Here we are on the last day of 2012. Does it feel as if 2012 was discouraging?
In the US in the last few months, it feels like 2012 had it in for us. Hurricane Sandy, mass psycho shootings, and a government that gleefully accepted our votes and cheers over the supposed victories, and then went right back to being the stone-deaf bullshit factory it's always been.
Elsewhere in the world, 2012 was also grim. Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Gaza, Benghazi, Rustenburg, Congo, and South Africa in general have all seen their share of human-made atrocities and tragedies and the kind of civil-rights violations that lead to stories that typically begin with the phrase "Thousands took to the streets..." Greece and Spain have had economic crashes, also human-made. And can we even count the whack-job end-of-the-world predictions? It seems that humans can't go a day without making their own problems worse.
From a STEMmer or geek point of view, it's depressing. It's depressing because everybody around you just seems to get stupider and stupider every day. Make no mistake: In the United States of America, there IS an anti-intellectual movement going full-blast. Science and reason really ARE under attack, and will continue to be under attack for a long time yet. You're not imagining it.
If you're bitter and angry about the world's problems, chances are good that you have what they call "depressive realism". You have too clear a fix on reality and are too aware that the human condition is a giant ball of crap to really be optimistic about the future.
I know that depression.
And I know why it's not that bad.
The human race is simply too young yet. The frustration we all feel is with the growing pains of advancing from animal to human.
The latest evidence shows that humans, in their earliest form, evolved around 5 to 7 million years ago (MYA) in eastern and central Africa. "Lucy", the earliest-known specimen of Australopithecus, lived about 3 MYA. Sometime during the next million years after Lucy, we started to make our earliest stone tools. First evidence of the ability to make fire has so far been pegged to about 1 MYA. So humans went some 6 millions years before they finally arrived at the ability to make fire at will - the trademark human advancement. About 350 to 200 thousand years ago (KYA), we saw the rise of the human prototype known as Neanderthals, the first type of human to show signs of social organization and hence, language. So humans took over 700 thousand years after they invented fire before they even communicated in anything but grunts and barks.
The first homo sapiens emerged between 200 and 100 KYA, again in East Africa. They demonstrated tool-making, social organization, and migration. What about agriculture? We didn't advance that far until just 12 KYA, with the Neolithic Revolution that happened spontaneously in various spots around the world. This is the first record of mankind willfully tending crops and herding livestock, transitioning from a nomadic hunter-gatherer species to creatures who, for the first time, had a reason to settle down in one place and call it "home". So humans were around 4 million, 88 thousand years before they could finally sustain themselves with a reliable food source and, for the first time, spend a few minutes of their day thinking about something besides how not to starve to death.
Earliest human writing is pegged to about 4000 BCE (6 KYA) in Mesopotamia. So humans lived another 6000 years after the advent of agriculture before the smartest of them figured out how to scratch down some kind of permanent record, and for the first time, gain the mere capability of handing down knowledge through the generations. The first true technology innovation, the wheel, shows up about this time, along with the earliest organized true cities. If you put fire and wheels together, you get cars, and if you logically extend writing, you get computers. So with transportation and information technology, you can see how those two disciplines alone still shape most of our society today. Pretty much all of human ability right now is confined within how fast and efficiently we can move either physical objects (including ourselves) or data, with a side order of how efficiently we can produce power (we still use fire a lot).
What we think of now as wonders of the "ancient" world, things like the pyramids and sphinx in Egypt, the Acropolis of Athens, the Great Wall of China, the founding of the Roman Empire, and so on, were all built within the last 6000 years. Even Stonehenge, just a damned circle of rocks planted with some notion of tracking the seasons, was only built between 3000 and 2000 BCE, just around 4,400 years ago. Rocks, the earliest computer, and it took us 6,990,000 years to dope that out.
Are you starting to understand why grandma can't cope with a tablet computer yet?
Stonehenge was only built during the most recent 1% of human history. Meanwhile, the human brain takes millions of years to have a slight change due to evolution.
As recently as only 500 years ago, average human life expectancy topped over 40 years for the first time. Up until that time of the 17th century, 2/3rds of all children born in northern Europe died before the age of four. So it's only been in the recent two millenniums that humans anywhere could expect as good as a 50/50 shot at living to see their own grandchildren. Even today, average life expectancy only runs between 40 and 60 years in most of Africa, and only reaches the peak 77-80 range in First-World countries (North America, Europe, Australia, and Japan). It's only been recently in the past few years that we are starting to see a spike in centenarians, humans living to see their 100th birthday, running from estimates of 23,000 centenarians worldwide in 1950 to 209,000 in the year 2000 and 455,000 in 2009. In just the last five centuries, average human lifespan worldwide has reached 67 years, just barely doubling. Think about how much intellectual value a human piles on in their later decades, and then consider that, barring a few historic individuals, it's only been the last five centuries that we're starting to get consistent access to that.
Meanwhile, electric engineering has only been around for just under two centuries. This marvel of modern science upon which we currently chat, the Internet, was not possible before the computer, which was not possible before the microprocessor, which was not possible before the invention of the integrated circuit, which first appeared in 1949, in a patent filed by Werner Jacobi. That's right, computers, and all of the wonders thereof, are only 63 years old! Only a couple of decades older than our very first visits to a non-Earth sphere.
In the United States, the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, mandating the right of women to vote, is only 92 years old. The Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery throughout all of the United States, is only 147 years old. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, finally mandating the concept of equal rights for all humans in the United States regardless of race, color, gender, or religion, is only 48 years old. The United States Federal Department of Education was only founded in 1867, meaning that the US was in business just under a full century before it attained, for the very first time, an organized method of ensuring that its citizens could simply read and write. And the idea that anyone could have the right to even a basic education goes back again to that Civil Rights Act. When was the last time we amended the Civil Rights Act? 1991, when we extended and strengthened the ability of employees to sue their employer for discrimination. Bush, Sr., vetoed the previous version of the act but had to buckle on that one.
Universal health care and gay marriage and pot legalization? It will happen. It's just that, you have to understand, it takes more than a few weeks wearing stupid costumes and waving stupid signs and getting stoned in Zuccotti Park.
Now, then: You are upset because the human race is not progressing faster? Sweetheart, we are just barely out of tails and flinging poo. WE ARE STILL ANIMALS! There is no escaping that we are animals, and we will remain animals for many, many millenniums to come. Yes, it is frustrating now feeling like you were born trapped in a primitive world without the wonderful societies that we dream about for the future.
I'm sorry, but you were born too soon for flying cars and colonizing space.
But at least you weren't one of the billions and billions of people who lived and died back there without ever having seen electronics... or machines... or tools... or reliable sources of food... or writing... or even speech! Pause a moment and bow your head for the Australopithecus Einsteins, who had to be content with chewing grubs out of bark and hooting at each other, maddened with the idea that they should be able to live more comfortably if only they could teach the others the value of sharpening a stick to use to dig out more food. Millions of them lived and died and lost in time back there, too discouraged to even write in the mud with their finger, because who the hell would come along who was smart enough to read it?
Do not be so vain, young and smart people, as to be discouraged for the human race because you could not fix it in one month. Quit feeling so sorry for yourself, and devote your life to aiding as much of human progress as you can. Live for the future, when more advanced humans will be able to appreciate what you were living with now.