27 February 2008

Passengers on different cars stepping off the same train

Ask someone from 100 years ago if they'd rather live with the threat of polio or put up with our problems.


If we had just been 20 years faster in some developments, some people very dear to me would still be alive.

If only you got to X in time, then Y wouldn't've happened. Or if you got there just a bit earlier, or later, you might have caught Y - or missed Y.

The people of 100 years ago had problems we don't. But we also have problems that they don't - and our solutions to the problems of today, some of them will create problems for the people of 100 years from now. We'll make mistakes, problems will arise out of what we do that we can't predict, things will come up that we can't foresee. Bad things happen and you can't solve for every bad thing in the world until there are no more. There will always be more.

And that's life. It's how it works. Different centuries, same humanity. Different cars, same train. People die of all sorts of things before their time and they always will. Different times, same pains. No amount of scientific and technological advancement will change that.

And that's what art and literature are all about.


Nathan said...

Another damned post I have to think about before responding. You guys are all making my brainz hert.

I'm gonna get back to you tomorrow, 'cause this is a subject I've had lots of random thoughts about.

Maybe I can put them into some sort of order.

Tom said...

I think I'm just going to go to the blogs and comment "what Nathan said!" He seems to say things very similar to what I mean to say. He just says them first!

After thinking, my Dad and one of the doctors here at the hospital both had polio as children, and it affected their entire lives. I remember the first polio vaccine when I was in 5th grade. People below the age of 50 have never had to worry about that particular disease.

I wonder what will have been fixed, and what new thing people will have to put up with.

Very interesting.

Unknown said...

Well, "what if" is used a lot in movie themes and science fiction plots.The alternate words that are created are quite fascinating.
The movie "Sliding Doors" is about that in a very minor way.
A person from 100 years ago wouldn't have known there was an alternative and they couldn't even begin to visualize our problems. If they were brought forward, they would no longer have the outlook of a hundred years ago. So that kind of question has a false logic.
What ifs are always the source of the greatest grief. They are the favorite human entertainment for creating more unhappiness, just in case we don't have enough as it is with stuff that really happens. The question goes along with our false idea that we actually are in control of our lives in matters beyond our power to choose.
(Did that push enough buttons?) :-)

Jim Wright said...

And that's what art and literature are all about.

Hmmmm - which leads me to wonder what the art and literature in a utopia would be like. Boring boring boring, I suspect.

But, I do agree with you, the best art and literature comes from pain and a sense of mortality.

Interesting post, MWT, thanks

John the Scientist said...

Well, I find it slightly amusing that your post has more than a touch of Chinese fatalism in it. Perhaps my wife is right and the old culture clings for a generation or two, or perhaps you're just an outlier within American culture.

When I was an academic, I was an outlier, and would have agreed with you. But now, working in business (and having studied Chinese history in much more detail in recent years), I find that I don't. As Tolkien said, each generation is given a set of problems to face. Not facing them means that the next generation faces both the old and the new ones, and eventually they pile up to an insurmountable obstacle, as both the Ming and Ching found to their detriment. If Norman Borlaug had not led the Green Revolution, a lot of the doom and gloom predictions of the 1970s would have come to pass, and we'd bne living in a much nastier world.

In business and warfare, if you don't solve your problems, someone else will eat your lunch for you. In human societies, the feedback in the OODA loop is a lot slower, but eventually either nature, ineptitude, or some other society will eat your lunch for you, too.

I am to some degree a Marxist. Material progress does define morality, and human nature does change, just much slower than Marx predicted, and it gerneally can't be finely controlled as Lenin predicted. As Charlie Munger once said, the invention of the cash register did more for early 20th century morality than all the churches in the land.

Take a gander at Edith Hamilton's "The Greek Way" and "The Roman Way". What you will find are societies that accepted cruelty as sport (glaiatorial combats), slavery, rape, and pillage as normal. We are moving slowly beyond that by dint of improving the human material condition, but old habits die hard. And I have no illusions that mankind would not slip back into savagery in a few generations if our technology were stripped away. But modern man does not accpet slavery as normal because our machines are our slaves. Hopefully in a few hundred years no one on Earth will be able to imagine what that kind of savagery is like.

Looking up Edith Hamilton's quotes, I find I am a somewhat Roman thinker:

"But that was not the Roman way. When not directly under Greek guidance the Roman did not perceive beauty in every-day matters, or indeed care to do so. Beauty was unimportant to him. Life in his eyes was a very serious and a very arduous business, and he had no time for what he would have thought of as a mere decoration of it. "

Don't take this too far in my case, because, as Tobias Buckell says, literature is the collective psyche of mankind dreaming. Without dreams we would go insane. Dreamers also point the way to the future. But everyone knows a talented dreamer who never went anywhere in life. I believe our society spends too much time in a dream state.

I have four posts at the CB that express some of my thoughts a bit more clearly (but unfortuantely much more verbosely).

John the Scientist said...

BTW, this came out of a conversation between MWT and I where I expressed the opinion that science adn technology (i.e. material progress) is THE function of a scoiety, and everyhtign else is screwing off. That's probably a bit of an overstatement of my philosophy, but in general, it sorta fits.

MWT said...

Brenda: sounds like you've got the makings of an interesting blog post to be. ;)

Jim: I'm not sure utopias can possibly exist. Even in the absence of all wants and external sources of strife, human beings are extremely talented at coming up with stuff to fight about.

Anonymous said...

That's exactly what utopia is...while it seems that we've forgotten the etymology of that word nowadays (Greek ou - not + Greek topos - place). So it was never really 'planned' for it to exist:D

Unknown said...

John: a society by definition is formed so that a specific group can progress, be it in science, technology, religion, or anything else that would support them as dominant.
I agree that society spends a great deal of time in a dream state via things such as speculation on what a Roman thought or found important, but the leisure to dream means the dreamers are comfortable, fed, safe, and warm, perhaps educated, which is helpful for keeping things calm and peaceful. It is only people with leisure that have time to philosophize.

MWT: I thought about having my own blog. Maybe when I have more leisure. ;-)