American in Spain

The Golden Age Fallacy and Our Social Decline

April 4, 2012

thumbnailRemember back when you were a child, and the world wasn't so complicated and messed up? That was a simpler time, wasn't it? WRONG. It was a simpler time for you, because you were a child, free to play and almost entirely free from responsibility. We live in the most peaceful time in all of human history. Thinking that things were better in the past is called the Golden Age Fallacy, and it annoys the crap out of me. Every single generation does the same damn thing. People my grandparents's age thought that rock-and-roll was corrupting the nation's youth. People my parents's age thought that video games and rap music were corrupting the nation's youth. Yes, it's true that running outside and playing with sticks and balls is far more healthy than sitting on the floor with the Playstation™ and eating Cheetos™, but don't you think for a second that an average 12-year-old from the 1950s, if given a free choice, would choose to be outside playing kickball rather than playing Entrails of War: Bloodlust Savages in HD. The latter is just more fun. In the same way, whatever my daughter enjoys doing as a child will seem totally lame and boring to her kids. It's just the way we are. Get over it.

Another way that this fallacy presents itself is when someone from a wealthy nation travels to a poorer nation, which is the only way to virtually travel back in time. Some tourists think, "Oh, how quaint that the people here take their clothes down to the river by donkey and wash them in the fresh river water! How natural! This is how humans should live. I envy these people." Shut the hell up. No you don't. There is no rational person that washes clothes by hand that would not prefer to have a washing machine to do it for them in a tenth of the time with a hundredth of the effort. Anytime the adjective "quaint" comes to mind, ask yourself if you really mean it in a positive way. As an immigrant back to The Old World, I catch myself falling victim to this fallacy sometimes.

What set me off on this little rant was a TED Talk, by Sherry Turkle, that I saw this morning about how the internet and smartphones and texting and social networking is making us more lonely. What? Are you out of your mind? I disagree with just about every point made in this talk.

As with absolutely everything, you can do smartphone social networking too much, but reasonable people set reasonable boundaries. Yes, I have been in a room with two other people, and every one of us was using their smartphone. But I've also been in a room with two other people in which all three of us were reading books. Does that mean that books are destroying our relationships? Down with reading! Why aren't we talking to each other?! Give me a break.

The world is getting better for humans by almost every metric, but something in our brains makes us long for days of yore when life was actually harder than it is now. You know that quote by Stephen Hawking?

Time travel might be possible, but if that's the case, why haven't we been overrun by tourists from the future?

Perhaps it's just that no one wants to come back and live in the relative squalor.