Creature comforts only peripherally imaginable in 1900 are today a commonplace. Running water, both hot and cold; radio and television; automobiles and airplanes; refrigeration; vacuum cleaner; washer and dryer; central heating and air conditioning. We live in a paradise where unseen servants tend sedulously to our every need, where musicians and entertainers are at our beck and call twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, and it all costs almost nothing.
Routine dental and medical care bears little resemblance to that of one hundred years ago. When your teeth went bad, you pulled them out. If you got sick, you either got well or you died. If you were injured, a few primitive remedies were available, but beyond simple bone-setting and minor repairs the effective medial expertise was quite nearly the same for rich and poor alike. Now, if you can afford it (and almost nobody can) you can quite nearly live forever, and there's just about nothing that can't be fixed or improved upon.
The streets are paved; water, gas and electricity are piped into every home. Police and fire protection are freely available to all. Lavish entertainments abound; cheap, fresh and healthful food is sold in markets conveniently situated. You can safely drink the water.
War has not ravaged America. Plague and pestilence are unknown. Famine is unheard of. Free education, from kindergarten to college, is offered to every American, regardless of station or income. Work is plentiful and the pay is adequate.
The life of the ordinary American is marvelous. Things can get cheaper, or more convenient, or faster; medical and dental care can be improved and made more available; creature comforts and scientific advances that we cannot even imagine will no doubt fill the next century to bursting. But things are pretty damned good right now. Nobody in the history of the human race has ever had it better.
This is the time to watch out. We are poised at the pinnacle of a vastly complex interlocking structure. One hundred years ago, a solar flare would have affected nothing worth discussion. Now it could disrupt our entire civilization. The fastest communication was by telegraph, and large parts of the world existed in total isolation. In 1911, a substantial meteor exploded over a remote part of Russia, and except for a handful of hunters and herdsmen, nobody knew about it for decades. Now such an event-if not interpreted quickly and correctly-could touch off a major nuclear confrontation. In a sense, there's nowhere to go but down. The living standard and prospects of even middle class Americans are eroding. A new underclass is emerging from the shattered hopes and dreams of its ancestors. Things are not getting better.
Is it possible that in centuries to come, humanity will look back on the twentieth century as the most wonderful epoch in human history? Is this the age of gold?
(July 18, 1999)
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