Thursday, September 3, 2009


I think the term "modern" is really interesting because of its constantly shifting meaning. Statically, modern can be defined as, "the historical period starting after the Middle Ages." That's the modern age. But that definition is skewed by our current temporal position. At its most basic level, modern means, "of or pertaining to present and recent time; not ancient or remote". That's a truly static definition that doesn't vary with time. But the experiential baggage that walks lockstep with the definition is constantly changing, and so, what "modern" means to me is very different than what it meant to someone twenty years ago, or 50 years ago, and certainly different from 150 years ago and farther.

I think we all tend to imagine our "modern" time as the best of all possible worlds. We look back at the past, see where we've come from, note all the improvements made to life since then, and almost pity those on the timeline less fortunate than us. We can't imagine how someone could have lived without indoor plumbing, or modern medicine, or the internet. On that point we can look back even fifteen years and wonder how those poor people managed. But imagine life in this country 150 years ago, before the industrial revolution. Before most of the enhancements to modern living we've become accustomed to.

Were those people miserable? On the whole, no. In fact they likely looked at their modern time and too imagined it as the best of all possible worlds. Because we as a species acclimate ourselves into the world we're born to. We're constantly striving to improve things, yes, because we always look to a better future. But at the time we look at the here and now and see it as generaly good. The major exception might have been Europe in the throes of the Dark Ages, nestled tight with the Plague. Those miserable, illiterate wretches likely didn't have a historical perspective, and simply new that the here and now sucked. For the most part, though, history has moved our species forward.

So clearly we know that our plum life is fleeting and that 100 years from now people will look back at us with awe and wonder that we were able to get by. "They had to physically type each word into their computers? That's so labor intensive!" "Achh! Traveling wasn't instantaneous? Where did the find the time to "drive" places, or "fly" to more distant points? Teleportation is the only way to travel." It's likely that even many of our labor-saving devices today will seem like a major imposition to future humans. We do the same thing with those same devices from our past. No reason to assume it would be different when we're examined by people 100 years from now.

I think it's a good thing that humanity tends toward excepting its lot. Life is difficult enough sometimes. Throwing in a constant, major dissatisfaction with life as it is would be enough to drive most people insane. Society works because we imagine that "modern" refers specifically to us, something that all those "past-ies" wouldn't get. Losers.

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