Saturday, December 5, 2009

Centuries of Progress

Here's a fun trivia question:  When and where were the first public toilets introduced?

Go on, guess.  I'll reveal the answer at the end of the post.  In the meantime, I'll talk about technological progress.

Civilization as we know it began in the 19th century.  Life in 1810 wasn't much different than it was in Roman times.  The entire society was essentially pastoral, with a hereditary class of wealthy landowners dominating the economy and politics.  Almost everything was made by hand, and travel and communication were very difficult.  But by 1910, the physical nature of the world was radically altered.  Physics and chemistry and engineering had fundamentally changed the production and distribution of food and physical goods.  The world was dominated by railroads and factories.  Things like electricity and indoor plumbing had gone from nonexistant to commonplace.

More importantly, everyone knew that the world was changing rapidly and would continue to change in the future.  Thomas Jefferson believed that the basic facts of his plantation lifestyle would be the standard pattern for hundreds of years.  He thought that the ideal shape of the future would be an eternity of pastoralism, basically unchanged from the patterns of antiquity.  He simply did not understand how technology would change the fact of the world.  Nobody in 1910 could make that mistake.

But the interesting thing is that the physical nature of our lives and civilization has not changed nearly as much in the last hundred years.  The system of farms and factories and indoor plumbing is mostly unchanged.  We have replaced railroads with cars and airplanes, but aside from that, we are basically doing what they did in 1900, but more efficiently.

The real change in the last hundred years has been in the realm of information.  The existence of telegraphs in the 1800's was a start, but telegraphs were basically just a more efficient way of writing letters.  In the 20th century, we developed a system of mass media unprecedented in human history, with movies, radio, and then television.  Information and entertainment was mass-produced instead of hand-made, matching the transformation of physical goods in the 19th century.  We also created a network of telephones that reached into every house, dramatically changing how people connected to and communicated with each other.  And then, of course, came computers and the Internet and mobile phones.  We all know about these changes because we are living through them.

I believe that the fundamental changes to information have already taken place, just as the fundamental changes to physical goods production had already taken place in 1910.  The shape of the future is mostly clear.  We will do what we are doing now, only more efficiently.

I believe that the next frontier for a radical shift is medicine and biology.  The 19th century remade the physical world, the 20th century remade information, and the 21st century will be about remaking humanity.  If you look honestly at our current medical system, you will see that it is shockingly underdeveloped compared to the other miracles of our civilization.  Most of the money spent on medicine is wasted, and a lot of the things they do are useless or even harmful.  The few things that are done right, such as trauma care and antibiotics, are those with immediate and obvious short-term consequences. 

Aside from childhood vaccinations, our medical system is basically worthless to someone with good genes who lives a healthy life and avoids accidents.  All they know how to do is fix things that go wrong.  The best that you can ever hope from an interaction with the medical system is to leave in a condition that is no worse than that of a healthy person your age who never needed medical care.  They can do absolutely nothing to make your life better if it is already good.

The life expectancy of a healthy person today is little better than the life expectancy of someone five thousand years ago who managed to avoid war, famine, and disease.  If you were from a well-off family and managed to survive to age five, then you would probably live a good long life.  The shockingly low life expectancy at birth figures were due to the horrible living conditions of the peasantry and to the plagues and childhood illnesses that affected everybody. The recent increase in life expectancy comes mainly from better nutrition, better sanitation, and lower rates of violence.  Our civilization's single best tool for life extension is the produce section of the supermarket.

Now, I love knowing that the ER will patch me up if I get in a car crash or break a bone in some kind of accident.  I also know that I would probably be dead, or at least severely weakened, if I had not gotten vaccines and an antibiotic treatment as an infant.  But now that I have passed that hurdle, I will do my best to avoid the medical system for as long as possible.  I have adjusted my diet, exercise, and living patterns so that I will avoid things like high blood pressure and cholesterol problems for a long time.  I will have my body monitored with regular checkups, of course, and if something starts to malfunction, I will consent to let a doctor fix it if there is no other option.

But we can, and will, do so much more than merely patching things up.  We will find ways to actually improve human functioning.  A system built around trying to fix broken bodies and restore them to their original condition will be replaced by a system that is built around making new and better bodies with a combination of nanotechnology, biological engineering, and cybernetics.

One of my goals in life is to not require any medical treatment until some time after the Singularity hits.  By the time my body starts to fall apart, we should have the technology to grow me a new one or upload me into a robot.

To answer the opening question: The first public restrooms were in the Crystal Palace in London's Great Exhibition of 1851

Now consider what it was like to live in England in 1850.  You would be living in the greatest and most powerful and most advanced civilization the world had ever known.  And yet your life lacked a feature that people a century later would regard as a basic necessity of civilized life.  The men and women of 1850 thought that they were civilized.  But nowadays, we would regard their living conditions as barbaric.  ( On a related note, modern deodorant was invented in the late 1800's )

Think about this when you consider the living conditions of the future.  The humans of the future will regard our lives as primitive and barely civilized.

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