Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Reflections on 2016

As 2016 comes to an end many people will be glad to see the back of this year.

In some cases this will be because so many votes, elections and referenda, have gone differently to what was expected, produced results that millions of people are deeply unhappy about or both (though of course, millions of other people have generally been pleased.)

For millions of others, their own loved ones, friends, or people they really liked have died this year. Over this Christmas period four very significant and well-liked figures from popular culture have died. "Princess Leia" Carrie Fisher, "Watership Down" creator Richard Adams, singer George Michael and actress Liz Smith joined a very long list of such celebrities who died in 2016.

There is a strong argument that this long list of deaths in 2016 is not in any way surprising or unusual: celebrities die every year and it is unsurprising that a large number of those who became famous in the early days of mass culture are reaching the end of their mortal spans. Because the list of those who have died in 2016 seems particularly long and distinguished, and barely a week seemed to pass without another hugely talented and popular person being added to their numbers, there has been much mourning of departed heroes and heroines this year. Sadly in this respect at least it is unlikely that 2017 will be much better.

Yet most - not all, but the majority - of the celebrities and others who have died in Britain and most countries in the world have lived full and long lives. Life expectancy, and the number of years of healthy and active life, continue to increase.

Dan Hannan here and Alex Massie here argue convincingly that for most people 2016 was a far better year than any in human history before it.

In testing that theory by comparison with my own life I need to do no more than compare the eyes I used to read their articles with condition of my eyes at the beginning of 2016.

For nearly fifty years I was dependent on strong glasses or contact lenses - each of which have significant drawbacks - to function. Today, thanks to an operation which was almost unimaginable when I was born (the replacement of the lenses of my eyes) I can see to read their articles, or to write this post, slightly better with the naked eye than I could have with glasses or contact lenses before, something which has been life-changing.

And not just life-changing in terms of the ability to see better without glasses or contact lenses. I discovered as a result of the routine check before my first operation that I was in the early stages of developing a cataract. Had I been born a century earlier I would at this stage of my life be looking at the inevitable onset of blindness in at least one eye, with nothing whatsoever that anyone could do about it.

When I was a boy the "communicators" of the original series of Star Trek seemed like a technology so advanced that it was in Clarke's words almost indistinguishable from magic. As I write this I have my own communicator sitting next to me, except that we now call them mobile phones, and a huge proportion of the population have them; usually now with more computing power than NASA had when they sent men to the moon and with an awesome range of functions.

I carry on my keyring a couple of tiny portable disc drives. These are now available at a price practically anyone can afford, smaller in their larger dimensions than the length and width of my thumbnail yet with a capacity of dozens of gigabytes of data.

In ancient times the great library of Alexandria was said to contain nearly half a million scrolls of writing, although historians estimate the actual number at between 40,000 and 400,000. An ancient parchment scroll could be thirty to forty metres long and about sixty centimetres in width. Depending on how many scrolls they really had, and how large, how words were fitted into each centimetre of parchment, it is entirely possible that thumbnail size drives like the ones on my keyring, available from Wilkinson's for the remuneration from considerably less than a day's work for a minimum wage employee, could now store as many words as were held in the entire Great Library at its height.

Information is power, and our civilisation continues to accumulate knowledge at an awesome rate. My previous post with Thomas Sowell's last regular article described some of the ways that this has driven massive increases in the standard of living over his lifetime, so that many of the poorest people in society now have things the richest did not have a generation ago.

Inside or outside the European union, regardless of who the US elects as president or anything that people like Trump or Assad can do, we can and must drive forward those increases in knowledge and continue to make people's lives better.

Perhaps because of what has happened to my eyes this year I can see this picture on both senses of the word. Asking me "Do you want to go back a year?" is like asking me "Do you want to be dependent on glasses again?"

Asking me if I want to go back a hundred years is like asking me "Do you want to be blind?"

I don't. I can see that my parents gave me a better start in life than they had, a vastly better start in life than my grandparents had. My children have opportunities that I could not have dreamed about as a child. I want my grandchildren to have opportunities beyond what my children have.

For all our complaints, many of them justified, 2016 was not a bad year. It was the best year in human history. And 2017 will be better.


Jim said...

With a whisper

Chris Whiteside said...

"No one knows the day or hour" but I am working on the operating assumption that the world will not be ending just yet.