This was written during December of 2018 for the January, 2019 installment of Central Standard Time. Although it comes to mind at the end of every calendar year, getting past the limitations of time is an essential point in the piece.
It’s a new year. The best part of it, at least for me, comes down to only 1 thing: no more year-end lists!
Since before Christmas we’ve been bombarded with lists related to 2018. Some of those were based on objective evidence. There were the best-selling cars and the highest grossing movies and the most streamed recordings. Many more were matters of opinion. These included the best books, the worst TV shows and the best movies. The one thing that almost all of these lists had in common was that they included only 10 items. It makes me wonder if they would have had 12 items if human beings had evolved with 6 fingers on each hand.
The positive aspect of the year-end lists is that they’re constrained to a limited time period. One thing that I’ve always found interesting, though, is how lists that are implicitly or explicitly not time bound end up being somewhat similarly constrained. To make the point, let’s create a few lists, shall we? In each case the list should contain no more than 10 items, the items should be ranked with 1 high and 10 low, and there can only be 1 item per number (no ties).
What is the most important piece of technology that’s been created?
This is a judgement call as will be the other lists. Here are 2 more.
What was the world’s worst natural disaster?
Who was the worst world leader?
Now that you’ve created your lists, I’m curious about their contents. Did your list of technology include the transistor? Without transistors the contemporary world of micro-electronics based on transistors etched on silicon chips wouldn’t exist. How about the steam engine? No? The lever? The wheel? These last 2 were fundamental to the evolution of human society as well as to the evolution of technology.
The question of the worst natural disaster should be a lot easier. How about the San Francisco earthquake of 1906? Over 80% of the city was destroyed either directly by the quake or by things like the fires that broke out because of it and that lasted for days. Some consider this the deadliest earthquake in US history. Surely, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 BCE is on your list. That’s the eruption that buried Pompeii. The eruption has been estimated by some to have released 100,000 times the energy of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs together. Well, at least the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event ~65.5 million years ago tops your list, doesn’t it? After all, it caused 75% or more of the animal and plant species on earth at the time to become extinct. It’s hard to find a natural disaster worse than that.
I’m not going to bother with the 3rd list. By now you’ve got the idea and there’s some ambiguity that colors the results. Who would be considered a world leader? Who was the worst based on what criteria?
All 3 of these questions have appeared on well-known social media sites, in dead tree print and on talking head media. Each has also inspired what may best be called spirited discussion. Perhaps most importantly, no one who has contributed to the fray appears to be even slightly aware of how her or his bias has influenced the items on the list, the comments that have been made or the arguments that have ensued.
Well before the first draft of this piece I ran these questions past groups of people and collected the results. It wasn’t a scientific study with a large, random sample size. It was a matter of personal curiosity limited to people connected with me in some way who were willing to create and share the lists. The groups included people of a variety of ages and educational backgrounds, but all of them lived in the US.
The things that didn’t show up or showed up rarely on the lists in my sample are the very ones that I mentioned above. Each person’s focus seems to have been limited primarily to things that happened during her or his lifetime or the lifetimes of their parents. For the natural disaster question, the answers were further mostly limited to disasters within the person’s area of residence. I found myself wondering how the question of temporal and geographically limited focus concerning the past affects one’s view of the future.
There are about 7.7 billion people riding together on this rock that we call Earth as it flies through space. We’re quite literally all in it together. The narrower and more provincial one’s view and opinions, the less likely that person is to look at and contribute to the common good. If you say, “So what?” then you may be surprised when someone or something from outside your purview comes along and radically changes things. Then again, in 50, 100, 1,000 or 1 million years that thing probably won’t even make a Top 10 list.
This article © 2018 by John Zielinski
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