Progress Paradox Redux

Kellogg’s Corn Flakes has been running full page ads in the New York Times in which they reprint the front page of the Times from the current date, one hundred years before.  It’s  fascinating to read what people thought worthy of front page coverage and how they wrote it.  The language used has clearly evolved since then.

Included on the front page for November 4, 1909 was this item:


Breaks Endurance and Distance Records in 144-mile Aeroplane Flight

Paris, Nov. 3—Henry Farman broke all aeroplane records for distance and duration to-day in a flight for the Michelin Cup at Chalone Camp.  He remained in the air four hours seven-teen minutes and fifty-three seconds and covered 144 miles.

The weather today was ideal, it being gray and windless, although the cold was severe.  The aviator received an ovation when he landed.

Think about it; the world record flight was Chicago to Fort Wayne, and it took four hours to do it, and got an ovation when he was done.  Fly to Fort Wayne today and nobody even grunts at the pilot.

We’ve come so far and there’s so much further to go.  If we could get our smartest people to stop trying to figure out ways to game the financial markets with complex securities, maybe we’d have a chance to achieve it (seriously, I once worked with a brilliant physicist and real live rocket scientist who thought the highest and best use of his skill was working in the foreign exchange group at Continental Bank).

By now you’ve seen this clip from Conan’s show about how people take progress for granted.   This is of a piece with that, and Gregg Easterbrook’s 2003 work Progress Paradox:  How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse.  We’ve become so blasé about the incredible progress that we’ve achieved.  You get the sense from reading these old news pages that the people of that time knew they were in remarkable times and appreciated it.

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