This morning, before I headed to work, my wife challenged me to a Mariokart race. 1 on 1 at Wario Stadium on the N64. The race wasn’t fancy. The graphics were laughable by today’s standards. And yet, it was incredible. It was about racing skill. Not a lot of artsy, cutesy, techy garbage to get in the way of the race. This, my friends, is a quality game.
Then, the year of its creation flashed on the screen: 1996. 1996?
Over Christmas break, I played the latest Wii version of Mariokart. It was wobbly, overly-colorful, and frustrating. The winner was usually random, after all the bells and whistles of the game had taken their toll. The game had gotten worse.
How could this be? Has it really been all downhill since 1996?
Today builds upon yesterday, right? It’s a logical way of thinking. Today’s _____ will always be better than yesterday’s ______. Today’s games, movies, food, education, quality of life, culture of people, etc. should logically be the best in the history of the world. Right?
Sure, we’ll always nostalgically pine for the perfect 50s, noble 40s, partying 20s. We’ll watch movie after movie about Roman generals and Elizabethan ballgowns, but we’ll also be quick to claim that our “present” is superior to the others.
The thing about life and the unfortunate lack of time-travel, is that we are always going to be in the present. The people who lived in the 1970s were in their present. Same with the people in the 1910s and the 1850s and the 1450s and the 200s and the 500s BC and the 10,000s BC. Those people were in their present. And, considering the fact that raw human nature hasn’t changed much, those people probably thought that their “present” was better than the past as well. Imagine how they felt at the invention of the wheel or agriculture or the printing press or democracy.
Like ours, their present probably felt pretty superior. And if they could look into the future at the way we spend our time, they’d probably still think they were superior.
Consider some trade-offs:
-Communication technology is at an all-time high, having built upon mail systems, telegraphs, phones, email, instant messages, skype, and social media. But our ability to have meaningful face-to-face relationships is unquestionably on the decline. What would it have been like to live in a world where conversation was a valued skill and art practiced by most?
-Today, we can order anything, have it pumped out in a factory, and shipped to our door within days. But imagine handling a hand-made item, put together by a friend or family-member in your own village or home; only one in the world, unquestionably made with time and care.
-Health is at an all-time high. But I’m certain that compared to someone from a quieter time a thousand years ago, we do not have the same capacity to stare at a sunset or a river and appreciate each precious second of life.
-Today, we’ve outlawed the brutality of gladiators and slavery. But then, we turn on the TV to watch MMA fighters pummel each other and NFL players incur brain injuries that will slowly degenerate their brains for the rest of their lives. It’s kind of bizarre that this still happens.
-Today there is more information available to us than ever before in history. And yet, we surely read much less than the literate men and women before us, salivating at the next installment of the “wordy” (to us)Charles Dickens in the weekly paper.
-Today it’s easier than ever to find a “love” interest. Just swipe right! But have you ever read an old love letter from the past? People took the time to put into eloquent words how deeply they loved each other.
-Today we can walk through the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay and see hundreds of masterpieces for the entry fee of a few dollars. The artwork is beyond description, but we usually can’t last in a museum for more than a couple hours. We whisk through the exhibits and leave. Imagine the museum from a Renaissance man’s point of view. He had never seen a television screen or turned on a radio. Artwork was his entertainment, and he had eyes for it that few today will ever have.
One day, very soon, today’s present will be 10, 20, 30, 100, 1000 years in the past. And people in the future present will nostalgically look back at us, but also lift their noses at us, feeling that they’ve built upon our time to create a better world.
And if we looked forward 10, 20, 30, 100, 1000 years, we’d probably feel that they’d gotten it all wrong.
The reality is, that every present is gray, and it is ignorant to claim that now (or the past) is “better” than another time, past or present. Each time has its goods and bads, and we would do well to be grateful for the high points, and to develop a healthy longing to improve the low ones.
But regardless of what we do, we’ve been dealt the present. It’s how the whole lack-of-time-travel thing works. So we might as well love it!