When we read stories or watch films set in a historical context, it is seductive to romanticize about being an Egyptian Pharoah, an English Knight, an Arab Sultan, or an 18th century French Aristocrat. But how desirable were their daily lives compared to ours today?
First, refer back to the articles on Historical Life Expectancy, and Exponential and Accelerating Economic Growth. Both show that the improvements in human life over the 20th century dwarf the improvements made in all of human history before then.
But surely the people at the very top of society, at any time in history, had enviable lives, did they not? To put this perspective, we need not go back any further than a century.
Consider John D. Rockefeller, a name nearly synonymous with wealth. At one point he had a net worth as high as 1/65th of US GDP at that time, a figure that would be the equivalent of $190 Billion today - four times what Bill Gates currently has. He owned land, employed people, and had political clout that would seem extraordinary at any time in history. But, having died in 1937 at the age of 98, Rockefeller never had photographs of his childhood, never watched a color film, never flew in a jet engine airplane, and never saw a photograph of the Earth taken from space. If Rockefeller wished to travel from New York to Chicago, it took him and his entourage more than a day. If his servant cut him during a morning shave (or even if he did it himself), a cloth bandage was the only kind available. His underwear did not have elastic, and since no cohort of servants could have realistically alleviated that problem for him, he probably spent every day accustomed to irritating hassles that would be unacceptable to even the poorest Americans today. He couldn’t have even obtained a tube of mint-gel toothpaste or a can of chilled Coca-Cola from a soda machine.
The same applied to Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, and JP Morgan. While they had immense political, purchasing, and hiring power, the diversity of what they could do was limited by our standards, and we might actually have found some portions of their lifestyles to be inconvenient and monotonous. They, in turn, had electricity, phonographs, railroads, and slow automobiles that may have made them think that the world of Benjamin Franklin and George Washington was deprived, and so on.
Even as the ability to purchase land and hire the services of others has become increasingly expensive with time (but still at a rate consistent with GDP growth), the cost and diversity of goods available to the average person continues to improve remarkably, and, of course, this trend will continue to accelerate.
While it took electricity, automobiles, and air travel decades to evolve from invention to commoditization in the United States, the process of diffusion is now shortening to years. One merely needs to internalize The Impact of Computing to grasp this surging pace. Needless to say, if we can chuckle at the limitations of John D. Rockefeller’s world a century later, by 2030 we may be able to poke fun at out own world of 2006 to the same extent. A world where there were no hypersonic passenger aircraft, no intelligent robots, no self-driving cars, no virtual reality entertainment, and no easy cure for cancer may seem brutal and boring by then.
Thus, the advance and democratization of technology transcends perceptions about wealth and poverty over the course of time, and it is debatable whether it was better to be a super-wealthy American in 1920, a moderately wealthy American in 1960, or an average American in 2006. Which would you choose?