We have ideas of having equal, absolute capacities as humans to do the things we set our minds to. We are all supposed to be able to “rise through the ranks” and, through sheer hard work, come out successful in later years. This is an idea at the core of the “American Dream” of the past century, also one that has surfaced much earlier in some forms as part of doctrines of liberalism (being able to pursue our interests in an unfettered manner). I would, however, like to call for an updated world view, as this current one is vastly different. I’d think that the “great writers” of past would write much differently had they been born today (if, at all, write anything). And the key to this, in my opinion, is the exponential growth of our population (there may be other big reasons, but it is this I would like to focus on).
Immediate questions: What would the big names of the age of enlightenment write about today? And, would they have had the same opportunities to be able to now? For starters, I think that a lot of the writings that matter now are those that serve a practical purpose over ones with a more philosophical or political bent. The world, with globalization, has homogenized to a greater extent (ironically, with a greater population), and while differences in beliefs most certainly still exist, save for a few cases, the divides may not be as problematic (on second thought, maybe not by much). With all the knowledge we have now, there is greater pressure to answer questions on diseases and improving the economy. The need is greater for ideas that improve the quality of life, over those that theorize the interactions of people (which are not necessarily unhelpful, mind you). Now, there are ways to solve problems, and then there are better ways. Ultimately, one or few ideas will triumph, and these would have come from one person, or a few people, in turn. Those who find these would then be put on an imagined pedestal, one that becomes reality with enough people in agreement of it.
Here is where population comes in: that one person, in the 1800s, would have stood out among a billion people. Today, that same person would have stood out among seven billion.
What are the implications? For one, with a greater number of people, there is, of course, greater competition. For what? For the limited number of institutions of “greatness”, that have not scaled in number accordingly. These include physical institutions, such as the best schools, or places of human organization, such as the highest seats of government. On a global level, you are competing with 7 more persons now than in a couple hundred years ago. And, all things constant, it is thus much harder to stand out.
As a result, factors out of control hold greater weight relative to sheer individual hard work than before. These include our backgrounds, the environment we are born in, and all other factors that can give one a leg up. It thus comes as no surprise to me that I saw recently in a screenshot of a news show that this generation is a more “pressured” one compared to previous ones. Success is harder to come by, in my opinion, when marginal differences matter more and more as we try to distinguish ourselves. How do you stand out in a sea of seven billion? This, to me, just makes the problem of inequality much harder to solve. Competition might breed some really great solutions for a broad population, as it has many times, but it is seemingly more crushing on an individual level.
Why compete when we can all just learn to be content, however? Learning to be is definitely a great value, one that we who live comfortably ought to learn. In this age of information, however, I think that’s a far harder task than ever before. We have in our screens pictures and all other information on the lives of other people, with great emphasis on those at the top of the food chain. We regularly see posts of great food, great cars, extravagant lifestyles of celebrities (whom we are all, to some extent, fascinated with) and much more. We are more aware in general than people of the past of what can be gotten out of life. The incentive to still make pursuits has been essentially the same, only that we are given reminders of it even more. With every advanced age, is more absolute opportunities for some truly euphoric, fulfilling experiences. But, surely, the number of people who have the access to these has not greatly increased as much as the total world population. Only a few, inevitably, in our current world, can get the very best, even fewer than before relatively.
It is these conditions that I believe thinkers would have to make revisions on their old theories. It may be the time (on top of all other problem solving, of course), for new thinkers to emerge and to write (given the ability of information to now spread), and answer big normative questions. We may continue to read and write about past philosophies and ideologies, but, in my opinion, to still hold any of these as pure prescriptions to problems would be a waste. And, to leave my own personal, probably underdeveloped take on things, I believe that reason against a pure, individualistic approach to life, and the pursuit of self-interests, is taking greater mass. And if, to channel in some possibly pretentious manner what I imagine to be the great intellectual debates of the past, I would like to hear your own take.