Tag: better all the time

Nostalgia Used to Be Better

Julian Simon often wrote about the persistence of the belief that life was better in the past or that things are steadily getting worse. It takes many forms: people used to be more polite, the media used to be more literate, life is more dangerous today, we’re running out of natural resources. Simon pointed out in many books and articles that, at least since the industrial revolution, life on earth is in fact getting longer, healthier, more comfortable, and less dangerous. Or, as the title of one of his books put it, It’s Getting Better All the Time.

He was mostly right. But in a review of a new collection of H. L. Mencken’s writings, I found an exception: Nostalgia itself, the longing for a lost golden age, was at least more eloquent when Mencken was writing it back in the 1920s. Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post quotes these eulogies for old Baltimore:

Mencken was born in Baltimore in 1880 and lived almost his entire life in the house on Hollins Street where he grew up. “The Baltimore of the 80’s had a flavor that has long since vanished,” he wrote in a 1925 Evening Sun piece reprinted here. “The town is at least twice as big now as it was then, and twice as showy and glittering, but it is certainly not twice as pleasant, nor, indeed, half as pleasant. The more the boomers pump it up, the more it comes to resemble such dreadful places as Buffalo and Cleveland.”…

Mencken believed, as he wrote in 1930, that the great fire of 1904 was what killed the old Baltimore that he knew so intimately and loved so deeply: “The new Baltimore that emerged from the ashes was simply a virtuoso piece of Babbitts. It put in all the modern improvements, especially the bad ones. It acquired civic consciousness. Its cobs climbed out of the alleys behind the old gin-mills and began harassing decent people on the main streets.”…

“I am glad I was born long enough ago to remember, now, the days when the town had genuine color, and life here was worth living. I remember Guy’s Hotel. I remember the Concordia Opera House. I remember the old Courthouse. Better still, I remember Mike Sheehan’s old saloon on Light street – then a mediaeval and lovely alley; now a horror borrowed from the boom towns of the Middle West. Was there ever a better saloon in this world? Don’t argue: I refuse to listen! The decay of Baltimore, I believe, may be very accurately measured by the distance separating Mike’s incomparable bar from the soda-fountains which now pollute the neighborhood – above all, by the distance separating its noble customers (with their gold watch-chains and their elegant boiled shirts) from the poor fish who now lap up Coca-Cola.”

Man, you just don’t get nostalgia like that any more!

Technology: Debating the Pace of Progress

Last night, thanks to Craigslist and a Web-enabled cell phone, I unloaded two extra tickets to tonight’s World Cup qualifying game between the U.S. and Costa Rica in under an hour. (8:00, ESPN2 “USA! USA! USA!”)

Wanting to avoid the hassle of selling the tickets at RFK, I placed an ad on Craigslist offering them at cost, figuring I might find a taker and arrange to hand them off downtown today or at the stadium tonight. Checking email as I walked to the gym, I found an inquiry about the tickets and phoned the guy, who happened to live 100 feet from where I was walking. A few minutes later, he had the tickets and I had the cash.

This quaint story is a single data point in a trend line—the high-tech version of It’s Getting Better All the Time. Everyone living a connected life enjoys hundreds, or even thousands, of conveniences every day because of information technology. Through billions of transactions across the society, technology improves our lives in ways unimaginable two decades ago.

Before 1995, nobody ever traded spare soccer tickets in under an hour, on a Tuesday night, without even changing his evening routine. If soccer tickets are too trivial (you must not understand the game), the same dynamics deliver incremental, but massive improvements in material wealth, awareness, education, and social and political empowerment to everyone—even those who don’t live “online.”

Sometimes debates about technology regulation are cast in doom and gloom terms like the Malthusian arguments about material wealth. But the benefits we already enjoy thanks to technology are not going away, and they will continue to accrue. We are arguing about the pace of progress, not its existence.

This is no reason to let up in our quest to give technologists and investors the freedom to produce more innovations that enhance everyone’s well-being even more. But it does counsel us to be optimistic and to teach this optimism to our ideological opponents, many of whom seem to look ahead and see only calamity.