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If one fourteenth-century noble uses a word like “quaint” on another’s slightly out-of-date castle, it’s actually one of the best buildings that had ever been invented by then. But it’d still be horribly outdated and unpleasant to live in compared to a twenty-first century suburban house.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 It’s likely that many of those people would consider the current best available everything to be horribly outdated.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.


3 thoughts on “Chronocentricism

  1. Montague

    What is your definition of quaint? To use that or a similar term seems to me to merely indicate “unfashionable” or “outdated” of even just “old.” If the mere flow of time or history, then it is tautological to say that most if not all things will be older in a century.

    IF I may assume your somewhat unstated thesis, I am guessing that it is essentially: everything is outdated tomorrow, so use the future to judge quality of life.

    What confuses me is why (a presently predicted) future actually forms the basis of describing present qualities. That seems essentially another method of being trapped by temporal perception – wouldn’t the opposite of chronocentricism would be to make a time be judged by its qualities (such as quality of life.)

    In fact, to assume progress one has to assume not a comparative standard but an absolute standard of well being (I assume better implies best, and the quality of goodness.)

    There are (*cough cough*) statistics showing that after a certain level of well-being, people’s happiness is no longer increased by greater magnitudes of wealth or leisure or whatever. And Happiness is the goal of humans (I will state that axiomatically.) And since progress in material well-being is not tied to a corresponding level of happiness, progress (as opposed to quaintness?) should not be measured with how much technology is considered necessary for convenience, which apparently is tied to the progression of time.

    While I agree with you that judging something by its age or ours is chronological snobbery, I remain unconvinced that our ideas of the future will be sufficient to prevent such snobbery. Rather, my thesis is that an atemporal standard ought to be used (in the ancient mode – “are we happy?”) to judge whether the standard of life has improved, and in what fashion.

    (Oh gosh this is incredibly disjointed my apologies.)

    1. Nate Gabriel Post author

      I can’t actually use the future of history as a standard. Even if I could, it’d still be just as snobbish because I’d still be using a particular favorite part of the future. My point was supposed to be that we can’t just use the present, because the future could change the average. Whether it actually does change it is up for debate. The positive future example was just to show that time-dependent statements can turn out to be wrong (for some possible futures) even if they’ve been true of everything so far. Of course, you could just as well have a postapocalyptic dystopian future, where everything we know of is incomprehensibly better than everything in that world. (Even the poorest of the poor here have breathable, nonradioactive air.) I picked the example I did because it contradicted someone else and allowed me to say “you don’t know that,” not because I can reason from that in general and say that he’s wrong.

      Although, in my case I’m a Christian, so I actually do get to use an eternally positive future as a reference point.

      1. Montague

        Okay that makes sense.
        Also yes to eternity 😀
        But that’s also eternally extemporal (Was, Is, and Will be)

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