Is privacy dead?

May 9 JDN 2459342

It is the year 2021, and while we don’t yet have flying cars or human-level artificial intelligence, our society is in many ways quite similar to what cyberpunk fiction predicted it would be. We are constantly connected to the Internet, even linking devices in our homes to the Web when that is largely pointless or actively dangerous. Oligopolies of fewer and fewer multinational corporations that are more and more powerful have taken over most of our markets, from mass media to computer operating systems, from finance to retail.

One of the many dire predictions of cyberpunk fiction is that constant Internet connectivity will effectively destroy privacy. There is reason to think that this is in fact happening: We have televisions that listen to our conversations, webcams that can be hacked, sometimes invisibly, and the operating system that runs the majority of personal and business computers is built around constantly tracking its users.

The concentration of oligopoly power and the decline of privacy are not unconnected. It’s the oligopoly power of corporations like Microsoft and Google and Facebook that allows them to present us with absurdly long and virtually unreadable license agreements as an ultimatum: “Sign away your rights, or else you can’t use our product. And remember, we’re the only ones who make this product and it’s increasingly necessary for your basic functioning in society!” This is of course exactly as cyberpunk fiction warned us it would be.

Giving up our private information to a handful of powerful corporations would be bad enough if that information were securely held only by them. But it isn’t. There have been dozens of major data breaches of major corporations, and there will surely be many more. In an average year, several billion data records are exposed through data breaches. Each person produces many data records, so it’s difficult to say exactly how many people have had their data stolen; but it isn’t implausible to say that if you are highly active on the Internet, at least some of your data has been stolen in one breach or another. Corporations have strong incentives to collect and use your data—data brokerage is a hundred-billion-dollar industry—but very weak incentives to protect it from prying eyes. The FTC does impose fines for negligence in the event of a major data breach, but as usual the scale of the fines simply doesn’t match the scale of the corporations responsible. $575 million sounds like a lot of money, but for a corporation with $28 billion in assets it’s a slap on the wrist. It would be equivalent to fining me about $500 (about what I’d get for driving without a passenger in the carpool lane). Yeah, I’d feel that; it would be unpleasant and inconvenient. But it’s certainly not going to change my life. And typically these fines only impact shareholders, and don’t even pass through to the people who made the decisions: The man who was CEO of Equifax when it suffered its catastrophic data breach retired with a $90 million pension.

While most people seem either blissfully unaware or fatalistically resigned to its inevitability, a few people have praised the trend of reduced privacy, usually by claiming that it will result in increased transparency. Yet, ironically, a world with less privacy can actually mean a world with less transparency as well: When you don’t know what information you reveal will be stolen and misused, you will constantly endeavor to protect all your information, even things that you would normally not hesitate to reveal. When even your face and name can be used to track you, you’ll be more hesitant to reveal them. Cyberpunk fiction predicted this too: Most characters in cyberpunk stories are known by their hacker handles, not their real given names.

There is some good news, however. People are finally beginning to notice that they have been pressured into giving away their privacy rights, and demanding to get them back. The United Nations has recently passed resolutions defending digital privacy, governments have taken action against the worst privacy violations with increasing frequency, courts are ruling in favor of stricter protections, think tanks are demanding stricter regulations, and even corporate policies are beginning to change. While the major corporations all want to take your data, there are now many smaller businesses and nonprofit organizations that will sell you tools to help protect it.

This does not mean we can be complacent: The war is far from won. But it does mean that there is some hope left; we don’t simply have to surrender and accept a world where anyone with enough money can know whatever they want about anyone else. We don’t need to accept what the CEO of Sun Microsystems infamously said: “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”

I think the best answer to the decline of privacy is to address the underlying incentives that make it so lucrative. Why is data brokering such a profitable industry? Because ad targeting is such a profitable industry. So profitable, indeed, that huge corporations like Facebook and Google make almost all of their money that way, and the useful services they provide to users are offered for free simply as an enticement to get them to look at more targeted advertising.

Selling advertising is hardly new—we’ve been doing it for literally millennia, as Roman gladiators were often paid to hawk products. It has been the primary source of revenue for most forms of media, from newspapers to radio stations to TV networks, since those media have existed. What has changed is that ad targeting is now a lucrative business: In the 1850s, that newspaper being sold by barking boys on the street likely had ads in it, but they were the same ads for every single reader. Now when you log in to or, the ads on that page are specific only to you, based on any information that these media giants have been able to glean from your past Internet activity. If you do try to protect your online privacy with various tools, a quick-and-dirty way to check if it’s working is to see if websites give you ads for things you know you’d never buy.

In fact, I consider it a very welcome recent development that video streaming is finally a way to watch TV shows by actually paying for them instead of having someone else pay for the right to shove ads in my face. I can’t remember the last time I heard a TV ad jingle, and I’m very happy about that fact. Having to spend 15 minutes of each hour of watching TV to watch commercials may not seem so bad—in fact, many people may feel that they’d rather do that than pay the money to avoid it. But think about it this way: If it weren’t worth at least that much to the corporations buying those ads, they wouldn’t do it. And if a corporation expects to get $X from you that you wouldn’t have otherwise paid, that means they’re getting you to spend that much that you otherwise wouldn’t have—meaning that they’re getting you to buy something you didn’t need. Perhaps it’s better after all to spend that $X on getting entertainment that doesn’t try to get you to buy things you don’t need.

Indeed, I think there is an opportunity to restructure the whole Internet this way. What we need is a software company—maybe a nonprofit organization, maybe a for-profit business—that is set up to let us make micropayments for online content in lieu of having our data collected or being force-fed advertising.

How big would these payments need to be? Well, Facebook has about 2.8 billion users and takes in revenue of about $80 billion per year, so the average user would have to pay about $29 a year for the use of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. That’s about $2.50 per month, or $0.08 per day.

The New York Times is already losing its ad-supported business model; less than $400 million of its $1.8 billion revenue last year was from ads, the rest being primarily from subscriptions. But smaller media outlets have a much harder time gaining subscribers; often people just want to read a single article and aren’t willing to pay for a whole month or year of the periodical. If we could somehow charge for individual articles, how much would we have to charge? Well, a typical webpage has an ad clickthrough rate of 1%, while a typical cost-per-click rate is about $0.60, so ads on the average webpage makes its owners a whopping $0.006. That’s not even a single cent. So if this new micropayment system allowed you to pay one cent to read an article without the annoyance of ads or the pressure to buy something you don’t need, would you pay it? I would. In fact, I’d pay five cents. They could quintuple their revenue!

The main problem is that we currently don’t have an efficient way to make payments that small. Processing a credit card transaction typically costs at least $0.05, so a five-cent transaction would yield literally zero revenue for the website. I’d have to pay ten cents to give the website five, and I admit I might not always want to do that—I’d also definitely be uncomfortable with half the money going to credit card companies.

So what’s needed is software to bundle the payments at each end: In a single credit card transaction, you add say $20 of tokens to an account. Each token might be worth $0.01, or even less if we want. These tokens can then be spent at participating websites to pay for access. The websites can then collect all the tokens they’ve received over say a month, bundle them together, and sell them back to the company that originally sold them to you, for slightly less than what you paid for them. These bundled transactions could actually be quite large in many cases—thousands or millions of dollars—and thus processing fees would be a very small fraction. For smaller sites there could be a minimum amount of tokens they must collect—perhaps also $20 or so—before they can sell them back. Note that if you’ve bought $20 in tokens and you are paying $0.05 per view, you can read 400 articles before you run out of tokens and have to buy more. And they don’t all have to be from the same source, as they would with a traditional subscription; you can read articles from any outlet that participates in the token system.

There are a number of technical issues to be resolved here: How to keep the tokens secure, how to guarantee that once a user purchases access to an article they will continue to have access to it, ideally even if they clear their cache, delete all cookies, or login from another computer. I can’t literally set up this website today, and even if I could, I don’t know how I’d attract a critical mass of both users and participating websites (it’s a major network externality problem). But it seems well within the purview of what the tech industry has done in the past—indeed, it’s quite comparable to the impressive (and unsettling) infrastructure that has been laid down to support ad-targeting and data brokerage.

How would such a system help protect privacy? If micropayments for content became the dominant model of funding online content, most people wouldn’t spend much time looking at online ads, and ad targeting would be much less profitable. Data brokerage, in turn, would become less lucrative, because there would be fewer ways to use that data to make profits. With the incentives to take our data thus reduced, it would be easier to enforce regulations protecting our privacy. Those fines might actually be enough to make it no longer worth the while to take sensitive data, and corporations might stop pressuring people to give it up.

No, privacy isn’t dead. But it’s dying. If we want to save it, we have a lot of work to do.

Ancient plagues, modern pandemics

Mar 1 JDN 2458917

The coronavirus epidemic continues; though it originated in Wuhan province, the virus has now been confirmed in places as far-flung as Italy, Brazil, and Mexico. So far, about 90,000 people have caught it, and about 3,000 have died, mostly in China.

There are legitimate reasons to be concerned about this epidemic: Like influenza, coronavirus spreads quickly, and can be carried without symptoms, yet unlike influenza, it has a very high rate of complications, causing hospitalization as often as 10% of the time and death as often as 2%. There’s a lot of uncertainty about these numbers, because it’s difficult to know exactly how many people are infected but either have no symptoms or have symptoms that can be confused with other diseases. But we do have reason to believe that coronavirus is much deadlier for those infected than influenza: Influenza spreads so widely that it kills about 300,000 people every year, but this is only 0.1% of the people infected.

And yet, despite our complex interwoven network of international trade that sends people and goods all around the world, our era is probably the safest in history in terms of the risk of infectious disease.

Partly this is technology: Especially for bacterial infections, we have highly effective treatments that our forebears lacked. But for most viral infections we actually don’t have very effective treatments—which means that technology per se is not the real hero here.

Vaccination is a major part of the answer: Vaccines have effectively eradicated polio and smallpox, and would probably be on track to eliminate measles and rubella if not for dangerous anti-vaccination ideology. But even with no vaccine against coronavirus (yet) and not very effective vaccines against influenza, still the death rates from these viruses are nowhere near those of ancient plagues.

The Black Death killed something like 40% of Europe’s entire population. The Plague of Justinian killed as many as 20% of the entire world’s population. This is a staggeringly large death rate compared to a modern pandemic, in which even a 2% death rate would be considered a total catastrophe.

Even the 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed more than all the battle deaths in World War I combined, wasn’t as terrible as an ancient plague; it killed about 2% of the infected population. And when a very similar influenza virus appeared in 2009, how many people did it kill? About 400,000 people, roughly 0.1% of those infectedslightly worse than the average flu season. That’s how much better our public health has gotten in the last century alone.

Remember SARS, a previous viral pandemic that also emerged in China? It only killed 774 people, in a year in which over 300,000 died of influenza.

Sanitation is probably the most important factor: Certainly sanitation was far worse in ancient times. Today almost everyone routinely showers and washes their hands, which makes a big difference—but it’s notable that widespread bathing didn’t save the Romans from the Plague of Justinian.

I think it’s underappreciated just how much better our communication and quarantine procedures are today than they once were. In ancient times, the only way you heard about a plague was a live messenger carrying the news—and that messenger might well be already carrying the virus. Today, an epidemic in China becomes immediate news around the world. This means that people prepare—they avoid travel, they stock up on food, they become more diligent about keeping clean. And perhaps even more important than the preparation by individual people is the preparation by institutions: Governments, hospitals, research labs. We can see the pandemic coming and be ready to respond weeks or even months before it hits us.

So yes, do wash your hands regularly. Wash for at least 20 seconds, which will definitely feel like a long time if you haven’t made it a habit—but it does make a difference. Try to avoid travel for awhile. Stock up on food and water in case you need to be quarantined. Follow whatever instructions public health officials give as the pandemic progresses. But you don’t need to panic: We’ve got this under control. That Horseman of the Apocalypse is dead; and fear not, Famine and War are next. I’m afraid Death himself will probably be awhile, though.

A more nuanced “Carousel of Progress”

Aug 11 JDN 2458707

I recently got back from a trip to Disney World; while most of the attractions are purely fictional and designed only to entertain, a few are factual and designed to inform and persuade. One of these is the “Carousel of Progress”.

The Carousel of Progress consists of a series of animatronic stages, each representing the lifestyle of a particular historical era. They follow the same family over time, showing what their life is like in each era. When it was originally built, the eras shown were 1900s, 1920s, 1940s, and 1960s; but over time they have updated the “present day” stage, and now they are 1900s, 1920s, 1940s, and 1990s. The aim of the attraction is to show how technology has made our lives better.

The family they show is upper-middle class; this makes sense, as most of the audience probably is as well. But to really understand the progress we have made, we need to also consider the full range of incomes.

In this post I will go through a similar sequence of eras, comparing the lifestyles of not just the middle class, but also the rich and the poor.

In what follows, I’ve tried to create that, using the best approximate figures on standard of living I could find from each era. The numbers are given in my best guess of the inflation-adjusted standard of living; obviously they’re much more precise in the 1980s to today than they are for earlier eras.

I’ve summarized all these income estimates in the graph below (note the log scale):



This means that, after a bumpy ride through the Middle Ages and the Industrial Revolution, we did actually raise the floor—the poor today are about as well off as the middle class in ancient times. But we raised the ceiling an awful lot faster; the rich today are something like a thousand times as rich as the rich in ancient times.


50 AD: Roman Empire

Rich: Patrician

Life is good! My seaside villa is one of the finest in Rome, and my industrious slaves fulfill my every need. At my personal zoo I recently acquired a lion and an elephant. I dine on only the finest foods, including wine from my personal vineyard. An aqueduct feeds directly into my personal baths. The war in Gallia seems to be going well; I look forward to my share of the spoils.

Wealth: $4 million

Income: $200,000

Middle class: Plebeian

Things could be worse. My family has a roof over our heads and bread on our table, so I’m grateful for that. But working all day on the farm is exhausting, and we can’t afford servants to help. My oldest son is a gladiator, though so far he has not attained the highest ranks of the profession. My youngest son was recently drafted into military service in Gallia; I pray for his safety.

Wealth: $10,000

Income: $10,000

Poor: Proletarian

Wealth: $0

Income: $1,000

Living in a hovel I don’t even own with my four children and begging on the streets isn’t an easy life, but at least I’m not a slave. Most of our food is provided by public services. With the war raging in Gallia, one of our small blessings is that we are actually too poor to be drafted into service.

1000 AD: Medieval England

Rich: Duke

While living in a castle is nice, I sometimes wish an end to the frequent raids and border skirmishes that made these high walls necessary. Still, I can’t complain; I own plenty of land, and have plenty of serfs to work it. I am in good favor with the king, and so His Majesty’s army has helped protect my lands against invasion. I have all the feasts, wine, and women a man could ask for.

Wealth: $2 million

Income: $100,000

Middle class: Knight

I can’t complain. It is an honor to be a knight in His Majesty’s army, and I am proud that my family was able to earn enough wealth to buy me a horse, a sword, and the training necessary to reach this rank. I own a little bit of land, but my lord has called upon me for a new campaign, I’m hoping to buy a larger estate with the spoils I earn from it. My family has plenty of food to eat, though if the well runs dry I’m not sure where we’ll get more water.

Wealth: $5,000

Income: $5,000

Poor: Serf

Live grows harder by the day, it seems. My lord keeps demanding more and more work from us, but already the land is producing as much as it can bear. Though we are responsible for planting and harvesting the wheat, often the bread never makes it to my family’s table.

Wealth: $0

Income: $500

1600 AD: Renaissance Venice

Rich: Noble

With the advent of global trade and colonization, wealth has flooded into Venice, and I have had the chance to claim some portion of that flood. I dress in the finest silks, and eat exotic foods from lands as distant as India and China. Servants fulfill my every need. How could life be better?

Wealth: $10 million

Income: $1 million

Middle class: Merchant

I am a proud member of the trader’s guild. Though it our trade ships that carry wealth from across the seas, we often find that wealth passing on up to the nobles, leaving little for ourselves. Still, I have my own land, my own house, and plenty of food for my family.

Wealth: $10,000

Income: $10,000

Poor: The Pebbles

I had a good job working in construction until recently, but I was laid off. I could no longer afford my rent, so now I live on the streets. I feel as though I work constantly but never can find a way to get ahead.

Wealth: $0

Income: $2,000

1750 AD: Pre-Revolutionary France

Rich: Noble

Viva la France! Life is better than ever. Servants do all my work, while the wealth produced by my fields and factories all goes to me. I barely even pay any taxes on my grand estates.

Wealth: $20 million

Income: $2 million

Middle class: Bourgeoisie

I live reasonably well, all things considered. My family has a home and enough food to eat. Still, taxes are becoming increasingly onerous even as the nobles become increasingly detached from the needs of common people like us. Still, we may as well accept it; I doubt things will change any time soon.

Wealth: $15,000

Income: $15,000

Poor: Peasant

Life is hard. I work all day on the farm to make wheat, and then the nobles tax it all away. We have to make our own clothes even as the nobles luxuriate in silks from around the world.

Wealth: $0

Income: $500

1900 AD: United States


My coal mine has been a roaring success! I am now one of the richest men who has ever lived. I even have my own horseless carriage. Servants are getting more expensive these days, though; even though I’m richer than my grandfather I can’t afford as many servants.

Wealth: $1 billion

Income: $100 million

Middle class

“Well, the robins are back. That’s a sure sign of spring. What year is it? Oh, just before the turn of the century. And believe me, things couldn’t be any better than they are today. Yes sir, we got all the latest things: gas lamps, a telephone, and the latest design in cast iron stoves. That reservoir keeps five gallons of water hot all day on just three buckets of coal. Sure beats chopping wood! And isn’t our new ice box a beauty. Holds 50 pounds of ice. Milk doesn’t sour as quick as is used to. Our dog Rover here keeps the water in the drip pan from overflowing. You know, it wasn’t too long ago we had to carry water from a well. But thanks to progress, we’ve got a pump right here in the kitchen. ‘Course we keep a bucket of water handy to prime it with. Yes sir, we’ve got everything to make life easier. Mother! I was reading about a fellow named Tom Edison, who’s working on an idea for snap on electric lights.”

Wealth: $18,000

Income: $18,000


I live on the streets most of the time. I eat food out of the garbage. What little money I have is earned by begging. I’m not proud, but it’s all I can do to survive.

Wealth: $0

Income: $2,000

1920 AD: United States


Life is sweet. My electric company is raking in the dough these days; seems they can hardly find enough copper to lay all the new cables we need to supply all the folks buying into our grid. I have four automobiles now—all top of the line of course. The times, they are a-changin’: Can you believe they gave women the vote? Eh, well, I suppose they can hardly vote worse than us men do already.

Wealth: $5 billion

Income: $500 million

Middle class

“Whew! Hottest summer we’ve had in years. Well, we’ve progressed a long way since the turn of the century 20 years ago. But no one realized then that this would be the age of electricity. Everyone’s using it: farmers, factories, whole towns. With electric streetlights we don’t worry so much about the youngsters being out after dark. And what a difference in our home. We can run as many wires as we need in any direction for Mother’s new electrical servants: electric sewing machine, coffee percolator, toaster, waffle iron, refrigerator, and they all go to work at the click of a switch. Take it easy! You’ll blow a fuse! Queenie! Leave ’em alone. Well, the days of lugging heavy irons from the old cookstove to an ironing board are gone forever. With an electric iron and electric lights, Mother now has time to enjoy her embroidery in the cool of the evening. Right, Mother?”

Wealth: $20,000

Income: $20,000


Life on the streets is still hard, but at least they’ve got these new soup kitchens to feed me and my family, and with running water in the city we can sometimes get clean water to drink. That newfangled electricity stuff is supposed to be the bee’s knees, but we sure can’t afford it.

Wealth: $0

Income: $4,000

1940 AD: United States


My steel company is doing extremely well, particularly with the war in Europe raising the price of steel. We just bought our very own airplane; isn’t that marvelous? With Britain under siege and France already fallen to the Krauts, I think we’re gonna end up in the war soon—FDR certainly has been making noises to that effect. If I were poor, I’d be worried about my sons getting drafted; but I’m sure we won’t have to worry about that. No, I’m just looking forward to my stock returns when they start churning out tanks instead of cars in Detroit!

Wealth: $2 billion

Income: $200 million

Middle class

“Well it’s autumn again and the kids are back in school. Thank goodness! Here we are in the frantic forties and the music is better than ever. And it’s amazing how our new kitchen wonders are helping to take over the hard work. Everything is improving. Electric range is better. Refrigerators are bigger and make lots more ice cubes. But my favorite is the electric dishwasher. Now Mother spends less time in the kitchen and I don’t have to dry the dishes anymore. Oh, I spend a lot of time here. Have to. Now that television has arrived, Grandma and Grandpa have taken over my den. Television has changed our lives. It’s brought a whole new world of culture into our home.”

Wealth: $24,000

Income: $24,000


The Depression was hard on everybody, but I think it was hardest on us poors. This New Deal business seems to be helping out a lot, though; on one of the new construction projects I was able to find work for the first time in months. I’m worried we’re going to be brought into the war soon, but if I get drafted at least that means three squares a day.

Wealth: $0

Income: $4,000

1960 AD: United States


Running an oil company is not for the faint of heart; they keep adding more onerous regulations every year. Still, profits are bigger than ever. I just wish Uncle Sam would stop taking such a big cut; Commies, all of them. I can barely afford upkeep on my yacht these days with all the taxes.

Wealth: $2 billion

Income: $200 million

Middle class

We just got a color TV at home, and we’ve been watching around the clock. We get all four channels! And my new T-bird is a real beauty; paid a fortune for her, but worth every penny. Society is improving, too; with Rosa Parks and whatnot, I’m guessing things are about to get a lot better for colored folks especially. After that, I’m thinking it’ll be the gays’ turn next; I wonder how long that will take.

Wealth: $30,000

Income: $30,000


Life is still hard, but I think it’s better now than it’s ever been, even for poor folks like me. Thanks to Welfare, I’m not even as poor as I could be. It’s tough to make ends meet, but at least I can afford a place to live and food to eat. And I’m pretty healthy too: Antibiotics and vaccines mean that we are finally safe from some terrible diseases, like polio. It seems crazy: Just a generation ago the President had a disease that now even folks like me are protected from.

Wealth: $0

Income: $6,000

1980 AD: United States


They told me I was crazy to invest in these “personal computing machines”, but I saw the writing on the wall. Computers are the future, man. They’re gonna be everywhere, and do everything. We’re gonna have robots and flying cars, and if I have anything to say about it, I’m gonna own the factories that make them.

Wealth: $5 billion

Income: $500 million

Middle class

We have our own PC now. I use it for work, but my kids use it mostly for computer games. I still can’t beat my daughter at Pong, but I can at least hold my own at Pac-Man these days. I hear that programming skills are going to be in high demand soon, so I’ve been trying to teach the kids BASIC.

Wealth: $50,000

Income: $50,000


Nixon’s Welfare “reform” really hit my family hard. If I don’t find work soon, they’re going to cut my benefits; but if I could find work, what would I need benefits for? Jimmy Carter made some things better, but it doesn’t look like he’ll be re-elected. Can you believe that old actor Ronald Reagan is running?

Wealth: $0

Income: $8,000

2000 AD: United States


I sure played my cards right in the stock market, buying those tech firms just before the Internet boom really hit. Now I have my own jet and I’m thinking of buying a yacht. Maybe I’ll diversify into real estate; it looks like housing prices are heading north.

Wealth: $10 billion

Income: $1 billion

Middle class

Our home has almost doubled in value since we bought it; we took some of that out as a home equity loan, which helped us buy laptops for our kids. It’s amazing what they can do now; we used to have a big clunky desktop, and these little laptops would run circles around it. We also installed a 56k modem; I’m a little worried about what effect the Internet will have on the kids, but it seems like that’s where everything is going.

Wealth: $60,000

Income: $60,000


I hate working in fast food, but it beats not working at all. I really wish they’d raise minimum wage though; once you figure in inflation, we’re actually making less than people did ten years ago. I think I qualify for Welfare or something, but the paperwork has gotten so crazy I couldn’t even deal with it. I’m just trying to get by on what I make at the burger joint.

Wealth: $0

Income: $10,000

2020 AD: United States, Present Day


I knew my app startup would be a success, but even I couldn’t have predicted we’d make it this far. Bought out by Apple for $40 billion? I could hardly have dreamed it myself. I am living the high life; I’ve got my own helicopter now, and a yacht 50 feet long (#lifestyle #swag!). I just upgraded my Google Glass to the new model; it is awesome AF. I think I might move out of the Bay Area and get myself a mansion in Beverly Hills.

Wealth: $20 billion

Income: $2 billion

Middle class

Why is rent so expensive? And how am I ever going to pay off these student loans? After college I managed to land an office job because I’m pretty good with Excel, but it’s still tough to make ends meet. Smartphones are cool and all, but it would be nice to actually own my own home. I think my parents had planned for me to inherit theirs, but we lost it in the subprime crash. Eh, things could be worse. #FirstWorldProblems.

Wealth: $62,000

Income: $62,000


Things were really bad a few years ago, but they seem to be picking up a little now; I’ve been able to find a job, at least. But it doesn’t pay well; I can’t barely afford rent. I don’t have what they call “marketable skills”, I guess. I should have gone back to school, probably, but I didn’t want to have to deal with student loans. Maybe things will be better once Trump finally gets out of office.

Wealth: $0

Income: $12,000

2040 AD: United States, Cyberpunk Future


I guess I picked out the right crypto to buy, because it gave me enough to buy my own AI company and now I’m rolling in it. My new helicopter is one of those twin-turbofan models that runs on fuel cells—I was sick of paying carbon tax to fuel up the old kerosene model. I just got cybernetic implants: No phone to carry around, nothing to get lost! I hear they’re working on going to neural interface soon, so we won’t even need to wave our hands around to use them.

Wealth: $40 billion

Income: $4 billion


I used to have a nice job in data analysis, but they automated most of it and outsourced the rest. Now I work for a different corp doing customer service, because that’s the only thing humans seem to still be good for. I have to admit the corps have done some good things for us, though; my daughter was born blind but now she’s got artificial eyes. (Of course, how will we ever pay off those medical debts?) And I really wish someone had done something about climate change sooner; summers these days are absolutely unbearable.

Wealth: $65,000

Income: $65,000


Wealth: $0

Income: $15,000

I lost my trucking job to a robot, can you believe that? But how am I supposed to compete with 22 hours of daily uptime? Basic income is just about all the money I have. I haven’t been able to find steady work in years. I should have gone to college and studied CS, probably; it seems like salaries in AI get higher every year.

What is progress? How far have we really come?

JDN 2457534

It is a controversy that has lasted throughout the ages: Is the world getting better? Is it getting worse? Or is it more or less staying the same, changing in ways that don’t really constitute improvements or detriments?

The most obvious and indisputable change in human society over the course of history has been the advancement of technology. At one extreme there are techno-utopians, who believe that technology will solve all the world’s problems and bring about a glorious future; at the other extreme are anarcho-primitivists, who maintain that civilization, technology, and industrialization were all grave mistakes, removing us from our natural state of peace and harmony.

I am not a techno-utopian—I do not believe that technology will solve all our problems—but I am much closer to that end of the scale. Technology has solved a lot of our problems, and will continue to solve a lot more. My aim in this post is to convince you that progress is real, that things really are, on the whole, getting better.

One of the more baffling arguments against progress comes from none other than Jared Diamond, the social scientist most famous for Guns, Germs and Steel (which oddly enough is mainly about horses and goats). About seven months before I was born, Diamond wrote an essay for Discover magazine arguing quite literally that agriculture—and by extension, civilization—was a mistake.

Diamond fortunately avoids the usual argument based solely on modern hunter-gatherers, which is a selection bias if ever I heard one. Instead his main argument seems to be that paleontological evidence shows an overall decrease in health around the same time as agriculture emerged. But that’s still an endogeneity problem, albeit a subtler one. Maybe agriculture emerged as a response to famine and disease. Or maybe they were both triggered by rising populations; higher populations increase disease risk, and are also basically impossible to sustain without agriculture.

I am similarly dubious of the claim that hunter-gatherers are always peaceful and egalitarian. It does seem to be the case that herders are more violent than other cultures, as they tend to form honor cultures that punish all sleights with overwhelming violence. Even after the Industrial Revolution there were herder honor cultures—the Wild West. Yet as Steven Pinker keeps trying to tell people, the death rates due to homicide in all human cultures appear to have steadily declined for thousands of years.

I read an article just a few days ago on the Scientific American blog which included the following claim so astonishingly nonsensical it makes me wonder if the authors can even do arithmetic or read statistical tables correctly:

I keep reminding readers (see Further Reading), the evidence is overwhelming that war is a relatively recent cultural invention. War emerged toward the end of the Paleolithic era, and then only sporadically. A new study by Japanese researchers published in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters corroborates this view.

Six Japanese scholars led by Hisashi Nakao examined the remains of 2,582 hunter-gatherers who lived 12,000 to 2,800 years ago, during Japan’s so-called Jomon Period. The researchers found bashed-in skulls and other marks consistent with violent death on 23 skeletons, for a mortality rate of 0.89 percent.

That is supposed to be evidence that ancient hunter-gatherers were peaceful? The global homicide rate today is 62 homicides per million people per year. Using the worldwide life expectancy of 71 years (which is biasing against modern civilization because our life expectancy is longer), that means that the worldwide lifetime homicide rate is 4,400 homicides per million people, or 0.44%—that’s less than half the homicide rate of these “peaceful” hunter-gatherers. If you compare just against First World countries, the difference is even starker; let’s use the US, which has the highest homicide rate in the First World. Our homicide rate is 38 homicides per million people per year, which at our life expectancy of 79 years is 3,000 homicides per million people, or an overall homicide rate of 0.3%, slightly more than a third of this “peaceful” ancient culture. The most peaceful societies today—notably Japan, where these remains were found—have homicide rates as low as 3 per million people per year, which is a lifetime homicide rate of 0.02%, forty times smaller than their supposedly utopian ancestors. (Yes, all of Japan has fewer total homicides than Chicago. I’m sure it has nothing to do with their extremely strict gun control laws.) Indeed, to get a modern homicide rate as high as these hunter-gatherers, you need to go to a country like Congo, Myanmar, or the Central African Republic. To get a substantially higher homicide rate, you essentially have to be in Latin America. Honduras, the murder capital of the world, has a lifetime homicide rate of about 6.7%.

Again, how did I figure these things out? By reading basic information from publicly-available statistical tables and then doing some simple arithmetic. Apparently these paleoanthropologists couldn’t be bothered to do that, or didn’t know how to do it correctly, before they started proclaiming that human nature is peaceful and civilization is the source of violence. After an oversight as egregious as that, it feels almost petty to note that a sample size of a few thousand people from one particular region and culture isn’t sufficient data to draw such sweeping judgments or speak of “overwhelming” evidence.

Of course, in order to decide whether progress is a real phenomenon, we need a clearer idea of what we mean by progress. It would be presumptuous to use per-capita GDP, though there can be absolutely no doubt that technology and capitalism do in fact raise per-capita GDP. If we measure by inequality, modern society clearly fares much worse (our top 1% share and Gini coefficient may be higher than Classical Rome!), but that is clearly biased in the opposite direction, because the main way we have raised inequality is by raising the ceiling, not lowering the floor. Most of our really good measures (like the Human Development Index) only exist for the last few decades and can barely even be extrapolated back through the 20th century.

How about babies not dying? This is my preferred measure of a society’s value. It seems like something that should be totally uncontroversial: Babies dying is bad. All other things equal, a society is better if fewer babies die.

I suppose it doesn’t immediately follow that all things considered a society is better if fewer babies die; maybe the dying babies could be offset by some greater good. Perhaps a totalitarian society where no babies die is in fact worse than a free society in which a few babies die, or perhaps we should be prepared to accept some small amount of babies dying in order to save adults from poverty, or something like that. But without some really powerful overriding reason, babies not dying probably means your society is doing something right. (And since most ancient societies were in a state of universal poverty and quite frequently tyranny, these exceptions would only strengthen my case.)

Well, get ready for some high-yield truth bombs about infant mortality rates.

It’s hard to get good data for prehistoric cultures, but the best data we have says that infant mortality in ancient hunter-gatherer cultures was about 20-50%, with a best estimate around 30%. This is statistically indistinguishable from early agricultural societies.

Indeed, 30% seems to be the figure humanity had for most of history. Just shy of a third of all babies died for most of history.

In Medieval times, infant mortality was about 30%.

This same rate (fluctuating based on various plagues) persisted into the Enlightenment—Sweden has the best records, and their infant mortality rate in 1750 was about 30%.

The decline in infant mortality began slowly: During the Industrial Era, infant mortality was about 15% in isolated villages, but still as high as 40% in major cities due to high population densities with poor sanitation.

Even as recently as 1900, there were US cities with infant mortality rates as high as 30%, though the overall rate was more like 10%.

Most of the decline was recent and rapid: Just within the US since WW2, infant mortality fell from about 5.5% to 0.7%, though there remains a substantial disparity between White and Black people.

Globally, the infant mortality rate fell from 6.3% to 3.2% within my lifetime, and in Africa today, the region where it is worst, it is about 5.5%—or what it was in the US in the 1940s.

This precipitous decline in babies dying is the main reason ancient societies have such low life expectancies; actually once they reached adulthood they lived to be about 70 years old, not much worse than we do today. So my multiplying everything by 71 actually isn’t too far off even for ancient societies.

Let me make a graph for you here, of the approximate rate of babies dying over time from 10,000 BC to today:


Let’s zoom in on the last 250 years, where the data is much more solid:


I think you may notice something in these graphs. There is quite literally a turning point for humanity, a kink in the curve where we suddenly begin a rapid decline from an otherwise constant mortality rate.

That point occurs around or shortly before 1800—that is, it occurs at industrial capitalism. Adam Smith (not to mention Thomas Jefferson) was writing at just about the point in time when humanity made a sudden and unprecedented shift toward saving the lives of millions of babies.

So now, think about that the next time you are tempted to say that capitalism is an evil system that destroys the world; the evidence points to capitalism quite literally saving babies from dying.

How would it do so? Well, there’s that rising per-capita GDP we previously ignored, for one thing. But more important seems to be the way that industrialization and free markets support technological innovation, and in this case especially medical innovation—antibiotics and vaccines. Our higher rates of literacy and better communication, also a result of raised standard of living and improved technology, surely didn’t hurt. I’m not often in agreement with the Cato Institute, but they’re right about this one: Industrial capitalism is the chief source of human progress.

Billions of babies would have died but we saved them. So yes, I’m going to call that progress. Civilization, and in particular industrialization and free markets, have dramatically improved human life over the last few hundred years.

In a future post I’ll address one of the common retorts to this basically indisputable fact: “You’re making excuses for colonialism and imperialism!” No, I’m not. Saying that modern capitalism is a better system (not least because it saves babies) is not at all the same thing as saying that our ancestors were justified in using murder, slavery, and tyranny to force people into it.