Future

We Live in a World of Reliable Miracles

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When I'm having a bad day, I trawl the internet for videos of happy cyborgs. My favorites are clips of hearing-impaired people getting their cochlear implants turned on for the first time. The videos follow a soothingly predictable pattern. Mumbly background chatter and shaky cam—the cinematography is rarely good—then a pregnant pause, wide eyes, and finally that peculiar kind of sobbing that human beings do when we are overwhelmed. The pattern is the same whether it's a babe in arms or a full-grown man.

If you catch the right algorithmic wave on YouTube or the right hashtag on Instagram, you can surf for hours in this genre: videos of Parkinson's patients as their tremors are calmed by a new therapy, paraplegics walking with the help of adaptive prosthetics, infants getting their first pair of coke-bottle glasses, and more.

Adorable kittens and soppy love stories do little to warm my cold, dead heart. But show me a part-robot baby flipping out because he heard his mom say "hello" for the first time, and it's onion city.

I'm not deaf or hard of hearing, but I am aware that cochlear implants are not without controversy in that community. As with almost everything you see on the internet, behind the scenes there is invisible labor, difficult setbacks, and the occasional disaster. Hardly anyone posts those on their YouTube channel.

Still, entire religions were once built around the spectacle of someone banishing a severe disability with the wave of a hand. Today any certified R.N. in the right audiologist's office can be a secular saint. When my own worthless eyeballs were corrected with lasers, making me a blind(ish) woman given the gift of sight, I didn't fall to my knees and worship the ophthalmologist. I just got out my credit card. We live in an age of reliable, scalable, profitable miracles.

People are ungrateful wretches, of course. Once anyone can reliably perform a miracle, it immediately ceases to seem miraculous. Babies generated without sex—actual virgin births—are humdrum. We carry nearly all of human knowledge in our pockets. Within a decade, burgers made without meat will be commonplace (page 10). And the memory of a time when HIV was a death sentence will soon fade to almost nothing (page 30).

As a species, we're brilliant at focusing on the negative. There are some very useful evolutionary implications of this trait, but an unfortunate side effect is that we always feel like the sky is falling, even when it's 70 degrees and sunny.

But historically speaking, it's a beautiful day.

In 1820, nearly 84 percent of the world's population lived in extreme poverty (roughly less than $1.90 per day per person). In 1981, according to the World Bank, that number was still 42 percent. Today, it's hovering around 8 percent.

Also in 1820, 90 percent of the world's population was illiterate. Today that number is inverted: 90 percent can read.

Since 1990, an additional 2.6 billion people have secured access to clean water.

And in 1990, zero percent of the world's population had access to the World Wide Web. By 2020, more than half will.

In other words, the people around us are healthy and long-lived. They have words to read and videos to watch. The water is clear and blue. Food is plentiful and delicious. And the soundtrack—whether it's piped in through the latest medical technology or just an ordinary pair of earbuds—is gorgeous.

All of these heartening facts and figures (and much of my hope for humanity) are drawn from an upcoming book, Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know, by Reason Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey and the Cato Institute's Marian L. Tupy (page 12).

These are mere material gains, the determined pessimist might say. True enough. We are the children of Steven Pinker's "long peace" and the grandchildren of Deirdre Nansen McCloskey's "great enrichment." We are safe and wealthy beyond the imagining of our ancestors, the beneficiaries of an astonishingly lengthy stretch of success for liberal institutions, international trade, and the free exchange of ideas.

These institutions are not automatically self-sustaining. But they are self-reinforcing. People aren't perfectible, and they are prone to both personal and political error. Everything could always go pear-shaped.

But so far, billions of healthier, wealthier, better-educated, and better-connected people have also proven themselves better able to understand and defend the values of the free society.

Politics, of course, is crap. But politics has consistently been crap throughout the last couple of centuries, and yet here we are in the greatest period of global peace, enrichment, and innovation in human history. Truth be told, even the crappiness of politics is way down over the last 200 years. The modes of amplifying the shouting have gotten better, so the whole enterprise is noisier. But it's far less fatal than it used to be. Not every downward trend line is an inflection point.

"Put not your trust in princes," the psalmist warns us, "nor in the son of man in whom there is no help. His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish." The first bit couldn't be more true. But the rest is absolute rubbish.

Human beings are doing remarkably well lately, especially for such fragile, mortal creatures. As with the cochlear implants, a lot of messiness, horror, and hopelessness are hidden from view. It's wrong to dismiss or ignore suffering just because it's not part of a broader trend. But it is also wrong to despair.

The combined efforts of the sons of man have wrought astonishing changes. And their thoughts do not perish when they die but live on through their inventions and institutions. The dead of the last two centuries have bettered the world not just for themselves but for those of us who came after them. Their legacy is a world rife with boring, ordinary miracles.

NEXT: Brickbat: Fighting Old Battles

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  1. KMW, this was a very welcome reminder of how good we’ve got it. But people seem less happy than in the past – maybe due to the amplification of hate and sorrows on the internet and in the media. Instead of hearing that one kid drowned this year we learn that one drowns every hour.

    1. I think its also in part due to ignorance being bliss. 200 years ago people were much poorer, but had no idea there was any other way to live. Today you turn on the TV and see reality shows about multimillionaires, and most people are doing well enough to take vacations and actually experience, albeit briefly, how the wealthy gets to live, and it just makes them more miserable when they have to return to the normal lives

      1. most people are doing well enough to take vacations and actually experience, albeit briefly, how the wealthy gets to live

        Take a peek outside your bubble. Maybe 20% in the US can afford to do that.

        1. I dunno, most people could afford to take a trip somewhere once in awhile. Not a private jet to Monaco or whatever, but maybe economy flight to Florida.

        2. more like 80 percent, thanks to credit cards.

    2. Bad memories fade faster than god memories, although I suppose it’s impossible to have any good memories as string as the most terrifying ones. But in general it’s true.

      Most good memories are long term, and just as Kansas looks boring compared to the Rockies, good memories seem boring compared to quick sharp bad memories. News, and memories, are of events, not long stretches. No one reports good news, because it isn’t news.

    3. Don’t panic. The hate and hysteria today pales in comparison to what was running rampant in, say, Bleeding Kansas circa 1855. Despite the political hoo-ha the vast majority of people are getting on with their lives and a lot of them are enjoying it.

    4. it’s not about more frequently hearing bad news (even though fewer bad things are happening), it’s about the ever-present reminders of how much better off some other people are (or pretend to be on Instagram).

  2. “But historically speaking, it’s a beautiful day.”

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=co6WMzDOh1o

  3. We are so well off these days that millions of us have the leisure time to advocate for a collectivist political system that would put us back into poverty.

    1. Socialism is an affectation of the affluent.

      1. Conservatism is a manifestation of the intolerant, the poorly educated, the anti-social, the stale-thinking, the selfish, and the superstitious.

        That might explain why conservatives get stomped by the liberal-libertarian mainstream in the American culture war.

        1. “Conservatism is a manifestation of the intolerant, the poorly educated, the anti-social, the stale-thinking, the selfish, and the superstitious.”

          You keep saying things like that, but I’ve seen far more intolerance, poor education, anti-social, stale-thinking, selfish and superstitious people among liberals that I have among conservatives and libertarians.

          Conservatives and libertarians are nice people. that’s the reason why they get stomped by the liberal mainstream in the American culture war.

          (And to lump in libertarians with the Left — it is to laugh!)

    2. Yup. Because people don’t understand what MADE us wealthy in the first place.

    3. and to agitate for spending trillions of dollars and setting society back 2 or 3 centuries, all to stop the weather from getting slightly more pleasant and the oceans from rising a foot or so in the next century.

  4. When someone complains how bad they have it, remember that in 1922 President Calvin Coolidge’s son died because he did not wear socks while playing tennis at the White House. No amount of money or access to experts would have saved him until 1928 at the earliest.

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  6. I’m not deaf or hard of hearing, but I am aware that cochlear implants are not without controversy in that community.

    These “miracles” you speak of also shouldn’t be without controversy among libertarians because both their development and their delivery is largely financed by the state and through state coercion. Treatment of highly premature infants, development of anti-HIV drugs, treatment of obesity-related disease, attempts to accommodate individuals with mental or physical disabilities in society, etc. are not free market outcomes. You claim to be a libertarian, but you celebrate the “miracles” that were provided by state intervention and coercion, not markets.

    1. Go piss on somebody else’s parade.

    2. “but you celebrate the “miracles” that were provided by state intervention and coercion, not markets.”

      Are you saying the laser surgery the author celebrates (developed in the USSR by communists) was not a market thing?

      1. Are you saying the laser surgery the author celebrates (developed in the USSR by communists) was not a market thing?

        The USSR developed refractive surgery, not laser-based vision correction. Most of the technology needed for LASIK wouldn’t exist without massive government spending on the underlying technology.

    3. Even a blind squirrel finds a nut on occasion. Thus with government programs. Look at cost benefit and you’ll see that the gov spends far more than all the pharma and med tech companies, so of course they will make some hits.

      Medical needs are nowhere near as important as food. You want to tell me about the great gov food advances? Want Trump, Pelosi, et al dictating what we eat. Who needs 276 types of beer?

      1. I think you misinterpreted my comment. I’m not saying “government spending is good because it gave us those ‘miracles'”. I’m saying “reflect on whether something that only exists due to government spending is as good as it seems to be”. The fact that cochlear implants are controversial in the deaf community gives you a starting point for thinking about that.

    4. While a lot of this is financed by the State, a lot of the problems we have getting treatments approved, and then keeping prices low by allowing competition, are nullified by the State as well. A *lot* of progress has been made in spite of the State, rather than *because* of it.

      In particular, the FDA should have no power over determining what drugs can and cannot be given to patients. The *most* the FDA should be able to do is say “This drug hasn’t been adequately tested — use it at your own risk.” or “This drug has been found dangerous for X, Y and Z reasons; we advise using against it.”

      And while the value of patents is, at best, debatable, once those patents expire, the FDA shouldn’t impose further restrictions to prevent others from using the knowledge. Insulin and epi-pens in particular, being old technologies, should be easy to inexpensively produce. Instead, government action has made these almost prohibitively expensive.

      1. I think you are implicitly assuming that more and better medical treatments automatically translate into “progress”. I don’t believe that’s true. Treatments represent progress if their benefits outweigh their costs, and that’s not something government or the FDA can answer.

        1. I don’t fully understand what you’re getting at. It’s *precisely* why the fact that neither the government nor the FDA can answer whether the benefits outweigh their costs means they shouldn’t be involved in drug policy, except (at best) in an advisory role — which, much like UL (Underwriter Laboratory) is something that can even be done privately.

          The FDA in particular likes to avoid headlines where a drug previously approved causes death or grave injury; thus, they can order “one more trial” to make sure a drug is safe. No one keeps track of the deaths that happen during a prolonged approval process when a drug that could save lives isn’t approved in a timely manner.

          It should be the patient who should be weighing in on the costs vs the benefits, not the FDA, and not even the doctor — and we need a competitive market that’s good at lowering costs, and thus improve the cost/benefit ratio. Government has proven *very* effective at throwing wrenches into this process, thus raising the costs of treatments, and lowering the cost/benefit analysis ratio.

  7. Thank you KMW, for saying what deserves to be said every day but in fact we don’t read more than a few times a year.

  8. to take this beyond the ample commodity of simplistic technological boosterism for a moment we ask: is there a best amount of technology or is it simply all a linear path of more is better…to living like everybody on Bladerunner with no other creatures on an earth covered with sterilized glass boxes but crows, cockroaches and media created corporate socialist humans … that even the least soulful among us see as shallow frauds…what life is best? do we have any conscious choice?

    1. There are as many answers to that as there are people.

  9. But what if many people deliberately, if naively, increase sensitivity and anxiety? Despite all the objective measures of how much better our world is today, other measures do indicate some higher levels of anxiety and psychosis, especially among younger Americans.

    Blame it on cognitive and cultural bias. Blame it on the fact that as most of the battles against physical and cultural hardships have been won, people seem to get more shrill about the remaining minor issues (maybe because the rest of us will not get excited about such minor details?). Blame it, like everything else, on social media and our digital age.

    As a sensitivity analogy: parents and other paranoid about peanut allergies kept all peanut foods from their kids, thereby significantly increasing, uh, peanut allergies.

    For the average person, the world will always look as good, or bad, as they expect to see.

    1. “But what if many people deliberately, if naively, increase sensitivity and anxiety? ”

      They feel less secure. They no longer live with their extended (or even immediate) families. The skills they’ve trained in are no longer in demand and there are lots of other examples. I suppose this wide-spread feeling of insecurity in the populace has its advantages, like people feeling they have little choice but accept lower wages or the feeling that they have to comply with corporate orders to supply supervisors with urine samples and the like. But docility has its limits and leads to anxiety and self loathing. That leads to high rates of suicide. If you blame all this on ‘social media,’ I have to conclude you’re not thinking this through.

      1. what lower wages? salaries are higher than ever.

  10. “In other words, the people around us are healthy and long-lived. They have words to read and videos to watch. The water is clear and blue. Food is plentiful and delicious. And the soundtrack—whether it’s piped in through the latest medical technology or just an ordinary pair of earbuds—is gorgeous.”

    It’s all gprgeous, but apparently not enough. Indebtedness both public and private has increased hand in hand with wealth, and indebtedness means subservience. That more and more people are sinking deeper and deeper into servitude to avail themselves of the wealth produced seems a worrying trend. It certainly wasn’t what visionaries like Smith and Jefferson were thinking about.

    1. Although I would concede that that has been engineered through marketing and encouragement by the government… At the end of the day it is a lack of personal responsibility.

      The truth is some guy making saaay 60% of the median income 50 years ago simple understood that even though he had a modest income, he needed to save/invest some… Not spend it all, and then run up debt.

      People don’t NEED to go into debt. They could choose to live within their means. I once met a guy who was well on his way to becoming a multi millionaire who was literally a janitor who had never made above $15 an hour IIRC. He had bought a shitty starter house in a bad neighborhood after scrimping and saving. He then rented that one and snagged another. And another. This was over a decade ago, and in Seattle… That guy could be worth $2-5 million bucks by now depending on how he decided to do things. FYI he had a wife and kids too.

      He was responsible. People who aren’t have nobody to blame but themselves.

      1. “hat guy could be worth $2-5 million bucks by now depending on how he decided to do things.”

        He could also be up to his eyeballs in debt and you would have no way of knowing about it. I think much of society’s wealth could be just as illusory, gained on the backs of our children and grandchildren.

        1. He probably does have some debt, but there is good debt and bad debt.

          Taking on debt to generate higher income for yourself is good debt. It does carry some risk… But it has the potential to be awesome. It’s one of the corner stones of capitalism.

          Taking on debt to buy a depreciating asset that will only cost you money, like cars, clothes, etc. That’s a BIG no no.

          Knowing that guy, I bet he owns a bunch of houses, is pulling in massive positive cash flow per month, and doing awesome. He might owe a couple million bucks on properties, but his net worth is probably a few million more than he owes.

  11. We carry nearly all of human knowledge in our pockets.

    I’m so tired of hearing that. It’s nowhere near true. What we have access to in our pockets is a very sparse and carefully curated outline of human knowledge. Perhaps the day is coming when “nearly all” the contents of our libraries and archives are available on line, but we’re very far from that now.

    1. Wikipedia alone has access to more knowledge than any library in my city (or the bigger city next to that one) had just 30 years ago. It’s not even close.

  12. Hands down best essay I’ve read in 2019, KMW! Another book worth mentioning is Factfullness by Hans Rosling. Great overview of human accomplishments, like lifting one billion out of poverty the last 30 years, with test questions on seemingly counterintuitive facts, exaggerated by mainstream media. “How many girls in low income countries finish elementary school, 20, 40 or 60%?” (60!) Hans also suggests replacing our outdated words like “developing countries” with Levels 1-4. The majority of people now live in middle income countries. This is unprecedented. Another interesting fact is that whether he presented his test questions to experts, Nobel prize winners, to journalists or highschool students, chimpanzees’ scored better! The book has great graphs and statistics, and was written with his family, while the author, an International Health professor was dying.

  13. I agree on the technology front and all that. I have always been an optimist there. However one thing that I think people miss when they try to get too rosy, is that these kinds of things are largely secondary.

    In a lot of ways somebody living in Communist China today has it better off than somebody living in America in 1900… But who in gods name would rather be in China in 2019 than America in 1900?

    Nobody that appreciates freedom, that’s for sure. So that’s the thing. We’re doing well economically, and gaining a lot of cool material things… But at the end of the day that is only a SMALL part of what makes people HAPPY in life. Surveys have consistently shown that once basic needs are met, increased material well being doesn’t make people happier.

    The problem with the world today is we’re losing a lot of those other things. We’re becoming less free in many important ways. Our social cohesion is basically shredded to ribbons. People’s families have fallen apart and few people have the same closeness or support group of that family that people did back in the day.

    These things really hit people where it hurts. Those reasons, and many more, are why so many people are unhappy. We need to fix a lot of that stuff, or having more bobbles and cutting the cost of laser eye surgery in half again won’t mean shit to peoples real quality of life.

    In short: The toys are nice, and I like toys… But it’s not the whole game.

  14. Excellent essay. Pieces like this are why I subscribe.

  15. “”””Put not your trust in princes,” the psalmist warns us, “nor in the son of man in whom there is no help. His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.” The first bit couldn’t be more true. But the rest is absolute rubbish.”””

    Is the last bit absolute rubbish, though? The fact is, you can’t put your trust in princes for the very same reason that you can’t put trust in anyone else: everyone is mortal, everyone is weak, and everyone is powerless to give life or prevent death. Everything is in God’s hands. People break promises, they get sick, and they die, and while we can do *some* things to try to mitigate the damage, our efforts are ultimately futile.

    Darn that heat death of the Universe!

    That isn’t to say that we can’t prosper without trust. Indeed, contract law, in particular, is a whole mess of law designed to establish trust between strangers when trust otherwise won’t exist. And it’s by helping each other, regardless of the possibilities of fraud and failure, that these miracles are possible.

    And, on the flip side of the coin, it’s generally been an unmitigated disaster when princes have taken it upon themselves to make sure we can trust each other. We can’t fix our problems by legislating goodness. We have to depend on each other to creatively fix our own problems.

  16. “Everything could always go pear-shaped.”

    Shapist.

  17. […] We humans are doing okay, all things considered. (reason.com) […]

  18. […] But so far, billions of healthier, wealthier, better-educated, and better-connected people have also proven themselves better able to understand and defend the values of the free society. Read More > at Reason […]

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