Monday, June 08, 2009

The Long History of Now

I wrote the following to the historian Dan Carlin, whose podcast I thoroughly enjoy. In fact his is the first podcast I have ever been moved to pay for. It's free but he asks for you to feel guilty until you pay for it. Chris, specifically his Hardcore History Podcast is something I think you'd particularly enjoy. I wrote Dan the following:

I was reading Henry Kissinger's recent Op-Ed in the Washington Post (what a mind to still have in his 80s!).

It strikes me that the "multi-polar" world of today is not so unlike the world dominated by European powers 100 years ago. That multi-polarity, the world of semi-equals, perhaps was an important factor in the conflicts that raged in the first-half of the last century. Are we seeing the world cycle back to such times as America loses its grip as a super power to become simply the most powerful, but not the only power of consequence?

I am so tempted to look at history as an inexorable march toward the static now... but obviously that's childish and the fact is that human history from the earliest culture on into the future to the very end of human civilization is all the long history of now.

I think we need to see the emerging equality of many Asian nuclear powers as another period of continental pressure and stress. I'd be interested in your thoughts.


JimII said...

I wonder if there is a standard of living that sort of acts like a latch to prevent slipping back into violence.

In some sense, it is true to suggest that I am exactly as annoyed by our internet going down in the middle of the work day as a factory worker in 1940 would have been with the fans shutting off or a farmer in 1750 have been to come across an unusually rocky portion of the field. On the other hand, when compared against a violent life, does the modern "higher" standard of living appeal sufficiently more favorable as to discourage violence?

If so, could your speculated multi-polar world be less dangerous than the one a century ago?

Matt Dick said...

Jim, this is a really good, subtle line of reasoning. I think you are correct that your stress at the internet being down is exactly the same as the stress of a farmer 200 years ago losing some part of his fields.

But doesn't that argue that, objective standard of living aside, violence is just as likely to result? I mean just because the average Iranian and the average American have very little to fight about in comparison to previous generations, our stress level over those minor differences is just as high--our urgency about our need to "defend our way of life" is just as high regardless of the real stakes.

Isn't that a more valid interpretation? I mean your premise relies on humans being irrational (and I am agreeing with you), but your conclusion relies on humans being rational actors. So I think your premise and your conclusion rely on different assumptions.

JimII said...

My thinking was that because our standard of living gradually improves, as in gradually over generations, we don't notice the change comparing our troubles today to our troubles yesterday. However, relative to the suffering associated with violence--which has stayed pretty much the same from generation to generation--our everyday living is measurably better.

So lets use a scale of 0 to 100, 100 being absolute bliss and 0 being torture. Our 18th century farmers general quality of life is a 22. There are more rocks than he had expected in his field and it goes down to an 18. My posh 21 century quality of life is a 82. The internet is really slow today, and thus it goes down to a 78. The farmer and I experience equal frustration. Although my standard of living is higher, my happiness is not.

What I am postulating is that participating in a violent uprising has a standard of living number of 15. For the farmer, who is already at 22, the 15 isn't that bad. And if he thinks it might make things better he may more easily enter into it, than someone like me who sees the 15 as terrible.

I'm actually suggesting that in both cases we are rational actors. It is just that in the first comparison, our happiness is necessarily tied to our own recent experiences.

Christian said...

Thanks for the recommendation, Matt. I've subscribed to his podcast and I'm now refreshing my knowledge of the Punic Wars. I'm particularly interested in his interview with Gwynne Dyer, a favorite author of mine.

Matt Dick said...

The Punic Wars episode(s) was great!

I love the one about the Central Asian steppe tribes--that was my favorite bit.