Thursday, April 16, 2009

A Few Loosely Connected Memories

I was reflecting this morning on the way that the world has changed. During my lifetime, many areas of human activity have changed almost beyond recognition, at least in the wealthy countries of the world.

Communications are the most obvious of these changes, of course. Only twenty-odd years ago I did my entire Mathematics degree without even seeing a computer, let alone owning one.

We can keep in touch with old friends around the world with a minumum of effort and in real time, even speaking to them on live video, free. Our concept of society itself must necessarily be expanded and altered by this circumstance alone.

We no longer have to rely on journalists- who are motivated by money and self-importance, not truth- to tell us what is happening and what opinion we should have of it. We can go straight to the sources, watch the event, read the words of the same press release the paper has copied, and often the original document. We can check almost instantly any fact we are presented with, and uncover easily the background which they may be trying to hide, or have not bothered to mention. We may not do this ourselves, we may be too lazy, or lack the knowledge, or not be interested, but we could do it if we chose, and we can be sure that someone will.

Wealth is the reason for it, naturally; even in the last forty years, we lucky ones in the West have become enormously wealthier and if we go back a little further we see that those who have least in Britain today live with more comfort and security than any inhabitant of the Victorian world. This has happened because we did not have people in power actively conspirinng to stop it happeneing; some countries, that had the resources to join us, were not so lucky. Large numbers of us live without working, eating all they need, entertained all day by a variety of apparatus, running cars to travel where they will, their houses warmed and defended, their health looked after at all times, with armies of bureaucrats inventing new needs which they are then entitled to have satisfied. It is true that they may look with envy on the greater wealth of others, but their position is a dream of heaven to people from many parts of the world, and any previous period of history.

My generation, or the previous one, was possibly the first to grow up never expecting to have to go to war, never expecting to lose a child or a wife in childbirth, without fear of disease, never expecting to go hungry, expecting to be active into our seventies, and believing that all our problems should be solved by somebody else. It is wealth, collective wealth that allows this to happen, of course, and along with it comes decadence, laziness, a collective ennui, and the indulgence of types of people, activity and thought that would have been dangerous in a less priviledged age.

Communism and its children were originally conceived and executed by tyrants, bloodthirsty egomaniacs who cared nothing for the people they conquered, and whose lives they destroyed. in many unhappy parts of the world, this is still true, but in Western Europe and America their followers are mostly well-meaning people incapable of seeing beyond a few phrases of an ill-constructed theory. Our Universities are filled with lecturers and professors in invented disciplines, that are not really academic at all, but whose purpose is to allow a certain type of fool to think they are middle class and to talk ideological claptrap in the knowledge that it will never be put to the test here. Fifty years ago these cosy little clubs for worthless progressives would have been an unaffordable luxury. Now, our nations are so wealthy that not even socialism can destroy them, only inflict temporary damage.

'The world', by which we pampered ones mean that little bit of it that we know and live in, has been changed by wealth, and thank God for it. But we have lost things too; comfort is bad in general for the sense of ambition, of enterprise, of enquiry, of critical interest, of adventure, and even of the value of our own existence. A deal worth making, I think. Increased prosperity is unreservedly good; it means we can all live longer, healthier, more comfortable, freer, and happier lives. Whether we, individually, choose to do so, is up to us.

When did you last see a knife-grinder, passing through on his bike, on the way from one village to the next, or a rag-and-bone man with a horse and cart, or a peddler with a rucksack knocking at the door, or a brush salesman, or a corporate alms house, or a cobbler's shop, or a horsedrawn brewer's dray, or a fishmonger's barrow on the street. I remember all of these things from the 1970's, and they are gone for ever, like Afro haircuts, bellbottomed trousers and the Hilman Imp.

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