Innocent Bystander A: That house looks so old-fashioned and quaint.
Innocent Bystander B: You don’t know how privileged you are to be able to call that house quaint. By the standards of most times or places, that’s a palace.
Me: You don’t know that. It’s a palace compared to the houses in most of the times and places that you’re familiar with, but it’s not like you get to judge what counts as normal from your throne atop the twenty-first century. Just watch; someday the human race will spread throughout the stars and there could be centuries full of trillions of people with a higher standard of living who all consider that house quaint. Your standards of why Innocent Bystander A doesn’t get to call it that are so provincial and…quaint.
Perspective: It cuts both ways.
See, it’s true that lots of people—and not just abstract averages, either, but me personally—have wealth beyond the wildest dreams of a Solomon or a Croesus. It doesn’t matter how rich you are, or whether you run the biggest empire in existence: If you’re in the wrong time period, you don’t get a cell phone. Instantaneous communication? Nuh-uh. And I feel very confident in saying that Croesus and Solomon never had any idea like the Internet.
But just because I’m from one of the most ridiculously privileged cultures so far doesn’t mean I’m above the average. The future is a very long time.
Innocent Bystander B was making exactly the same mistake as A did. They were both treating their own point of view as the standard to judge everything by. (A more so than B.) A defined “quaint” as relative to his own point of view, and B defined it relative to all points of view visible from his own.
If one fourteenth-century noble uses a word like “quaint” on another’s slightly out-of-date castle, it’s actually one of the best buildings that had ever been invented by then. But it’d still be horribly outdated and unpleasant to live in compared to a twenty-first century suburban house. And, despite what everyone does, there’s no reason to stop at the twenty-first century.
Recorded history begins maybe 5,000 years ago. It is very easy to imagine that it could continue for more than another five thousand. It’s likely that many of those people would consider the current best available everything to be horribly outdated. Hopefully, what is currently considered wealth will end up being considered barely livable, and will stay that way for a very long time. “They had to live without matter replicators? How could anyone survive?” Except more so, because matter replicators are a thing that twenty-first century people can at least imagine, whereas a surprising proportion of many people’s way of life would be totally incomprehensible to people from earlier centuries.
It’s a very real possibility that there could be an eternity of people unimaginably better off. In that case, every thing that anyone from this century has ever celebrated as being new or improved or superior could very easily be considered microscopically unimportant. We think of ancient aristocrats as being closer in standard of living to the ancient peasants than to us. That trend will probably continue.
This problem comes up any time someone uses too absolute of a superlative. If you say “best whatever ever,” then you’re probably wrong simply on the grounds that most of forever hasn’t happened yet. Losing track of that simple fact and using the present as the yardstick for everything is no better than chronological snobbery.
Moral of the story: When telling someone to count their blessings, watch where you’re pointing that wider perspective. It could go completely the other direction.