Apparently Most People Live in A Strange Time Warp Where Neither Past nor Future Actually Exist

Forget the Piraha. It appears that most Americans are only vaguely aware of these things called “past” and “future”:

Source: CNN poll conducted by SSRS,

A majority of people now report that George W. Bush, whom they once thought was a colossal failure of a president, whose approval ratings bottomed out at 33% when he left office, was actually good. By what measure? He broke the economy, destabilized the Middle East, spent trillions of dollars, and got thousands of Americans and Iraqis killed.

Apparently the logic here is “Sure, Bush might have murdered Iraqi children and tortured prisoners, but at least he didn’t call Haiti a shithole.” We Americans have standards, you know.

He’s just a huggable guy.

I’d be more forgiving if Bush’s good numbers all came from 18 year olds who were 10 when he left office and so weren’t actually paying attention at the time. I’d also be more forgiving if Bush had some really stupid scandals, like Bill Clinton–I can understand why someone might have given Clinton a bad rating in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, but looking back a decade later, might reflect that Monica didn’t matter that much and as far as president goes, Clinton was fine.

But if you thought invading Iraq was a bad idea back in 2008 then you ought to STILL think it is a bad idea right now.

Note: If you thought it was a good idea at the time, then it’s sensible to think it is still a good idea.

This post isn’t really about Bush. It’s about our human inability to perceive the flow of time and accurately remember the past and prepare for the future.

I recently texted a fellow mom: Would your kid like to come play with my kid? She texted back: My kid is down for a nap.

AND?

What about when the nap is over? I didn’t specify a time in the original text; tomorrow or next week would have been fine.

I don’t think these folks are trying to avoid me. They’re just really bad at scheduling.

People are especially bad at projecting current trends into the future. In a conversation with a liberal friend, he dismissed the idea that there could be any problems with demographic trends or immigration with, “That won’t happen for a hundred years. I’ll be dead then. I don’t care.”

An anthropologist working with the Bushmen noticed that they had to walk a long way each day between the watering hole, where the only water was, and the nut trees, where the food was. “Why don’t you just plant a nut tree near the watering hole?” asked the anthropologist.

“Why bother?” replied a Bushman. “By the time the tree was grown, I’d be dead.”

Of course, the tree would probably only take a decade to start producing, which is within even a Bushman’s lifetime, but even if it didn’t, plenty of people build up wealth, businesses, or otherwise make provisions to provide for their children–or grandchildren–after their deaths.

Likewise, current demographic trends in the West will have major effects within our lifetimes. Between the  1990 and 2010 censuses (twenty years), the number of Hispanics in the US doubled, from 22.4 million to 50.5 million. As a percent of the overall population, they went from 9% to 16%–making them America’s largest minority group, as blacks constitute only 12.6%.

If you’re a Boomer, then Hispanics were only 2-3% of the country during your childhood.

The idea that demographic changes will take a hundred years and therefore don’t matter makes as much sense as saying a tree that takes ten years to grow won’t produce within your lifetime and therefore isn’t worth planting.

Society can implement long term plans–dams are built with hundred year storms and floods in mind; building codes are written with hundred year earthquake risks in mind–but most people seem to exist in a strange time warp in which neither the past nor future really exist. What they do know about the past is oddly compressed–anything from a decade to a century ago is mushed into a vague sense of “before now.” Take this article from the Atlantic on how Micheal Brown (born in 1996,) was shot in 2014 because of the FHA’s redlining policies back in 1943.

I feel like I’m beating a dead horse at this point, but one of the world’s most successful ethnic groups was getting herded into gas chambers in 1943. Somehow the Jews managed to go from being worked to death in the mines below Buchenwald (slave labor dug the tunnels where von Braun’s rockets were developed) to not getting shot by the police on the streets of Ferguson in 2014, 71 years later. It’s a mystery.

And in another absurd case, “Artist reverses gender roles in 50s ads to ‘give men a taste of their own sexist poison’,” because clearly advertisements from over half a century ago are a pressing issue, relevant to the opinions of modern men.

I’m focusing here on political matters because they make the news, but I suspect this is a true psychological trait for most people–the past blurs fuzzily together, and the future is only vaguely knowable.

Politically, there is a tendency to simultaneously assume the past–which continued until last Tuesday–was a long, dark, morass of bigotry and unpleasantness, and that the current state of enlightened beauty will of course continue into the indefinite future without any unpleasant expenditures of effort.

In reality, our species is, more or less, 300,000 years old. Agriculture is only 10,000 years old.

100 years ago, the last great bubonic plague epidemic (yersinia pestis) was still going on. 10 million people died, including 119 Californians. 75 years ago, millions of people were dying in WWII. Sixty years ago, polio was still crippling children (my father caught it, suffering permanent nerve damage.)

In the 1800s, Germany’s infant mortality rate was 50%; in 1950, Europe’s rate was over 10%; today, infant mortality in the developed world is below 0.5%; globally, it’s 4.3%. The death of a child has gone from a universal hardship to an almost unknown suffering.

100 years ago, only one city in the US–Jersey City–routinely disinfected its drinking water. (Before disinfection and sewers, drinking water was routinely contaminated with deadly bacteria like cholera.) I’m still looking for data on the spread of running water, but chances are good your grandparents did not have an indoor toilet when they were children. (I have folks in my extended family who still have trouble when the water table drops and their well dries up.)

Hunger, famines, disease, death… I could continue enumerating, but my point is simple: the prosperity we enjoy is not only unprecedented in the course of human history, but it hasn’t even existed for one full human lifetime.

Rome was once an empire. In the year one hundred, the eternal city had over 1,500,000 citizens. By 500, it had fewer than 50,000. It would not recover for over a thousand years.

Everything we have can be wiped away in another human lifetime if we refuse to admit that the future exists.

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16 thoughts on “Apparently Most People Live in A Strange Time Warp Where Neither Past nor Future Actually Exist

  1. Everybody allegedly hates the Fifties. The TruCons hate the because unions, the Left hates them because racism and sexism, the Alt-Right hates them because Ike was a Commie (or something), the New Urbanists hate them because suburbs, the Jews hate them because Grandpa couldn’t golf with goys, etc., etc. And yet, if we could have them back, with their social trust, low divorce and crime rates, guarded optimism, and plentiful manufacturing jobs, probably 80% of Americans would go for it, including lots of the above groups. It’s kind of like the situation with white people – everybody claims to hate them or be victimized by them, but everybody wants to live in the societies and neighborhoods that they built.

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    • I recently attended a “sock hop” (school dance) with the small people. I felt… almost overwhelmed by history. All of those poor people died in WWII, and yet afterward we entered a period of the greatest prosperity and growth humanity has ever known. That doesn’t mean it was perfect, but it was amazing.

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  2. My dad didn’t have running water when he was a kid in rural Virginia in the 1950s. He acutely remembers how cold the chamber pot was on winter mornings. Grandfather grew up with dirt floors hunting muskrat for dinner; he remembers everyone in the neighorhood gathering at the house of the first person to own a radio and listening in rapt silence. My partner’s parents are Koreans born at the tail end of the war; they’ve seen even more massive changes in their society. I’m not sure what amazes me; the pace and scale of change, or how many people take the present for granted and are seemingly unaware of it.

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  3. Things are moving faster and faster. I do see blurring of my thoughts about the past as I get older.

    I don;t think things are necessarily better. I was raised when we had black and white TV’s and A/C so I wasn’t deprived in any way. We had a lot of fun though. We kids stayed outside all the time.We would go to the swamp with guns, 10 years old, and hunt snakes, birds, whatever. If the cops came by they’d ask where we were going and we’d just say to hunt birds. They’d just tell us to be careful. Now they’d shoot you. It was fantastic. We had swimming holes. We would build tree houses and skateboards. I remember it fondly. Comfort and technology are better now but a lot has been lost.

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    • I don’t think the past was evil. I do have a real fondness for not catching Polio. It’s obvious that people think of the active lifestyles of the past as better than the sedentary ones of today–you never see little kids in cartoons, for example, watching TV and playing video games all day. No, they get outside and play, while modern kids live vicariously through them.
      Still, I am really fond of flush toilets.

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  4. The combination—ancestral mind paired with today’s prosperity—is a rarity. We can expect it from the majority to reach that level, but my intuitive side says it’s never gonna happen; especially when this prosperity keeps raising the numbers of what I called the “long tail” here. If I want to be optimistic, this whole thing of advancing towards higher and higher levels of prosperity is to help the above mentioned rare combination progressing forward. If all goes well and lucky, maybe a new species is going to branch out from this already enormous and ever growing human population.

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      • While I think it would be too optimistic to assume that the majority of the ancestral societies was on the same elevated level, there’s still a higher possibility for having much greater numbers of such people, because of the greater evolutionary pressure, greatly affecting the possible survival outcome. Anyway, I mean comparably higher levels of traits like these:

        – Creativity, inventiveness and general intelligence: because the low population density of the natural habitats, people had very little to no trade; they had to invent and create everything on their own, and each member of the relatively small tribes were taught to do everything that was required, including both males and females. People more frequently had to face and find solutions to novel, mostly environment related problems on their own.

        – Empathy: understanding animals and people; required for successful hunting, to be able to sense how the animal will behave, and to be the most caring about the hunted species and their habitat, for their sustainability and for causing the least intrusion on nature. Being evolved to communicate with the few members of a very carefully and assortatively selected tribe.

        – Introversion: not needing a big company around oneself, because of being genetically formed to be used to the low population density of the ice age affected steppe areas (Urheimat, like the Baltic-Pontic region).

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      • It occurs to me that I don’t know what the qualia of being another person is in the first place, which makes it hard to know whether I am like them or not.

        Quick, flexible thinking able to come up with a variety of creative solutions to problems seems like it could be a survival advantage in hunter-gathering societies where people have to exploit many different kinds of resources and switch frequently between them as there aren’t that many of any one thing, whereas linear thinking with “delayed gratification” and the like seem more characteristic of societies where success is dependent on planting something and then staying focused on taking care of it for several months.

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      • It occurs to me that I don’t know what the qualia of being another person is in the first place, which makes it hard to know whether I am like them or not.

        This is when intuition comes handy. Life’s too short to keep worrying about things bordering on solipsism like that; one can just nonchalantly Dunning-Kruger through the obstacles instead. :-|

        …whereas linear thinking with “delayed gratification” and the like seem more characteristic of societies where success is dependent on planting something and then staying focused on taking care of it for several months.

        That was exactly my train of thought. That agriculture—following the post-ice age climate change—was such a major environmental change itself that it’s created a distinct behavioral subset, with its own idiosyncratic personality traits.

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  5. Children of the 80’s are middle aged now. Generations that kno a time before daytime TV and video games and tapes are getting older and fewer.

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    • I suppose that depends on how one approaches the idea of time, philosophically speaking. I think of all time–past and future–as existing, and “now” as simply at a specific point in it that we can perceive.

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