In recent years I’ve written a number of contrarian columns arguing that modern life has, by nearly every quantifiable measure, improved for the vast majority of humanity over the past 40 years.
These pieces serve a dual purpose: First, they allow me to push back, in my own small way, against the prevailing pessimism that dominates so much of our discourse. Second, they allow me to troll Millennials, who often seem to function under the ahistorical misconception that they live in a uniquely challenging era.
My articles generate a barrage of criticisms, some more compelling than others, but there’s always one especially puzzling line thrown into the mix: “What did we really get, old man — cheap smartphones?”
As a matter of fact, yes.
Smartphones are the most extraordinarily practical gadget ever invented. I can say this confidently and marshal facts to support my thesis, because for only a few hundred bucks I now have access to all of human knowledge, whenever I want, wherever I am.
I’m a Gen X’er, but even I have a tough time remembering what it felt like to have to go to a library and dig up a book to track down the answer to a simple question. If I had told my 20-year-old self that one day there would be a sleek device in my hand that instantaneously allowed me to watch virtually any movie or television show, listen to any song ever recorded, read any newspaper, magazine, or novel, look at any piece of art, speak to anyone anywhere in the world, I would have bet my Walkman you were lying. In countless ways, reality has outpaced the science fiction of my childhood.
So, yes, you get a cheap smartphone.
You also get a satellite guidance system. Anyone who grew up watching his parents argue over a giant unfurled paper map can tell you there were an incalculable number of man-hours lost searching for elusive destinations. Now you know not only exactly where you are and what traffic looks like, but how long it will take to get to where you’re going.
You also get a camera that takes professional-quality pictures of your family, pets, and friends that can be instantly overshared with everyone in your life. You get a video recorder that produces high-definition movies. You get an answering machine. You get apps that count your calories, measure your pulse, count your steps, find you a date, get you a taxi, and let you purchase basically anything you desire. You get a radio, a notebook, and a calendar. You also get to be involved in a massive conversation with thousands of people with whom you share your interests.
Oh, and a portable phone.
Most important, though, you get apps dedicated to bringing you every morsel of news about your favorite sports team. Thirty years ago you would have had to track down a pay phone and call a service where another human being would tell you the score. Life is good.
Describing these smartphones as “cheap,” by the way, isn’t disparaging. It is merely an admission that innovations in technology, efficiency, and trade have made smartphones so affordable that even those of modest means can own a supercomputer without appreciating it.
There are, granted, a number of good reasons young people don’t walk around in awe of their technology. Basically they’re the same reasons I don’t walk around dumbfounded by airplanes or pasteurized milk or vaccines or the wheel. Every generation lives in its own reality. Yet I also don’t remember dismissing my Atari 2600 as cheap junk.
One wonders whether we’re less apt to appreciate advances because so many of them are now predicated on shrinking things. We tend to romanticize colossal industrial efforts that brought us skyscrapers or dams — people have spent a lifetime trying to convince me that Robert Moses was a hero rather than a villain — or the state-led efforts that rallied citizens and industry to put men on the moon.
Over the past decades technology has gotten increasingly tiny and less obviously substantial. In 2018, for example, the same year NASA was unveiling its new plans to send men to a lifeless, cold rock called “Mars,” MIT researchers announced that they’d figured out how to shrink objects to nanoscale — which is to say, smaller than anything you could see through a regular microscope — using a laser.
It took immense self-control for me not to type a bunch of exclamation points at the end of the previous sentence. Because, using lasers, humans are building nanorobots that will repair your body on a cellular level by doing things such as delivering chemotherapy to cancer cells rather than ravaging your entire body and monitoring your blood to warn you of illness while helping you heal.
Soon scientists will be using CRISPR gene-editing technology to slice diseases out of your makeup and replace them with new, healthy DNA. Hey, we are also going to Mars. One of these projects will excite the masses, and the other will benefit mankind.
None of this is to argue that sending people to another planet is a complete waste of time. Exploring is what we’ve always done. Nor is it to argue that there aren’t any negative externalities associated with technology. Anyone who has a kid with a smartphone understands this well. Techno-utopianism is as shortsighted as any other utopianism. It is, however, to say that the instinct to dismiss the remarkable things we do is a reflection of not only an unhealthy discourse but an unhealthy historical self-awareness. You get cheap smartphones. And that’s amazing.