David Berreby:

Now, I have to admit that fantasy is probably truer to the actual sweep of human history. We know many cultures view of history as an endlessly repeating cycle. This view is more common than the modern secular notion that history has progress and a meaningful direction. And we also know from the archaeological record that most assemblages of human beings have been remarkably culturally static. Ancient Meso-Americans had the wheel, but used it as a toy. The ancient Greeks had a steam engine, but also only as an ornamental curiosity. For all their roads and bathhouses and architecture, the Romans never thought to invent the stirrup. In the 18th century, the industrial revolution took hold only in one tiny corner of a populous planet.

The belief that technological improvement is inevitable or constant is a myth. The fact that it happened at all may well be a lucky accident. It seems to me likely that most of the human race has lived its real, non-fantasy life in a Game of Thrones world—where knowledge was static and scarce, and change unknown. And that’s the saddest thought of all. When I have to pick my genre, I’ll take a dream world of starships over that any day of the week.

That’s interesting, because I am firmly in the fantasy camp myself. Never been into science fiction. I prefer sending my imagination backward to pseudo-medieval times. Yet, of course, that doesn’t translate in my lived life to a yearning for rural, small-town existence or anything like that. I wouldn’t choose to live anywhere, anytime else (I’d just like to take some time-travelling vacations, if that’s all right).

But in saying that, don’t I simply mean that I wouldn’t want to have to make a sudden transition to the living conditions of another time and place? That is, assuming for the sake of this thought experiment that it makes sense to imagine “me” somehow living in Jazz Age America or T’ang Dynasty China or some D&D-style medieval Europe, isn’t the problem the fact that I can only do so by bringing along a bunch of luggage containing my experience and understanding as a 21st-century American? Not to put too banal a point on it, but I can never truly know what it was like to actually live back then and truly inhabit the moment. I can only imagine what it would be like to be there as my homesick self.

And so, then, does it make any sense to project our own conception of purposeless stagnation back onto pre-industrial societies, as if they lived with a conscious awareness of how tedious their lives would look in comparison to ours? Did they sit around unhappily bemoaning their lack of technological invention and supporting infrastructure, or did they just live their lives, loving and hating within their given parameters? Does the average American sit around in a library today joyfully enthusing about the wonders of science and progressive knowledge, or do we complain about our shitty cellphone reception and seek out porn and reality TV to pass the time? Human nature only changes very slowly, if at all. Perhaps the biggest difference between us and people of bygone ages is the way we’ve become addicted to novelty and customized individual choice.

My own attitude toward all this is one of jaded-but-indulgent acceptance; I’m one of Montaigne’s spectators of life. I try to be consciously grateful for the amazing things unique to my day and age, but I also recognize that the mystics are right when they say wherever we go, there we are.