It’s sometimes too easy to take for granted how amazing the times are that we live in.
A friend recently complained via a WhatsApp status post that despite all our supposed progress has gotten us is phones and social media, but we haven’t yet even achieved, “Beam me up, Scotty.” It was partly tongue in cheek and I’d have just laughed and moved on, except that it reminded me of a similar comments from earlier in the week.
I had been gushing on one of my WhatsApp groups about Apple’s new M1 MacBooks and how they are represent start of a revolution in computing, on the level of what the introduction of the iPhone did to communication. I tried to explain about how these new computers combined exponentially more powerful processing power with fantastically reduced battery power: the equivalent of making a regular car that runs like a Ferrari for double the distance per gallon.
That is nuts.
But a friend’s response had been lukewarm. He’d seen this before, he said. It wasn’t that big of a deal, he said. It wasn’t the first time—and wouldn’t be the last—time it’d been claimed that “X will change everything”, he said.
Meanwhile, on Twitter, I saw a respected commentator write:
But does it matter to anyone?… It doesn’t change what we can do.
Apple will launch a new iMac & Mac Pro next year and they will be 5-10x faster than the Intel equivalent. The benchmarks will be hilarious. But so what? What else does that change?Benedict Evans
I think of it like the thing with increasing roads: more people buy cars. The more people can do the more they tend to. Just as more bandwidth exploded video to the point where streaming 4K video is a norm, Apple’s betting faster chips + 5G help normalise AR/VR + ML.\
(That’s augmented and virtual reality, and machine learning, if you’re wondering.)
In each case they were doing something I think we’re far too easily prone to: taking things for granted.
Think about it: we are in a time when we routinely walk around with devices that have more computing power than the whole of NASA had when it put men on the moon just 5 decades ago.
Heck, I still remember Deep Blue the computer that beat chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov in 1997: when I was already a teen! I remember how blown I was by the existence of that computer. It could evaluate 200 million positions on a chessboard every second.
The chips in the new iPhone 12 phones perform up to 11 trillion operations per second. That’s 55,000 times more than Deep Blue could do. In less than half a century.
This insane degree of progress has not just made possible “phones and social media”, it’s unleashed human potential at unprecedented scale:
- It’s allowed people to make a living as YouTubers and podcasters and writers and online course teachers, while also making it possible to learn anything at anytime from anywhere.
- It’s made it possible for me to do this, right now: running a website and email list.
- It’s made possible innovations like Bitcoin and M-Pesa that have revolutionised the financial industry.
- It’s empowered revolutions across the world, from the Arab Springs to movements like EndSARS in Nigeria.
These things aren’t things that have just happened. They’re things that have been made possible because of the combo of the Internet and the increasingly powerful pocket computers we get to take for granted.
And on one level, that’s amazing, that we can take these things for granted. It’s a sign of how much they’ve become part of our lives, how much they have shaped us. Like our own eyes, they’re so much part of who we are that we can’t even see them.
As a child, you couldn’t see yourself growing taller, and if you were like me, you kept wondering how long it would take to grow another inch. But the adults who saw you every few months could see it clearly.
We’re a little like that, today. If anyone from just 20 years ago was fast-forwarded to now, they’d be mind-blown. From 50 years ago and they’d be convinced aliens had visited. But to us, living through it, it’s not noticeable, and feels mundane.
It’s in moments like that I remember the verse from Ecclesiastes:
Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?” For it is not from wisdom that you ask this. Ecclesiastes 7:10 ESV
That verse is a reminder that there isn’t necessarily anything ideal about the past. It’s easy to view it as a better time, mainly because we forget the difficult aspects of it, or simply weren’t paying attention to them. Similarly it’s easy to see the present as “not that special,” because we aren’t paying attention to how much has changed.
In the end that’s what it’s about: paying attention. Paying attention to what’s happening and what could happen, to how things have changed and can continue to change.
It’s a wonderful time to be alive. Let’s not take that for granted.
For a rather different angle, consider my previous essay: How exactly is ours a better world?