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Spatiotemporal Unfairness

The other day I leisurely rode the escalators of the central subway station of Athens, at Syntagma (Constitution) Square, situated right in front of the parliamentary building. It was ten minutes before the next train, so I had time to observe my surroundings -- a rare occurrence in a place that I have associated with frenetic panting up and down staircases and majestic MacGyver-esque entrées onto trains jam-packed with commuters milliseconds before the automatic doors of the carriage shut. A man in his 30s wearing a slick designer suit and frantically typing a message on a Blackberry-like device grabbed my attention. He was standing next to a glass showcase that housed restored ancient pottery that had been dug up during the construction of the subway station. Under different circumstances, I would have ignored the sight. However, now that my mind's "CPU cycles" were free to be disposed of as I wished, I started to realize the significance of the unlikely duet "man-with-Blackberry + ancient vase." The two were depictions of everyday life in different eras standing side-by-side in space but separated by 2400 years. In our current era, high-tech devices are commodities, at least in the industrialized world. In the fourth century BC, the most high-tech device the average person would use was probably this vase.

I was overwhelmed by guilt. Whereas people of bygone millennia had to face huge challenges in order to meet demands that today are taken for granted, I sit in front of my computer sending e-mails in an "artificial" environment -- a domicile situated in an urban area of a European country -- that was designed in such a way as to facilitate the existence of the human species. My food is provided for, processed in such a way as to facilitate its ingestion. I can also adjust the lighting conditions and the temperature of my domicile. I have immediate access to all sorts of information, and I can listen to an arbitrarily selected song any time of the day.

Was there another time in history when people had access to such conveniences? Yes. There were people whose lifestyle was of comparable ease, but they were few. They were the kings and noblemen of older times. You may object that they did not possess the technology we have today. Indeed, they did not. However, they could use slaves instead. They did not have MP3 players, but they could instruct musicians to play for them any time of day. They did not have running water in their palaces, but their servants would supply them with water from the local river. They were the only ones with access to the handwritten books of the era. And the list goes on and on. If you think about it, people in industrialized countries have access to luxuries that once were royal privileges.

At first sight there is nothing objectionable to that, but consider this: can we afford to live like kings? Does nature have enough resources to support that? And even if it does, are we happier than the people of 3000 years ago? Perhaps the modern era has brought more problems than it resolved....

Ultimately: What about fairness? Are some eras luckier than others? Or is there a conservation principle that makes each historical period more pleasant in some aspects and more unpleasant in some others so that all eras are somehow equally demanding? Of course, one may remark that there is a huge discrepancy in the lifestyles of people living in the same era -- some are born into affluent homes/societies and live a life of luxury and enjoyment and others are condemned to lifelong hardship. There is a fundamental difference, though, between this kind of unfairness and the previous one. Technically, it is possible for someone to escape the hardship associated with his/her whereabouts and move to a place with better living standards. Or, somehow, the country in which he/she lives can experience financial growth, which will result in a better living standard for the inhabitants.

What is technically impossible, though, is time travel: one cannot travel to a time when living standards are higher. People of 3000 years ago were imprisoned in their time as we are in our own. One, of course, may ask whether anything can be done about this or if it is an inherent imperfection of human existence. The answer is that perhaps we just have to reconcile ourselves with the concept of luckier eras.

Another approach is the one taken by the large monotheistic religions. Their concept of afterlife serves among other things as a buffer that absorbs the spatiotemporal unfairness. In any case, we should be thankful for what we have today.


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