Amazing Progress

 Posted by on 13 August 2012 at 10:00 am  Culture, History, Politics, Sports
Aug 132012

If I had to pick any time in which to live, I’d choose right now. Although I want to live centuries into the future, I wouldn’t want to jump to some unknown future, only to find humanity eradicated or enslaved to some alien species. Mostly though, I wouldn’t wish to live in anytime in the past.

I’d not wish to live in the past because past societies have been rigidly stratified by family, sex, and race. People from poor families, women, and ethnic minorities were severely limited in their powers to make something of their lives. I could not tolerate living in a society where racism and sexism were the norm — let alone oppression of gays, slavery, and religious homogeneity.

I’d not wish to live in the past because the politics would not be nearly as free as most people suppose. In early American history, the federal government was much smaller, but severe violations of rights by state and local governments were commonplace. Individual rights were not even known in Greece and Rome.

I’d not wish to live in the past because life was far, far more brutal and rough. Abject misery and suffering, including at the hands of others, was accepted as perfectly ordinary. Little could be done to alleviate it, due to the lack of wealth and technology.

I would not wish to live in the past because access to art was severely limited. In centuries past, you were grateful if someone in your family or social circle could sing well. Today, we can watch fabulous movies on demand, instantly download masterpieces of chamber music, browse gorgeous painting and order prints, and read any novel ever written on a Kindle.

I’d not wish to live in the past because so much awesome technology has been developed in the past century, the past decade, and even the past year. Heck, I don’t want to go back to the days of dial-up — or the days before computers — or the days before ball point pens. The thought of going back to medical care of 10 or 20 or 100 or 1000 years ago should make anyone’s skin crawl.

The simple fact is that humanity has made so much fabulous progress in the last century. So if you ever feel depressed about America’s political decline, take a moment to contemplate how much better your life is now, thanks to an amazing slew of social and technological developments over the last century. In fact, I’m doubtful that the politics is much worse than ever before: it’s better in some ways, worse in others.

Oddly, I was inspired to write this post after watching this video of women’s uneven bars from the 1950s to 2010:

This video of gymnastics from 1928 to 1968 is also revealing:

I’ve seen some amazing and inspiring performances in women’s gymnastics in these Olympic Games. Just imagine if one of today’s top gymnasts travelled back in time to perform in a competition from the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, or 1960s. Everyone would be utterly flabbergasted because she’d be performing at a level so beyond their capacity to even imagine. That marked increase in human athletic ability — also evident in this infographic on the men’s 100 meter sprint — is another form of fabulous human progress that makes me so happy to be alive today.

We live in amazing times. Savor all the goodness!

  • Jen

    Wow, I am so glad you found these videos!!! I live for women’s gymnastics during the summer Olympics, and every 4 years I am amazed at how the sport has evolved. Or any sport, for that matter. These videos really put it into perspective. Thanks Diana!!!

  • Roger Zimmerman


    It is hard to imagine life without the technological amenities that are the direct result of the philosophy of the enlightenment that birthed America and our modern age, but there was a time when that philosophy was explicitly accepted by a significant portion of the American population, unlike today. That time was roughly 1870-1900, and, while there were certainly cultural deficiencies during that time (you call them racism and sexism, but I don’t think those modern terms accurately capture what was essentially the “unquestioned wisdom” of the day), the impression I get from reading the history of that period is that it was amazingly exciting, vibrant, and existentially free, even for the oppressed classes.

    Rand talks about this period in America as the closest any society has ever come to an ideal socio-political-economic system. Given her brilliance and that she lived closer to that time, I would venture she knew of what she spoke. It is clear to me that, had America maintained the philosophical momentum of that period, we would have achieved much more technologically, socially, politically and culturally than we actually have. And, in many respects, the quality of one’s life experience depends much more on the time derivative of one’s culture than the instantaneous snapshot. Today’s time derivative seems very close to 0, and may possibly be negative.

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