There’s an old black-and-white photo that went viral online last year. The scene is a train carriage packed with sitting commuters, each with his or her face buried deep in the ink and folds of the morning newspaper. No one is chatting or laughing or looking out the window, no one acknowledging the existence of his or her neighbour. In fresh white text is overlaid the modern caption: “All this technology is making us antisocial.”
The message isn’t exactly subtle – Generation Millennial is telling all the old guys and naysayers to back off. Smartphones, free wi-fi and touch screens haven’t made us antisocial, they shout – we’ve always been distracted. Avian and candy-themed mobile games are just the latest form (and more fun than the crossword puzzle).
The world is largely framed through a rose-tinted looking glass and, for many cultures, a very short historical memory. There’s an abiding assumption that the past was always, somehow, better; that older generations were lucky. Take, for example, war and peace. Alongside all those gorgeous typewriters and glamorous travel were trench warfare and truncated lifespans. In many ways the good old days were really, truly, never all that good.
It’s easy to be fooled otherwise. The year 2014 was certainly foretold in ancient manuscripts as the End of Days. The Islamic State is spreading, Ukraine diced up and Gaza destroyed, planes falling (and getting shot) out of the sky. And, of course, Ebola. The locusts can’t be far away.
But, as Harvard psychologist and author Steven Pinker has pointed out, we’re actually living in “the most peaceful era in our species’ existence”. Global violence is on the decline, save that which is religiously inspired. Democracies are more frequent and although we still fight quite bloody wars, the number of people killed is far lower than it used to be. A small victory, perhaps, but nevertheless significant. Let’s appreciate this.
I’m nostalgic by nature. I love vintage things and feels and smells and I’ve been told I have an old soul. But let’s take the saudade with a dose of reality: the Cold War was actually quite hot, remember, and I’ll take the era of antibiotics rather than not. Until we look back fondly on the days when they still worked, of course.
Daniel Giacopelli is a producer for Monocle 24.