Monday, August 22, 2011

The Pitfalls of Rosy Retrospection

Among the few perks of working in films is that you occasionally get to see a handful of them for free, albeit in your office and not at a movie theater with popcorn and soda.  Recently, I got to watch Woody Allen's latest little doozy titled "Midnight in Paris."  Though the film is indeed set in Paris, and the key events are tied to the daily stroke of midnight, that's about the only extent to which the title really tells you anything about the story.  Besides the lovely jabs at Tea Party Republicans, there is a much more fundamental point being made and it is addressing a fallacy that definitely applies pretty well across the political spectrum.  It is one that I deal with a lot because it is also well-underlined in a lot of religious dogma as well.  It's the fantasy that there existed any sort of golden age in the past.

In the movie itself, there exists in the protagonist's mind, a fantasy about the 1920s as a golden age of literature, art, and cultural development.  It only becomes apparent later on in the film the extent to which it was a fantasy.  Although it is easy to point fingers at conservatives who feign to miss the "good ol' days", we all have a tendency to look back at things in a different light in retrospection.

Indeed, there were times past which were comparatively more fertile in some particular way for some particular thing, but that is not the same as saying that those were better times.  But when you look at the past through rose-colored glasses, you aren't going to see every color in the scene...  there never were any good ol' days.

Typical rosy retrospection, as depicted by SMBC
Actually if you were really to try and depict Tea Party Republicans, then any and all change would not just be characterized as social decay, but also as socialism, Islamic terrorism, "gay agenda", and/or Satanic.  Nonetheless, the comic above makes the point rather succinctly -- there are a variety of things we have today which could not be dreamt of decades ago.  And while there is little doubt that there are specific things which are demonstrably worse today than some time ago, there is just too much for which cannot be said.

In my previous post on "TV Astrophysics", I alluded to the late 1970s and early '80s as a time which was very fertile in revolutionary changes in computer graphics.  Comparatively, current-day innovations are very incremental, and many of them tend to solve problems which aren't all that generic.  So it might seem as if this was a golden age for graphics, what with the Blinn-Phong model outlined in 1977, the Cook-Torrance model from 1981, Kajiya's watershed Rendering Equation paper from 1986, and Ed Catmull's REYES paper from 1987.  All of these being concepts and technologies which are still relevant to this day.  But with that said, that doesn't mean we're on an even keel.  No one can look at the Tron sequel and consider it graphically equivalent to its predecessor.  Saying that the '80s were a fertile time is really indicative of the fact that there was very little development to speak of prior to that point in time.  Everything was new back then.  Even something which we would today consider utterly basic was revolutionary back then.  So even if we are making evolutionary steps today rather than revolutionary leaps, it is because we are already so far ahead to begin with.  Similarly, the lack of revolutionary changes only indicates that we've already solved all the *big problems*, and the devil is in those details we worry about nowadays.  We are currently working at a much higher level of progress than we were before.  When I worked on Tomb Raider : Underworld, we ultimately ended up with a Lara Croft object which had greater geometric complexity than the T-Rex model in the original Jurassic Park, and Lara had only a few milliseconds available to be rendered.  How is that not an indication that we're much farther along today than we were back then?

Those who are disillusioned with the state of politics in general, whether they lean right or left tend to do this as well.  People will look back on the way things were some decades back and compare to today...  but if you're already in such a state as to dislike the state of politics today, you're of course going to see the current day in a harsh light and that makes the past look so wonderful.  It's a sad illusion that can only be achieved by wearing the blinders of your own philosophy.

Conservatives like to look back about 5 or 6 decades and think about God and country and how everything looked like episodes of Leave it to Beaver where there was no crime worse than stealing a penny-candy.  Ah, what fantasies retrospection must weave.  There was never such a lifestyle...  and the 1950s were not some sort of baby-boom paradise.  In reality, the only way one could possibly have a decent life in those days was to have tremendous wealth, white skin, and a penis.  Otherwise, your life basically sucked.  If you actually look at raw data, any image you have of things like crime, sex, and drugs all being worse today...  well, those conceptions are dead wrong.  All the statistics show that those figures are significantly lower than in the past.  Oh, but the fear and perception of crime is much worse today, isn't it?  That's not a meaningful metric at all!  The fear of zombies could be rising, but I can assure you the incidences of zombie attacks has been pretty steady at zero.

Maybe we should be thankful for the Twilight series, since it probably brought about a decline in the fear of vampires and werewolves.

On the other side, you have the people who lean left and get so disappointed by the behaviors of politicians that they imagine a time when there was less in-fighting and more concern for the state of the nation.  There was no such time.  Maybe you could make an argument for such a period existing when the country was in its growing pains, because there is just too much to do in too little time, and people knew that.  However, a country in its formative years is not, by any measure, a "better" time.  It's a time when all things are intrinsically more unstable.  Much like the previous example of the "golden age" of graphics, it's because the foundations were still being laid, and the country was significantly smaller that there was a lot going on that was actually productive.  We are levels beyond that, and the legacy of a lot of ballast has weighed down on us, but there is little reason to believe that people were less argumentative in days past, other than the fact that the government offices now contain a larger number of staff than it did back then, but that makes sense given that the country itself is many times larger now.  What is true, however, is that the prevalence of media and the Internet means that we are more thoroughly informed about it, and that is not a bad thing.

Well, okay...  politicians see it as a bad thing, since the more you know, the more you can clearly see their intransigent idiocy for what it really is.  Okay, so we see it now.  Would it have been better if things were going on behind closed doors and we didn't know how inexcusably stupid and evil all politics inherently is?

I mentioned also that this is also a common vein in religion as well, but in religion, they take it to its extreme extrapolation to imply that not only were things better before, but that if you go back far enough, there was a point where the "goodness" reached a theoretical maximum.  Judeo-Christian mythology makes this flatly obvious in its imagery of the Garden of Eden and the idea that there is no such thing and pain, suffering, and death in this universe, and that we are now miles away from that.  Zoroastrian mythology has its notion that in the war against Angra Mainyu, the evil force is gradually winning, and there was a time before Angra Mainyu even existed.  Hindu mythology has this notion that we have now entered a corrupt era called the "Kali-yuga", and prior to that, in the time period in which the Ramayana is set, everyone in power exemplified paragons of virtue and goodness.  Yeah, sure they did.

The fantasy here is nothing more than an illusion created out of our tendency to localize our perspective.  It's a small-picture analysis.  Everything you love or hate about X or Y is based not on its overall value, but in terms of how it affects you.  You think things were better 60 years ago?  Tell that to every kid back then who was crippled by polio.  Or tell it to pretty much any black person who lived to see it, and see how fondly they remember those times.  There is more to reality than the insignificant microcosm you occupy, and trying to filter the realities of the world around you according to how it intersects with your own little bubble is doomed to give you a faulty perspective.  It doesn't really matter if your perspective tells you that everything sucks today or that everything is infinitely better -- it also matters in what way you see it as having either improved or degenerated.  When you take a big picture perspective, at least you have a better chance of making an analysis which is actually based on truth.

That is...  assuming you actually care whether or not what you think is actually true.