A time travel experiment
Let's do an experiment. We're going to borrow a time machine from a passing superintelligent alien or somesuch, kidnap a few ordinary people from various times in the last few thousand years, dump each of them several hundred years later than their own time, and see how they get on. (We're not going to pick anyone historically significant because we don't want to change history, and of course we'd better be careful not to pick any of our own direct ancestors, in case we cause ourselves not to be born!)
If we pick our targets completely randomly from across history, the vast majority are going to be food producers : either peasant farmers or animal herders, or in early and pre-history, hunter/gatherers. When we read history we tend to identify with the aristocracy and the educated middle classes, because they wrote the histories, but in fact most of the people who have ever lived had little time for anything but food production and basic survival. Almost all of them will be illiterate, and have a life expectancy of less than forty. From the Middle Ages and from big, well-organised early civilisations like the Romans or the Egyptians we will also get a number of specialists : craftsmen, soldiers, sailors and so on, though in fact many of the soldiers will probably have day-jobs as peasant farmers. We won't move anyone to today for the time being, for reasons that will become apparent.
The food producers should mostly do just fine in their new eras. Early hunter/gatherers might find that spear or bow and arrow design has improved a bit, but life won't be that different and they should pretty much fit right in, and the same applies to herders and farmers. Even if we move them so far forward that they have to learn a new language, they should be able to find familiar work without much difficulty. You could probably move any of them a thousand or more years forward, and life wouldn't look much different.
Most of the specialists will be alright too. Take a sailor from the Roman Empire for example. Even if you move him a thousand years forward, ship design hasn't changed so much that his skills are obsolete. He will find that galleys have been pretty much entirely replaced by vast sailing ships, but although ship design has improved, the principles of sailing haven't changed significantly, and his ability to haul and knot ropes and climb up masts will still be just as useful. Most craftsmen will do just fine too : a blacksmith from the Roman Empire or even ancient Egypt moved to the Middle Ages will need to pick up a few new tricks, but it still basically amounts to carefully heating up metal and hitting it with a big hammer. The same principle applies to carpenters, leather workers, cobblers, garment makers, even record-keepers such as clerks. They should be able to earn a living doing much what they were doing before, and society won't be so different that they can't fit in.
Until you come to modern times, and suddenly it all changes. Pick someone up - anyone - from even just two or three hundred years ago and move him to now, and he'd be utterly lost. Our world wouldn't even make sense. Great silver birds that never flap their wings roaring through the sky every minute. Endless numbers of horseless carriages tearing around at breakneck speeds, on perfect roads apparently made of pourable stone. Powerful lights with no flame and no heat that come on at the flick of a switch, everywhere, in every building and even outdoors. Pretty much everyone has a magic box that brings moving pictures and sound from anywhere in the world in the blink of an eye, and a smaller one that lets them talk to anyone, anywhere in the world, at a whim. Every house has heaters that produce no smoke, hot and cold clean running water that's guaranteed safe to drink, a deluxe private bathroom, and a kitchen with magic cookers and another magic box, inside which it is always winter, where they store exotic foods. Everyone wears fabulous clothes of a quality that would take a master weaver months to make if he could do it at all, with superb dies and strange, unknown fabrics - even the destitute, though it's doubtful our traveller from the past would consider anyone from our era poor. He would probably conclude that we are all dangerously powerful sorcerors, and be absolutely terrified. Even if you could calm him down and explain that it's all just advanced technology, no magic involved, it would still be magic to him. As Arthur C Clarke pointed out, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Whatever his skills, our traveller would have no chance of getting a job in our world. Most handicrafts are completely obsolete, replaced by giant automated manufacturing plants, and those crafts that remain require literacy, and usually sophisticated power tools. Few people work in agriculture, and almost all of it is heavily mechanised. There is little call for unskilled labour anywhere. Soldiers' and sailors' equipment has changed beyond all recognition. And there is hardly anywhere left that a hunter/gatherer could do his thing without being driven off or arrested by people with outrageously powerful magic weapons.
Even if our traveller was very resilient and managed to get his head round all that, our social system is completely different to his : there has been nothing like it in all of history. For the first time ever, women are legally and practically equal to men (most places), and often have jobs. They have full control of their fertility, and usually have no more than two or three children, startlingly late in life, and they almost never die in childbirth. Their husbands are not allowed to beat them. Almost all the children survive to adulthood. There are hardly any executions, you don't get to watch the few there are, and no-one gets flogged (though there certainly seems to be plenty of violence and mayhem on the magic picture box). Slavery, a standard practise in most places and times, is strictly forbidden. Servants are rare. Wounds and sicknesses that would be mortal anywhen else are routinely healed. Pretty much everyone is educated to a far higher standard than even the aristocracy of any other era, and most live to be seventy or more.
Our society is literally unique. There has never been anything like it before, and it is still evolving at a fantastic speed. There are more and more unbelievably powerful technologies becoming available with every passing year. Some writers question whether we will even be recognisably human in a century or so, as we learn to modify our own genes and splice computers into our brains. If we are lucky enough to continue to avoid any really major natural catastrophes for the next couple of hundred years (such as a giant metor strike, an erupting supervolcano or a worldwide superplague), we will probably be powerful enough to survive anything. If the runaway changes we seem to have inadvertently made to our climate and environment haven't already sealed our fate.
Copyright © Jon Storm 2005