The best time in history

      8 Comments on The best time in history

Someone my age told me recently that they felt we were living the best time. 100 years ago, most jobs were way harder because we didn’t have personal computers, and even “simple” calculations like √(28475 * 272795) could take a very long time to do. Nowadays, I literally can just type “square root of (28475*272795)” into google and I get the answer in less than a second. If I don’t have access to a computer, my phone can still give me the answer almost instantly, and that’s a very simple calculation compared to the sheer power of this kind of pocket calculator.

Both the person I was talking to and me are the types of people who hate physical work. I do sports just to stay healthy, but I would hate to do it 8 hours a day. I know that if I had been raised in a society where there aren’t any easy alternatives, I’d think differently, but that’s not the point.

100 years into the future, while we may very well have even better technology and believe 2000s life to be hard, we also have a fairly good chance of having way fewer nice nature zones. Great landscapes could be gone, and most expectations of the future either picture a devasted landscape, or cities everywhere, depending on if you’re pessimistic or optimistic. Either way, some of those gorgeous landscapes will disapear forever.

Nowadays, we have an actual real chance of visiting another planet and colonizing it, thanks to SpaceX. But as soon as humanity becomes multiplanetary, civilization-wide instant communication is expected to become impossible. The speed of light is pretty likely to be the maximum possible speed according to our understanding of physics. At least, we aren’t even close to finding a theoretical way to go faster, and we couldn’t find any signs of the existence of anything faster yet. Every single transmission and communication, no matter the medium, will go at or slower than the speed of light. On Earth, this means that even suboptimal communication can easily reach anywhere on the planet under a second.

Venus is the closest planet to the Earth. When they are the closest, Venus and Earth are about 2.12 light minutes away from each other. Their furthest is 14.5 light minutes, with an average distance of 9.45 light minutes. Mars is further, with 4-24 light minutes range (average: 13).

What this means is that there can be a planet-wide internet, but if we want a multiplanetary internet, any communication between two computers on different planets will take more than two minutes to reach its destination. That’s obviously still a lot faster than sending letters, but as soon as we become multiplanetary, we can say goodbye to the idea of instant communication with anyone. We won’t be able to Skype, play online games, or do anything with someone on even the closest planet if the activity can’t stand a several minutes-long delay between evey action. Written chat will still be possible, but probably way less popular and work more like email.

Oh, and also, the communication will be infinitely less reliable. Wifi is already less reliable than ethernet, and we sit literally meters away from the modem. Now we’ll make some sort of wireless signal over a distance of 250 000 000 kilometers. Every time a data packet is sent and ends up corrupted, it will take several minutes to know there was a mistake, and again several minutes to send it back.

This may sound weird to people who aren’t studying computers, so I’ll explain a bit.

When information is sent on a network, it comes in the form of several packets one after the other. Several protocols are in place to try to figure out when a packet has a mistake in it. When it does, the receiver tells the sender, and the sender just sends it once again.

Several factors are in play when figuring out the reliability of a connection. The transmision medium (cable, radio, etc), the speed of the connection (the faster it is, the more errors there are), noise, etc. With a 54Mbps connection on Wi-fi across a room’s distance, you can usually expect more than 50% of the packets to be completely lost in transmission, and less than 1% of messages come through completely clean without needing to resend anything.


Now imagine when the room is replaced by 250 million kilometers. The delays would be way more than a few minutes unless we really step up our network tech.

Okay, this was a very long explanation. My point is that, if (and that’s a big if) we colonize Mars in the next few decades, like SpaceX is planning to, we may very well be living in the only time in history where we are able to instantly and effortlessly communicate with any other person. This might be literally the only few decades that it will be possible to start up a game and play with anyone across human civilization.

I think that most people past and present thought that they were living through the best time in history. Every generation has been the first to try some sort of technology making their lives a little bit easier than the ones right before, and as they couldn’t know in advance what the next tech would be, and they were happy, they probably assumed that any extra tech was completely unnecessary. I’d bet that at least one in ten people at any point in history (except obvious exceptions, like a jew in a concentration camp) living their lives would have thought they were living through the ideal time. I guess that’s the kind of fallacy thinking that I could experience.

I still can’t shake that feeling that the incredible thing that is the internet will soon be not so incredible anymore, and we literally won’t have a way to make the internet great again.

I’d suggest making the most out of it while it’s there and still impressive.

PS: Obviously, as I’ve said here, we might also be living in one of the worst times in history, where population division is extremely high and we might bomb ourselves into extinction or technological stalemate soon. But those are big Ifs, just like Mars colonization. Let’s hope for the best!

  • Kingfisher12

    I think I can agree with the idea that we are living at a time when all of humanity is closest in terms of time. As you said, this is the period where the time to send a message from one end of humanity to the other is the smallest it will ever be.

    But I don’t think I’d call it either the best of times or the worst of times. It is an inflection point to something – different.

    In the course of human history, humanity spread out and diversified – some cultures got good at one thing, while other cultures got good at other things, out of necessity and choice. This diversity was able to grow because humanity spread out. With the information age – starting with the age of exploration – all those different cultures were able to come together to create a new generation – like a seasonal spawning where creatures from all over the globe come together to start something new.

    That’s what this is – mating season for human culture. And the next generation (of culture) that hatches will be an interplanetary one.

    Perhaps many years from now that interplanetary humanity – allowed to diversify because of distance and necessity – will discover technology that brings them together again – and spawns an interstellar generation. Then perhaps one that transcends boundaries we can’t even imagine.

    • Kaito Kid

      I’m really wondering what kind of technology could eventually bring us back together after that. None of our faster-than-light travel ideas, which are currently impossible, but are the closest we have to a way to do it, require an actual object travelling the distance and incredible energy reserves inside it, usually to shape space-time as it goes, shortening the distance between source and destination in order to travel through it in a shorten timespan. I haven’t seen any such idea that would permit communication that is not just sending some sort of storage device in a spaceship.

      I think what’s the most likely to happen is some sort of massive multiplayer virtual reality world, that you could maybe “send” your consciousness to, even if it takes days or weeks, then a centralized computer would allow instant interactions between users, maybe as a game or just a virtual “normal” world, and then you could make the return trip to your real body when you’re done. That’s pretty weird, but all my other ideas are even weirder. Maybe I’m just the weird one.

      • Kingfisher12

        It might be more like functional immortality. If people are living for thousands of years, it might not matter that it takes a long time to travel or send messages.

        • Kaito Kid

          No matter how long you live, you can’t possibly have a video chat with someone when there is an hour-long delay. What we could maybe do is slow down our bodies so much that we perceive time as going a lot faster, so everything we do is slow-motion. A 5 millisecond delay doesn’t hinder a conversation at a few words per second, but a 10 second delay would be a 20-40 word delay, which would definitely make the conversation useless. If we slow down enough (maybe just temporarily, to use the device), so that we speak about a word per hour, and our normal rate is one word per second, we could definitely tolerate a delay that is 3600x the one that we tolerate right now, so in this case a 18 second delay would feel like the current 5 ms delay. But the best part is that we’d be in super slow-motion for any outside observer, and that would be pretty funny.

          I have no idea how we could achieve that, but I bet Christopher Columbus had no idea how we could possibly create a pocket device to instantly talk face to face with the king all the way from America, and that was not impossible.

          • Kingfisher12

            I think one of the most profound (and overlooked) things that functional immortality will do to us is alter our perceptions of time. It stands to reason that we would take this change and engineer it to our benefit. I think we might even learn to operate in multiple time-frames at once.

            So while going about your daily life at regular speed on Titan, you are also having a ‘real-time’ video chat with someone on Earth. To us with an unenlightened perception on time, it would look like you’re have a very slow motion conversation, but to the enlightened Titan the slow-mo conversation is normal speed, for that kind of conversation. And in comparison ‘normal’ life is running in fast-forward.

            With extra-long life a person might even make regular trips that take months, or even years, like it’s no big deal.

  • Before we get to the Internet and instant communication, let’s just realise that there are lots of reasons for thinking that we live in the best time in history (so far) – whether or not it continues to improve in future. Two intertwined reasons for “best time so far” that you didn’t mention are the massive reduction in child deaths in the civilised world, and the massive increase in life expectancy. Only 150 years ago, a middle class parent would be very lucky if none of their kids died in childhood. Kids dying of fevers in prosperous households was amazingly common, whereas now it’s incredibly rare. We must assume that the parental reactions to a child’s death then were just as strong as they are now – as a well known example, Charles Darwin was deeply affected by his 10 year old daughter Annie’s death in 1851 from scarlet fever, and arguably lost his remaining faith in god at that point. But since then, improvements in public health (mainly sewage treatment and immunisation) have reduced child death in the civilised world radically – but of course they are still high in parts of the third world, although even there, there’s been some progress.

    Moving onto the internet, you may be correct that now is a rare time when we could all communicate with a good percentage of the world’s population. Yes, if we do spread out to other planets, unless we manage to invent FTL communication too, we’d expect all those time delays you mention. But I don’t see how it’s fair to categorise that as things getting worse in future – right now, we’re confined to one planet, almost a single point in speed-of-light terms, so don’t suffer significant speed-of-light delays, if we spread out in future, we will inevitably suffer such delay by the laws of physics. We’ll adapt to that:)

    • Kaito Kid

      I admit that maybe I focused a little too much on the communication point. Of course a lot of other points should be considered when trying to identify he best time in history.

      On the other hand, I assumed that, for example, health, life expectancy, etc. would only improve or stay similar in the future. Except for a huge war or something, I don’t see how we could end up actually shortening our average life expectancy considering that medical research is such a huge part of society, except by artifically killing a bunch of people, so for most of those criterions, the “best time” is always in the future provided that no extinction-level event happens the following year. Actually, except for that communication thing and beautiful natural landscapes, I don’t really see any facet of society that would have any reason to get worse, again excluding apocalyptic events.

      • Those are good points, KK, I guess I tend to leave the future to look after itself, on the grounds that we can only speculate about it:-) As to shortening our life expectancy, well, surely it depends whether we keep our technological civilisation going indefinitely, even though the prospect of MAD (mutually assured destruction), i.e. a nuclear war, has receded, it’s not gone altogether, and even if it were, other threats either already exist or potentially could do on a long enough timescale (eg. asteroid impact). One good reason for spreading out into space, btw, to be less of a point target:-)