Among the things they take for granted include:

These are all things that are not just possible, but ordinary and commonplace. They’re not regarded as miracles but as benchmarks.

And if you resurrected some 12th century person from, say, London and introduced her to the world as we know it today, what do you think would be most amazing to her, most tempting, most frightening, most horrible, and most fascinating?

The reality of the answer to that question is that we have absolutely no idea.

We like to think that our world is vastly improved over past ages and places. Of all the things we have in the modern world, the two I would like to give up least are clean potable water and indoor plumbing. There’s plenty of other nice things in the modern world - I’m all for most modern conveniences - but they’re mostly luxuries.

I think back about the lives my grandmothers led, full of plenty of differences from mine. My grandmothers shopped for food every couple of days. For most of their young adulthood, they had little or no refrigeration. When they went shopping, they spent the vast majority of their money with people they knew, who they had patronized for years, whom they knew on a first name basis and may have even exchanged birthday or Christmas cards or even gifts with. The bulk of my transactions are with total strangers. Now I’m old fashioned and when I go into Costco, I look for the few people I know and I like to talk with them; I ask them how their lives are going, what they’re doing that’s new. I invite these people to come to our annual Easter Party or other general events to which people you don’t know very well can be invited without embarrassing them.

Sometimes my partner says I’m being creepy, to be so personal and friendly with people who are just doing a job and whose official job function is to make me spend my money and get the hell out (efficiency). About the only people who I can think of who live in a small, personal world anymore are the Amish and I’m not sure anymore how much of their lives is actually personal and how much is tourist hype.

There is a lot to be said for those bygone days when people were people and you got left alone to get on with the business of life... but there were a lot of bad things about those good old days, too. In most of the world until very recently:

Upon reflection, maybe there are some things I’d miss more than clean drinking water and indoor toilets that worked. I guess that’s why I don’t ever want to live in Saudi Arabia, where those good old days are with us still. Beats me why anyone would ever want those times to come back, but people do. A co-worker of mine pines after a nation organized on “Biblical Principles.” I don’t think he's divorced, but I know that at least one of his children is - which was an offense punishable by stoning, in those grand old Biblical times of yore.

It is just that people like my co-worker can’t think or is it that they don’t choose to think? Some people believe people get into this condition through fear and I find that a likely explanation. It is a sad fact that many people can be manipulated into doing things that are spectacularly contrary to their own best interests through fear. They become like the people of old times who supported horrible despots and obviously false ideas because they were less afraid of injustice than of change. What a different world we could build if freed of all those obsolete relics of obsolete ideas!

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