The Golden Age Fallacy
I recently saw the movie Midnight in Paris, which, by the way, was excellent. The film’s main character, Gil, is an idealistic American writer who longs for the romantic 1920’s life in the City of Lights (aka Paris). The film’s overarching motif is that we have have a natural yearning to long for and romanticize the past.
A pedantic character in the film named, Paul, accuses Gil at one point of falling for the “golden age fallacy”. Paul informs Gil that when we long for a golden age it’s often because we envision a simpler and more pleasant way of life at some previous time in history. Of course, Paul argues that this is merely a fallacy and he implies that we would be just as unhappy, if not more so, if we were actually living in the past.
I suspect that I, like many other people, have fallen victim to the “golden age fallacy” too. Why is this so? Why do we romanticize the past? At it’s core, I think the “golden age fallacy” is really about our ambivalence towards technology.
The longing for a golden age stems from the belief that fewer technologies will improve the quality of our lives. Thus, we can infer that golden age romantics believe that technology is somehow detracting from their happiness. But what was so special about the 1920’s to Gil? Why not the 1820’s? Or, for that matter, Ancient Greece?
Gil clearly didn’t want to remove technology entirely from his life; he wanted to remove the parts of it that were causing him unhappiness. Much like Gil, however, I suspect that most people don’t want to completely remove technology from their lives either. Rather, like Gil, they want the optimal amount of technology.
How do we know that the optimal amount of technology is though? Is there even an optimal amount of technology? If so, according to who?
Life in the Golden Age
Take a moment and think about what life must have been like at the very beginning of the Holocene, before the dawn of the Neolithic Revolution. Imagine the gnawing hunger that would at times overtake you. Picture shivering at nighttime while laying in the dirt on a savanna without the warmth of a blanket or shelter from a tent. Envision being worried sick about potential predators, both human and animal. Would you have wanted to live back then? If you’re like most people, I suspect you wouldn’t. I sure wouldn’t.
What about living before the Gutenberg Revolution? Would you want to live in a time when you likely wouldn’t have had access to books for entertainment? Or how about before the Computing Revolution? Again, I know I sure wouldn’t want to live without these things. I think they enhance my life greatly, despite my occasional frustrations with how they are misused.
On the other hand, there are indeed many technologies most of us could envision living without. Nuclear power and genetically modified foods are two such examples that come to mind. Then, there are of course some areas of technological research that flat out give us the creeps. Should we allow people to bioengineer their own babies? Should we allow scientists to try to upload and amass the entirety of our collective consciousness into a noosphere? These types of questions rightfully freak us out!
For most of us, our fantasized golden age is likely some time in the relatively recent past. This essentially makes one, however, merely a slow adapter, rather than a pure technophobe. Essentially, I’m trying to point out that most of us are willing to concede that some technology is beneficial to our happiness and well-being, we’re just slow to adapt to it.
The most pessimistic amongst us may argue that new technologies merely solve problems created by the last round of innovation and in the process create a new set of problems that can only be solved by even more advanced technological solutions. Fortunately or unfortunately, there is at the very least a grain of truth buried within this argument. Even the most cockeyed Pollyanna will have a hard time arguing against this point to some degree.
Our technologically savvy culture has solved many great problems, but we continuously create new problems. For instance, automobiles have helped solve our transportation problems and have made life more convenient. Yet, we live in a society where obesity is rampant and people now drive to health clubs to walk or run on treadmills (did you know that treadmills were originally a feature of 19th century prisons?).
In his book, Why Things Bite Back, Edward Tenner describes another one of the problems with technological innovation as follows. “The electronic gear that lets people work at home doesn’t necessarily free them from the office; urgent network messages and faxes may arrive at all hours, tying them more closely to business than before.” In other words, our efforts to create more leisure time have, paradoxically, created less.
Technological evolution in many ways seems analogous to biological evolution. Kevin Kelly aptly calls this whole system of technology the technium, which can be thought of as the 7th kingdom of life. We tend to view biological evolution as a story of progress that led to humanity. But should we? Biological evolution, in my opinion, has no such anthropomorphic concerns for progress. If you read some evolutionary psychology you quickly come to realize that biological evolution isn’t always pretty. For that matter, nor is technological evolution. Strangely, we humans just can’t seem to shake our belief in a progress narrative. We’re simply suckers for stories about progress.
Technology is fundamentally changing what it means to be human biologically. And we have no reason to believe that evolution will stop with humans. Hubristic humans may not want to believe that, but it’s certainly a possibility. And human nature, the nebulous term that it is, is constantly evolving, perhaps even to something transhuman.
What does it mean to be human anyway? The answer to this question seems to be evolving too. Some research was published in the July, 2011 issue of Molecular Biology and Evolution proving that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals interbred, which begs all kinds of interesting questions about how we define a human.
Much like Gil, I find myself romanticizing times past when we humans thought we understood what being human meant. Life, however, can only be lived in the present. The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know, which, at times, is terrifying. One thing I know for sure is that it’s an interesting time to be alive.
 I wrote an essay a while back about my personal ambivalence towards technology called “Digital Ambivalence“.
 If you’ve never read the Wikipedia entry for “human”, I highly recommend you do so.
Is there a difference between who you are and what you do?
On some level, I think we all hope this is true. And I would argue that there are clear distinctions. However, it’s often portrayed in society that there is some magical way of demarcating these two realms of life. At 5 o’clock, or whenever you get off work, your work life is supposed to cease and smoothly transition into your personal life. That sounds great in theory, but it just doesn’t work that way. This is especially true for people who can perform tasks remotely. If you’re unhappy at work, your personal life is going to suffer for it, regardless of how great it might otherwise be. In my opinion, the opposite is also true.
We spend a large portion of our waking hours doing work. It seems to me that many people downplay the role of work in overall happiness and delay addressing this fundamental issue in favor of focusing on other personal issues. Instead of tackling the career difficulties head on, painful as it may be, many people instead choose to focus on their next two week vacation. The idea of only being able to be your happy self for two weeks a year seems insane to me, yet it’s all too common. There are other aspects of life that can be altered to address this problem.
Acknowledging the reality that a big part of who you are personally is going to be affected by what you do professionally would thus seem paramount in life planning.