Our Dumpster Fire Record

November 29, 2022

Twitter, the media, and your neighbor Deborah with the bad dye job all agree: the sky is falling and the world is ending.

Is that true? Somebody from 1980 would look around today and not recognize a lot of the tech we have now. But go back earlier.. someone transported from any time before the 20th century would look around in wonder and amazement. Our fancy screens and cars and technology are the first thing they’d notice, but then they’d notice all of the healthy, care-free kids running around. And that there aren’t any people walking around with horrible skin problems. And that our clothes were all colorful and different. And that there’s no shit in the street.

This is all technology too, of course. If a woman has 7 kids (rare these days!) all of them will likely live to adulthood. We hardly ever see a sewer around because they’re all buried under streets. Antibiotics and vaccines means there’s nobody with pox or polio or tuberculosis.

Don’t get me wrong, there are still a lot of bad things. But way, WAY less. At the same time, there’s more technology. So here’s a fun, made up chart:

fake graphs are the best

Note that logarithmic Y axis. The world population has tripled since the 1950s. It’s 10x’d since about 1800. There’s far more human experience than ever before. At the same time, bad things have exponentially decreased. Child mortality rates were 43% in 1800. Today, it’s just 3% worldwide (and <1% in Western countries). We still hear about it all the time, and that’s because of how much more of the world we can measure today.

So the bad things we see are in the intersection of bad things and recorded things.

There wasn’t much of human experience recorded in 1800. What bad things existed in the world - starvation, evil, abuse, and anything else - was abstracted away and we know it as a bunch of words in a book or some horrible artwork. But today we record everything. It’s on Youtube and Flickr (is that still a thing?) and Instagram and photo rolls and Snap and Twitter and Facebook and Google and.. yeah. We record some huge percentage of our human world. That’s new. And because we record so much, some of it is pretty awful. Even if it’s a way smaller percentage.

Think of it like this: let’s say we had 1000 units of human experience in 1800. 400 or 500 of them were probably pretty awful. But we only recorded 10 of them, so we only got 5 recorded unit of bad. But today we’ve got like 10,000 units of experience and only 50 of them are bad. With all of our glorious technology we record 2,000 of our units - which sounds high except that a camera comes out nearly anytime there’s something momentous happening. With that ratio, we get 10 recorded units of bad. Things look twice as bad now as they were in 1800!

Lost is our old simplicity of times, The world abounds with laws, and teems with crimes.

That was written in an American newspaper in 1775. Things have always been a mess and we’ve always looked back with rosy retrospection. Take a deep breath the next time you see a horrible news report or start doomscrolling Twitter. Better yet, stop watching the constant stream of recorded bad things that other people are profiting from.

Things haven’t gotten worse, they’ve gotten better. Way, way better. We just have way more data now than we did before. Denominators matter.

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