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Sunday, August 03, 2008


Here is a list of 10 things that virtually anybody nowadays can have but which Alexander the Great went without & would have given the revenues of Egypt for:

1) Modern health care (died aged 33)
2) Television
3) Electric light
4) Cars, trains, buses or indeed anything that goes faster than 10mph
5) Bananas, coffee, tea, sugar, potatoes rice or indeed anything not grown in the immediate neighbourhood at the time
6) A dentist
7) Whisky (or any distilled spirit)
8) Flying to Egypt on holiday (it took him years & he had to take an army with him)
9) Women who don't get pregnant, do shower & don't have smallpox scars (or possibly measles nobody is quite sure what disease were going round then but if so measles killed)
10) Telephones. Running an empire stretching from Yugoslavia to Pakistan by runner would not be easy.

And now here are 10 that will probably be available to everybody in the developed world by 2100 that our present world leaders would give billions for:

1) A cure for Alzheimer's (Reagan had this)
2) Space travel. By 2100 there will be space elevators & people will be able to pop up to orbit by the million (granted a few billionaires have been able to reach orbit in considerable discomfort).
3) A cure to aging - my guess is that maximum life expectancy will be rising more than 1 year per year.
4) Brain computer connectivity. When we have solved the code to connect to the brain it will be like having everything & everybody on the internet available telepathically.
5) Invented GM foods. Currently all we are doing is improving a few foods by giving them longer shelf lives but the potential to create completely new stuff is unlimited.
6) Virtual reality - possibly by direct brain link, possibly by all over body suits.
7) Regeneration of arms, fingers, lungs, teeth or indeed entire bodies.
8) The ability to download yourself into a computer programme thus achieving true immortality.
9) Robot women (or I suppose men). Fully functional & programmable. Now that will change social relations though probably not to the benefit of society as a whole.
10) Mind expanding drugs. That is ones that make you smarter, among other things.

Note that these are not merely for the rich. Anything small which can be mass produced can ultimately be produced cheaply. Most expensive is #9 which I can see costing the equivalent of a small car. Note also that, as with the first lot, I am merely talking about things which produce a massive qualitative change not just a change in quantity since quantity is no problem for world leaders. There will also be things I can't imagine. For example at the rate the internet & computerisation is progressing I cannot believe it will not improve out of all recognition but I can't think how (except for intelligent computers which I hope will not become ubiquitous). Note that there are also "minor" things like being able to travel the world for buttons, either in larger jumbo jets or automated railcars in vacuum tunnels. Then there will be things which will still be expensive like space travel beyond the Moon.

However none of these require breakthroughs in scienctific theory though most of them need refinements that we don't yet know how to do but can reasonably expect we will. This is completely unlike the improvements since Alexander, none of which could even be understood with the knowledge of the time.

Finally note that though I have set these for 100 years that is choosing to err on the conservative side. #1 for example could be with us in 5 years, 10 if the regulators get fussy. #5 could pretty much be here already if it was not being held back by regulators. The main brake may well be, indeed probably already is, government regulation.

I am hardly the first to recognise this & indeed to err on the conservative side:

It is now the fashion to place the golden age of England in times when noblemen were destitute of comforts the want of which would be intolerable to a modern footman, when farmers and shopkeepers breakfasted on loaves the very sight of which would raise a riot in a modern workhouse, when to have a clean shirt once a week was a privilege reserved for the higher class of gentry, when men died faster in the purest country air than they now die in the most pestilential lanes of our towns, and when men died faster in the lanes of our towns than they now die on the coast of Guiana.

We too shall, in our turn, be outstripped, and in our turn be envied. It may well be, in the twentieth century, that the peasant of Dorsetshire may think himself miserably paid with twenty shillings a week; that the carpenter at Greenwich may receive ten shillings a day; that labouring men may be as little used to dine without meat as they now are to eat rye bread; that sanitary police and medical discoveries may have added several more years to the average length of human life; that numerous comforts and luxuries which are now unknown, or confined to a few, may be within the reach of every diligent and thrifty working man.

And yet it may then be the mode to assert that the increase of wealth and the progress of science have benefited the few at the expense of the many, and to talk of the reign of Queen Victoria as the time when England was truly merry England, when all classes were bound together by brotherly sympathy, when the rich did not grind the faces of the poor, and when the poor did not envy the splendour of the rich.
- Macaulay, History of England, Chapter 3

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