Thursday, October 21, 2021

No Better Time

This week's column for The Villager:

Stadium seating in movie theaters, wheeled luggage with extendable handles, and UV-protection swim shirts -- where was all this genius when I was growing up?

Seriously. Sometimes I ponder many of the modern conveniences we have, from refrigeration to smartphones to jetliners, and I marvel at the creativity and industriousness of the human race. The design, invention, and production of advanced technology, including smartphones and computers and microprocessors, certainly required a great deal of research and development, much of which had to grow from previous achievements. Clearly, many of our conveniences are the results of "standing on the shoulders of giants.” On the other hand, other comforts of modern life are simply a result of someone noticing a better way of doing things.

For example, something as simple and obvious as tiered stadium-style seating in a movie theater seems like such a no-brainer. Yet, having memories of being a child in the 1970s and literally being forced to view a movie through the gap between the shoulders of two adults sitting in front of me, I still wonder why it took so long to figure that out. I feel the same way about wheeled luggage, which is practically indispensable now and makes cruising down the airport concourse a walk in the park. Do you have memories of lugging awkward heavy suitcases prior to the wheeled cart? Remember the luggage carts in the airport? Who was the genius who finally said, "Enough! I'm putting wheels and a handle on this."

Regardless of how we got them or how subtly they actually change our lives, simple conveniences like these certainly make life just a bit more pleasant than even just a decade ago. Stephen Pinker would agree with me. The esteemed psychology professor and contemporary philosopher has long noted what a wonderful time it is to be alive. Despite all our grumbling and complaining about the miserable state of the world, a convincing case can be made that the current era is truly the best time to be alive. While we can certainly look nostalgically back to a time before Covid and before the War on Terror and before a 24-7-365 hyper-connected world and before franchising and before advanced weaponry and before, oh, so many things, the hard data about life in the twenty-first century is that it's a mighty good time to be alive and kicking on this Earth.

As an educator I think often about how we tell young people to value their days in high school or college as “the best days of their lives.” Obviously, the times in our lives with a bit more freedom and a bit less responsibility are preferable to other times when we are burdened with the heavy lifting of life in general. Clearly, times of relative calm, peace, and prosperity are better than eras of conflict, tragedy, and anxiety. That said, it’s helpful to remember that while our current state can always be better, it could easily be worse as well. My advice to my students, and to people in general, is that the best year of your life is always the current one. If the present year is not the best so far, you might be doing something wrong, and you should consider changing course or at least changing your mindset immediately. Or to paraphrase the wisdom I learned many years ago while working a job in maintenance at an apartment for retired people: “Any day you wake up on the right side of the grass is a good one.”

For a bit more insight and information on the debate, and for a truly much more erudite, informed, insightful, and inspiring read, critics and curmudgeons might consider checking out Pinker's book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, & Progress. I don’t know if Pinker is correct, or if the naysayers are. Are we living in a Golden Age, or is this the beginning of an inevitable decline? Are things better now than they’ve ever been, or are our nostaIgic yearnings for some bygone era valid. Truly, we can’t ever fully assess and unequivocally determine if the current year, or any other era for that matter, is the greatest time in human history.

All I know is that I suffered many a sunburn as a child, and I would have loved a UV-protection swim shirt back then.

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