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The times they are a changing…

In 1920, Jackson Scholz set the men’s 100m world record at 10.6 seconds. The 100m race is one where progress is very hard; we’re getting towards the limit of human possibility. It’s very tricky to squeeze out another second or fraction of a second. Still, in 2009, Usain Bolt set the men’s 100m world record at 9.58 seconds.

Apart from the Bolt, who else today can run faster than Jackson Scholz? Well, the fastest 16 year old ran the 100m in 10.27 second. The visually impaired world record is 10.46 seconds. The woman’s world record is 10.49 seconds.

The point of this extended metaphor is that we are focused on the differences we see today: between teenagers and adults, between men and women, between the able-bodied and those not. But the difference that swamps all of these is the difference between the present and the past. In 1920, prohibition had just been instituted in the USA. Some women were voting for the first time, though most couldn’t (neither could most men, in fact). The British empire was at its height, communism had just triumphed in Russia (the only country in the world to legalise abortion), homosexuality was a crime in most places, GDP was about a 30th of what it is now, life expectancy was 54 in the USA and tuberculosis was incurable.

How dissimilar will the world look like in 2099, then? More dissimilar that any difference we can see by looking around the world today. People will think differently, act differently, and have completely different lives and opinions, to anything that currently exists.

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3 Comment on this post

  1. Actually, there is something interesting going on here. In normal group psychology we tend to overestimate the individuality and differences within our own group, while downplaying the individuality and differences in an out-group. I also suspect that we tend to play up the difference between our own group and the other group.

    So when looking around the world we tend to see various groups (women, disabled, foreigners) that we think are very different (from us) and hence it makes sense to, for example, segregate sports by them. When looking at the past, you have a choice of thinking of past people as in your group (“we Swedes won a lot of gold medals in the 1912 Olympics”) and hence fairly similar, or as an out-group (“People in 1912 certainly were stuffy”). Presumably this depends on whether the topic is embarrassing or not. However, future people seem to be all hazy and outsiders: they are different from us, yet homogeneous (probably all wearing Star Trek jumpsuits).

    The chance that any of us in this discussion will be around in 2099 is slim, but definitely nonzero. I wonder if mentally adding a future version of oneself to it helps make “the future” less of a hazy outgroup? Similarly, when considering how different the future can be, does adding a future instance of oneself make you think it is more or less likely to be different?

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