Tag Archives: modernity

The Dark Ages Weren’t so Dark, and Neither Is Modernity

I’m currently reading Barbarians to Angels by Peter Wells, which is a mostly successful attempt to rehabilitate the Dark Ages’ dismal reputation. The written sources are mostly from the Roman perspective, so one understands their rampant pessimism. Wells, an archaeologist, prefers a different historiographical method: archaeology. There is more to history than mere texts.

Roman inventions such as concrete were lost, and though literacy did not disappear, it wasn’t anywhere near where it was in Roman times; there was decline. But civilization did not die. International trade stayed alive, and with it the swirling exchange of ideas, customs, religions, and inventions that accompany commerce. Artifacts from as far away as India, Sri Lanka, and China have been found in Dark Age sites in Sweden and Ireland.

The visual arts remained vibrant, even if the written arts didn’t. Of course, illuminated manuscripts such as the Book of Kells provided their own vibrancy, even if in their illustrations and not in their actual text.

All in all, Wells has not persuaded me that early medieval Europe was the technological and cultural equal of the Roman Empire. But he has certainly vanquished the myth that the Dark Ages were as dark as the popular imagination believes.

Much as I love history, the real reason for this post is to point out just how well we moderns have it. In chapter 12, Wells writes the following about one of the 8th century’s greatest scholars:

The most prominent scholar of this period was Bede, a man of Anglo-Saxon origins who was born in northern England about 672 and died in 735. At the age of seven he entered the monastery that was based at the neighboring sites of Wearmouth and Jarrow, in Northumbria, just at the time that this monastic complex was reaching its apex of cultural achievement. The library at the monastery contained some five hundred books, making it on of the most extensive in Europe at the time.

Let’s put this in context. My Kindle e-reader, which fits in my hand, can hold more books than the finest library in all of 8th-century Europe had to offer. Just imagine what a mind of Bede’s caliber could accomplish with today’s intellectual resources.

That’s not all. Now think about today’s 7-billion-strong global population, and compare it to the fewer than one billion people alive in Bede’s time. There are at least an order of magnitude more people alive today with Bede-level intellects. And most of them have access to university libraries and the Internet. What will they accomplish?

We truly live in amazing times.

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Siri and Modernity’s Iron Laws

I’m fond of saying that the two iron laws of modernity are 1) things are getting better, and 2) people think they’re getting worse.

One more piece of evidence that these laws hold: this article complaining about Siri. Siri is a voice-activated program that comes with new iPhones. Users can ask their phone where, say, the nearest Thai restaurant is. Just say it out loud. No typing. In seconds, Siri gives out a dozen options, with maps, directions, and even menus.

It’s an amazing piece of technology, and it will only improve in the coming years. And this guy grouses that Siri “won’t tell me how much battery life is left, or turn my Wi-Fi antenna on or off.” What an astonishing mindset. It is disheartening that when faced with such cool innovations, people invariably find ways to complain about them.

On the other hand, if consumers weren’t such harsh sovereigns, many of today’s innovations might never happen in the first place. Modernity’s second iron law — people think things are getting worse — is a double-edged sword.

Bourgeois Dignity

Deirdre McCloskey thinks that a shift in rhetoric and public opinion is what made possible what she calls the Great Fact – the tenfold rise in global per-capita GDP from $3 per day in 1800 to around $30 today, and growing. The average person in rich countries make over $100 per day, more than a 30-fold increase. Remember, even the mighty U.S. was once a $3 a day nation. We had to start somewhere.

Sometime around the Enlightenment, public opinion shifted from hostility to entrepreneurship and innovation to at least a grudging acceptance. We liberals need to take great care to keep public opinion tolerant, or else the Great Fact could become a relic of history. Traders can only trade, and inventors can only invent, when people let them. Unfortunately,  the clerisy (McCloskey’s word for the intellectual class that drives long-run public opinion) is strongly anti-commerce, as she points out:

Such antibourgeois people (many of them my good friends) do not believe the bourgeois axiom that a deal between two adults has a strong presumption in its favor, practically and ethically and aesthetically. They deny hotly that allowing such deals and honoring their makers has resulted in the modern enrichment of the poor. They think instead quite against the historical evidence, that governments or trade unions did it.

Deirdre McCloskey, Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World, p. 397-98.

The liberal’s job, then, is to legitimize the entrepreneur and the innovator, morally, ethically, and aesthetically, as well as economically. That wonderful project we call modernity hinges on it.

It Gets Better: Sears Catalog Edition

I forget who I’m paraphrasing here, but the two iron laws of modernity are 1) things are getting better, and 2) people think they’re getting worse. The short video at the bottom of this post is one way to prove the first law to victims of the second law. It’s a rough cut adapted from a recent talk Don Boudreaux gave; I eagerly await the full version.

When I took macroeconomics in graduate school, the professor circulated a Sears catalog from 1900 or so around the classroom. Most of the prices were given in cents, not dollars. Now imagine that you could buy anything you wanted from that catalog today at those low prices. They’re still too expensive. Take these vacuum cleaners pictured below:

$12.50 for a vacuum cleaner? What a deal! And yet, given the choice, I would not buy it. Too expensive. I wouldn’t even be willing to pay $5.00 for it. Heck, I wouldn’t even want it for free.

Why is even a price of zero too expensive for that vacuum? Because it doesn’t even use electricity. It’s manually powered. No thanks. I’m better off with the $90 vacuum I bought a few years ago.

Of course, I’ve been ignoring inflation. As a useful public service, the Minneapolis Fed has an inflation calculator right on its homepage. It only goes back to 1913, and our vacuum is a 1909. But that’s close enough for the point I’m making.

If that vacuum cost $12.50 in 1913, it would cost $285.17 in 2011. This manually powered vacuum, that I wouldn’t pay a dime for, is three times as expensive in real terms as my electric vacuum.

Things are better now. Modernity is a blessing. The first law holds. Hopefully the second law won’t prove quite so rigid.

Click here if the embedded video below doesn’t work. It’s well worth 1:26 of your time to watch.