A few days ago, I was posed the question: do you think that the world is better off today than it was 100, 500, 1000 years ago?
Of course, it depends on how you define better…
Or does it…
Could we make the claim that being born today – literally anywhere in the world – is strictly *better off* than at any previous time in history? I think that would be a bold claim. Especially as a white male, born in the United States (perhaps the most developed economy in the history of the world), this is a challenging assertion to make. How am I to say that the millions of people suffering are now better off? The starving, drowning, and dying people would still disagree.
On a macro scale, I think you could certainly make the case. You could point to people living longer, less poverty, etc. I think all of those tangible indicators are weakly correlated to happiness. Happiness, though, in my opinion, is a poor macro measure. It is a poor macro measure because happiness is entirely relative and does not reflect the importance and influence of technological growth. You can debate that last claim – importance of technological growth – but I will save that for another time.
Nonetheless, I think that another important distinction from being born today, versus any other time in history, is the value of opportunity. I think there is more opportunity today, for a more diverse set of people, than ever before in history. And I think that will only increase as technology (and the internet) becomes ubiquitous across different areas of the world. While tech does not perfectly even the playing field, it is one step in the right direction.
Here is why…
If you were born poor 1000 years ago, you could never become rich. This is a generalization, but it is one that I believe to be largely true. The caste system etc. made it really challenging for any individual to beat the system. When I say you could never become rich, I mean you were systematically oppressed from advancing in society – from jobs, from pleasures, from luxuries, from impact, from power – literally in pretty much every way.
This paradigm held true for centuries and some would argue it still holds true today. Poor people are largely kept out of advancing. I would argue that it has gotten better – the internet has given some access to those who seek vertical mobility.
We have supercomputers in our pockets with the world’s knowledge. We can see the world! We know how many continents there are. The Mongols did not. What of this matters, though, if we are not strictly happier? I would argue, once again, that happiness is all about context and it is unfair to point to that measure as the only measure of success.
This is a very complicated thought process and I’ll do my best to condense it another time!
Also published on Medium.