A Matter of Perspective


Food for thought: how much of human history do we get to witness and influence? I’ve been surprised at how much has changed over my lifetime (cold war ends, digital age arises, billions of people freed from poverty, etc.).

My realization that the world would change around me was when I visited Seoul, Korea for the second time in 1995. I’d been there as a backpacker in winter 1987, when the city compared somewhat favorably to Delhi, India. Old buildings, narrow streets, clunky transportation. In 1995, I was in the city for an unexpected three day layover. I couldn’t recognize it. Sleek trains, wide streets, tall buildings — exactly the kind of change everyone raves about in China now. It was a shock. How much of this will I see or be a part of?

Doing some quick math, how far back does written history go? Ignoring bookkeeping records and religious texts, I’ll date the emergence of written history with Herodotus around 450BC. That gives us 2460 years of written history. I’m 46, which means I’ve personally been around for almost 2% of human history.

My father, at 86, comes to 3.5%. I’m amazed – these numbers seem very big to me.

Extending just a bit to the parts of history that I have secondary knowledge of or influence over – I’ve known people born in 1895 (Grandpa Eddie) and am currently cradling Veronica Steussy, born one month ago yesterday. Veronica might reasonably see the beginning of the 22nd Century. That span of time is 205 years – over 8% of all recorded history.

It’s a matter of perspective.

There should be a hat tip here – I read someone else do this math somewhere, but I’ve forgotten where. Probably Marginal Revolution.

No Responses to “A Matter of Perspective”

  1. GBrown says:

    You’ve been around for 2% of human history!!?! Are you mad? Even if you (bizarrely) define that as recorded history, you’re still milienia out – what about the cave paintings? You and I are not even a blink of an eye. And as for ‘billions freed from poverty’ – where?

  2. GBrown says:

    Apologies for typo – ‘millenia’

  3. Ed Steussy says:

    Mr. Brown, I think you’re confusing prehistoric times with historic – and the defining event to separate those is that someone is present to chronicle events. While written texts exist prior to 450BC, they were not used to record current events, hence the dividing point on that date. I admit an exact date is clearly debatable, but I’m not off by more than 500 years at worst.

    Regarding billions out of poverty during my lifetime, let’s do some numbers. First of all, what is poverty? I’d define it as a lack of hope for any chance of upward mobility to US-style middle income. Today, that’s available to almost anyone outside of Africa and all but the least developed Asian nations.

    Even if the dividing line is cut at currently living a Western-style middle income life, I’d submit all of the residents of ex-Soviet Eastern Europe, the entire populations of the Asian Tigers (South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore), and the significant middle income populations in Russia, Brazil, China and India. Clearly a billion people at the very least.

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