My March 28 talk at MIT

What happens when a simulated system becomes more real than the system itself?  Will the internet become “more real” than the world of ideas it is mirroring? Do we academics live in a simulacra?  If the “alt right” exists mainly on the internet, does that make it more or less powerful?  Do all innovations improve system quality, and if so why is a lot of food worse than before and home design was better in 1910-1930?  How does the world of ideas fit into this picture?

Here are details on the lunch seminar.

Comments

The website says that some of these seminars are recorded. Do you know if yours will be and if the recording (or even better, a transcript) will be made available?

The lunch menu is downloaded over the Internet. I'll download the turkey club sandwich.

What *will* MIT think of next?

Whew, TC is brave. He's going into a place (MIT) where this sort of thing is extensively debated, so his audience will have strong opinions I'm sure. But, with TC's fame, he will intimidate his audience, who will try and punk him but fail.

Nah MIT are smart enough to realise he will say a lot of words but also say nothing at all, so no point debating

What does it say about you that you spend a lot of time frequenting a blog that you believe doesn't have meaningful content?

That meaningful and entertaining are two different concepts?

Not to speak for Anon, of course.

prior is dead on here. Note how his contributions improve with brevity and focus.

"Note how his contributions improve with brevity and focus."

+1

Fantastic - a complete toss off, with virtually no information content, is considered a meaningful comment at MR.

Yep, about par for the course in this brave new world, that has such snark in it.

Don't be so hard on yourself, prior. You're not a COMPLETE toss off.

"If I'd had more time, I would have written a much, much, much, much longer letter."

--prior_approval

Well, at least it isn't a Conversation. Though maybe in the future, such things could be referred to as 'Tyler Talks.'

Isn’t this the key to solving Fermi paradox? Once we can make simulations more real than real, humans will go ‘inside’ simulations rather than out into space?

It's my favorite of the proposed theories.

Well it's certainly a lot less grim than they hypothesis that all the surviving civilizations have learned to be quiet.

And while you and TC are living inside the machine, I'll be doing your wives. Thanks!

" home design was better in 1910-1930?" That question arises when you compare a house of the top 0.001% of the 1920s with the median house today.

Yeah, I thought that was a very poor point.

The median home today is certainly much, much better than the median home 100 years ago.

Perhaps it is a statement about taste (the perceived sins of suburbia, mcmansions, etc.). But that is subjective, and current design is what it is because that's what most people want, so it's only a decline in "quality" from a very particular perspective.

I feel the same about "why is a lot of food worse than before". Not sure what Tyler is referring to with that. Food quality (both at supermarkets and restaurants) has improved noticeably in the last 20 years.

Not only that but in the past Tyler has specifically argued that the life of the average person has improved since the 70s because the food in grocery stores and dining options are much better.

Yeah... I'm waiting to see the evidence that Tyler brings to show food and home design (which is generally dependent on the function, no?) are worse. He seems to eat pretty well. I bet he couldn't get good cold noodles back in the 90s. Is he basing it off of the flavor of tomatoes you find in the grocery store? If so, you can just go to one of the now ubiquitous farmers' markets.

I wonder if the core audience for TC's blog (w/AT occasionally) is people who feel/assume they are able to intuit his context? Homes were better built in 1920? OK, let's define our terms (oh, how many times have I pointed that lack out here?). First, what proportion of the US population lived in single family structures? (Which I guess is what he means by "homes"). I am reminded of Little House on the Prairie; sod huts and the livestock living in the back room. Second, is TC concerned with the quality of the structure, or the quality of living? Similarly with food, lets compare nutrition and malnutrition in 1920 with today. Or is this about taste and artistry of presentation for your McDonald's fries?

Yup. Some combination of misplaced nostalgia for a time before he was born and snobbery. Bad take, Tyler.

Bauhaus design was explicitly targeting low-income households through mass production.

Not sure I would agree. Compare the top 1% to the top 1% for each time period, I think Gilded Age mansions compare pretty well to those of today.

The food comment was the odd one. It's worse than before? Before what? When? Food is better than ever, as far as I can tell.

Be sure you are comparing 1% to 1% in each case. Mrs. Astor's 400 constituted a lot less than 1% of the NYC population. I believe that the very, very rich in NYC today (e.g., Jamie Dimon, John Paulson) generally live in gilded age mansions, so there has been no change there at all.

The bottom 25% of the population in 1910 lived in shacks that would be the equivalent of outbuildings today.

Since the average GDP per capita in 2003 dollars was around $6,000, that seems likely but do you have a link?

No, just a family history of carpentry going back 3 generations. I was family help on building / remodeling houses throughout my teenage years. If you told my 90 year old grandfather that houses built in 1930 were better than houses built today, he'd call you a "Damn fool".

He'd be the first to tell you to salvage the hardwood when you tore it down though.

Oh hell no. Gilded Age mansions are mostly superficial, unlivable showpieces. Garish museum wanna-bees. A current top 1% house, with its unsightly exterior, multiple garages across the front, walk in closets, palatial open plan kitchen, and over the top home theatre is far, far more livable and conducive to privacy, and much, much less interested in impressing others.

Even if you're right, what good is owning a mansion if it doesn't impress people?

Yeah, their wi-fi was state of the art, and they definitely had heated pools...right? And the lighting was also state of the art. Oh, and the heating - no question that forced air of today is a weak reflection of oil fired boilers and steam heat. (I so miss the radiators hissing and knocking...although I suppose the humidity WAS good for my complexion...) Of course, I'm sure none of these things is what TC is considering. I've lived in some old houses. The floor layouts can be atrocious, the window placement insipid, the heating (no cooling back then folks) awful. And as far as lighting and ventilation...LOL! My current home is over 70 years old and I could rant about the electrical. As far as those who want to compare the 1% then and now: why? How do we compare the "value" of a live-in cook and pantry (and ice box, possibly) of 1920 with a fridge, freezer and microwave oven of 2010? And then there's fresh vs canned/packaged... Silly, silly, silly.

"” home design was better in 1910-1930?” "

I'm interested in that also. Perhaps it's just a "design" issue and Tyler subjectively prefers homes from that period. But by most objective standards, size, quality, energy efficiency, closet space, bathroom size, electrical safety and convenience, indoor plumbing, etc, homes are better today.

There's probably an argument that homes were more affordable during that period, but the majority of them were shacks that would never pass home permitting today. I suspect that if Tyler were forced to provide examples, most of the examples would be in the 75th percentile from the period and he's comparing with the 25th percentile today.

A couple of areas where earlier homes are distinctly better in my mind was the use of hard woods and hand craftsmanship. Hard woods were relatively abundant in a North America with 1/3rd the population. And labor was cheaper than it is today.

According to this, a general laborer made roughly $4.5 per hour and a carpenter made roughly $14 per hour (in 2018 $'s)around 1908. That would be around half the current rates.

https://fraser.stlouisfed.org/scribd/?toc_id=498379&filepath=/files/docs/publications/bls/bls_v09_0053_1904.pdf&start_page=26

80-100 year-old homes I'm familiar have small rooms, small closets, weird wasted space, few windows, and 1-2 bathrooms tops.

Yep, this is what all that Arts & Design school critiques of McMansions don't get. They are focused entirely on superficial curb appeal. Your average HGTV viewer contemplating putting down pre-fab manufactured wood flooring has orders of magnitude more common sense.

Excessively narrow hallways and stairs, also.

My first home turned 100 when we were living in it. 3 bed, 1.5 bath, 1400 sq ft on a 50x200 ft lot. I still own it and rent it out. It was a good house. The coal chute had been bricked up a long time ago and I had to remove gas lines in the ceiling while renovating the kitchen. They were there for lighting. Wood shake roof had been replaced by asphalt shingles a long time ago. There are many of these houses that are 100 yrs old, still in very good condition that were in the 50 percentile of all houses back then.

Mine is 74 yrs old. The construction is wood. The 2" by 4s ARE 2.0" x 4.0" (and that's after 74 yrs!) The construction is very good. I wonder how many tract home outside Chicago (say) built last year will be around in 3/4 of a century? I've always had a "build it to last" philosophical outlook. For my cars, my homes, my stuff, but I have no idea if we actually built stuff to last as long as economically rational whether we'd have nearly as much "stuff" as the modern 'throw-away' society gives us. Creative destruction has some good points. My guess is that we'd not have had the Industrial Revolution if quality rather than quantity was the principle driving force.

TMC, Li,
Those sound like very nice little homes. But, how are they /better/ than what is being made today? My guess is, they aren't. Excepting, of course, that today it is probably illegal to build those houses as cheap as you could back then. That is regression of a sort, I suppose.

"The 2″ by 4s ARE 2.0″ x 4.0″ (and that’s after 74 yrs!) "

I'm curious why you would think that would change? 2" x 4"s were only changed to be 1.5" x 3.5" after the advent of modern dry wall. The half inch smaller size allows you to add drywall and still have a 4" wall. Furthermore, the addition of dry wall adds structural rigidity and fire proofing. It's not as if kiln-dried 2" x 4"s shrink significantly over time.

I don't think better than modern. I built my new house 9 years ago and love new tech in laminated beams, ect. I was just countering the point that remaining 100 yr old homes were in the top percent of those built 100 yrs ago. The 50th percentile of homes built 100 yrs ago are still decent homes today. New wiring and insulation are the main needs. I do like the woodwork from back then though. That would cost a big buck today.

I live across the street from a neighborhood of houses that were mostly built ... probably around 1910-1930. I very much like walking in that neighborhood and looking at those old houses, they're much more interesting to look at than my multi-story apartment building that was built probably in the 1980s or 1990s.

But I wouldn't want to actually live in one of those houses, for the reasons that people have already mentioned in these comments.

But maybe that's what Tyler had in mind, about superior design?

Or maybe he meant that given the technology available, design was better then than now?

Not sure, but I do know that when it comes to attractive neighborhoods, I'll walk through the 1910-1930 one. When it comes to picking a building to live in, I'll usually prefer one that was built more recently, to the extent that we can do a ceteris parabis comparison.

Possibly the ideal would be an old house that's been extensively renovated with modern amenities.

It is an interesting line-up of speakers. I wonder if we will still get Cory Doctorow's future, or if Andrew Lo will build something different. Maybe that is the same question Tyler is asking, real or virtual, centralized or distributed.

Looks like a bunch of weak premises.

> What happens when a simulated system becomes more real than the system itself?

That seems impossible by definition.

> Will the internet become “more real” than the world of ideas it is mirroring?

How is the internet not real? It isn't mirroring the world of ideas, it is communicating ideas, making their world accessible.

> Do we academics live in a simulacra?

Do you mean the ivory tower?

> If the “alt right” exists mainly on the internet, does that make it more or less powerful?

What makes you think the Nazis have abandoned the streets? Quite the contrary: Charlottesville would not have been possible without the internet.

> Do all innovations improve system quality, and if so why is a lot of food worse than before and home design was better in 1910-1930?

Vastly more people have access to good food today than in the past. Bauhaus design is pervasive and heavily influences current design in every price range. Where do you see a deterioration?

> How does the world of ideas fit into this picture?

What does this question even mean?

"What does this question even mean?"

yeah, the questions for this seminar are so ill defined that the seminar is guaranteed to produce only chatter. (But the seminar primary purpose has nothing to do with seriously answering such questions)

One must proffer a basic definition of "reality" before assessing what is real or unreal.

That first step seems completely ignored here. Scientists and economists are the wrong people to address this issue.

The basic question of reality instantly departs the narrow disciplines of science and enters the realm of philosophy, ontology, and epistemology.

Well, American food is bad but that's a cultural issue: Americans LIKE bad food, not an economic issue. I am not sure American food was better in the past though, at least today an American can easily get some good Chinese and Japanese food for reasonable prices, something that would be almost impossible 100 years ago.

It's certainly not true that in most countries food quality has not improved as well.

What does one do when reality collides with one's ideology? Escape the ideology? Or escape the reality? One will recall the many blog posts on the virtues of places like Houston, with little or no zoning or other regulations relating to housing, and how the absence of regulations resulted in more, and more moderately priced, housing, a growing population, and prosperity. Then came the flood and reality. Now, we don't read much about the virtues of places like Houston. Escape the ideology or escape the reality? https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/23/us/flooding-canyon-gate-hurricane-harvey.html [The point of this comment isn't to single out any particular ideology but to emphasize how ideology can inhibit reason and blind one to reality. In his column today, David Brooks points out how increased identity with a particular group has inhibited reason and objectivity. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/22/opinion/speaking-as-a-white-male.html The internet and virtual reality facilitates and promotes group identity, inhibits reason, and obscures reality. Thomas Jefferson is credited with having once declared, "when two or more physicians gather, buzzards can't be far". Replace "physicians" with "ideologues".]

Insightful post and very interesting Brooks article. Thanks!

It was pretty good. And I will stick with the introspection and common humanity of my age, location, cohort.

Excess tribalism is a bug.

He said without a hint of self-awareness.

I wondered if anyone would fail to connect the dots.

If I believe in reason and common humanity, certainly I would choose as arch-enemy a President who believes in neither.

( I am fine for instance with both the Pope and the Dalai Lama.)

Still not a hint of self-awareness. Anonymous you are one of the most tribalistic posters on this board. The comment you just made was tribalistic. Yes, I know you don't think you are. But that's the inherent issue. You don't seem to have a good grasp of how you present yourself to others and how you react.

And for once in your life, resist the urge to get the last comment in and just think about this comment for 24 hours before you reply. A little self reflection will do you a world of good. Your obviously smart. Use your intelligence for something better than banal attempts to score rhetorical points.

You might really need to introspect on the difference, because many of you do make a really critical error. You think to be against Trump must be to be for .. what exactly?

I'm not in love with Bernie or Hillary.

I named the Pope and the Dalai Lama as my heroes. What tribe are they?

Tribal, to me, means that the membranes that hold together groups are relatively impermeable and rigid, a morbid expression of a normal phenomenon.

One can be far from equilibrium, self-selecting with similars into a larger unit for community, without being tribal.

Examining the membranes that surround both groups, I'll suggest that wearing a 'pussy hat' is more tribal than voting for Trump. Talk to someone in one of those hats about anything outside current 'progressive' orthodoxy and watch the Intruder!!! Danger!!! Alarm in their head manifest in changes in facial muscle strain. It's like skipping rocks across a pond: no point in it, just a call and response exercise with nature. Such a simple game is not playable with your average Trump voter.

The lack of self awareness is definitely Anonymous, but the rest sounds like Theigo.

TMC, can you approach it this way?

Is "criticism of X is always tribal" true for any value of X?

Or in fact is "your criticism is tribal" the most empty and null value response to any specific criticism?

Sheesh. You know how there’s oversharing? Well you are constantly “overpartisaning.”

This is just fun. Should we consider Trump as a kind of Anti-Pope?

There he is out there convincing "Christians" that pay-offs to porn stars are good.

The entire Obama presidency was a simulacrum. How could such an obscure, lazy, untalented, and unaccomplished person like Barry Sotero become president so quickly? He had to be made into a cult persona. It's depressing that America's view of and expectations for Black men are so damaged that one who can articulately deliver speeches is considered remarkable.

Almost nothing about the Obama mythos is real.

When tribal madness becomes indistinguishable from parody.

It requires no appeal to tribal affiliation to recognize that a one term senator with almost no job experience was unfit to be President, and that his profound lack of first hand knowledge and experience makes it highly unlikely he deserved credit for any policies.

He's probably the least qualified person who was ever president. If not the least, damned close to it.

You seem like a smart person. But this is an example of why tribalism is so pernicious. It makes smart people publicly (if anonymously) embarrass themselves as if they had no idea who became president in 2016.

Bush, by invading Iraq, proved he was the worst US president in the last 40 years or so. So far, despite his clownish style, ignorant trade policies and lack of diplomatic skills, Trump has not topped him yet. Obama was just an average US president and he didn't "do" anything: he just allowed the system to run normally while his "cool" diplomatic style was effective by making him appear charismatic. Although I think that Trump might be better than Obama is he manages to conclude a deal with NK and not get into any war over his (probable) 8 years of presidency while managing relations with China and Russia.

So, nothing bad happened at all from 2009-2017 because the US had zero government, just pure free market anarchy, Which means the libertarian ideal!

Now Trump is screwing everything up by trying to centrally plan and control the entire economy and everyday life by sending jack boot government thugs into every business and home.

>If the “alt right” exists mainly on the internet

No, it exists mostly in the minds of people like you.

"Do we academics live in a simulacra?" 'A' simulacra? Dear God almighty.

I also cringed.

Actually, these were all good questions. The question I would ask is: If, in the past, you lived in a bubble, your world was small because you could not connect with many like you, or could not attract some who are not. Today, the bubble is bigger with the internet, but is still a bubble if you search for only that which you agree with or only talk with those who share your views.

Very good point. The echo chamber is louder.

By lowering the costs of finding like minded people and diminishing the power of information monopolists, one can stay steeped in tribal rituals.

Yes, and what is most disturbing is that the research on this shows that the most radical members of the group are those with the fewest friends outside of the group. In other words, a lonely person who attaches to the online group becomes the most devoted member because that is the only source of friends.

For example, a researcher seeded an online music community with premium memberships to see if the friend of the new seeded members became members themselves upon seeing the membership change by their friends. They did, but the most likely person to join as a premium member was the person with the fewest friends, other than the person who received the premium membership. If you extrapolate this to fringe movements, then you also get the picture of the loner who becomes so committed that he commits a violent act in the name of the ideology and why loneliness and limited sets of real friends in the real world outside of online communities can lead to problems. So, if you want to explain the rise of alt-right (let's be honest and call them white nationalists) you can look at the ease of creating online communities of sparse nodes in a network.

"What happens when a simulated system becomes more real than the system itself? Will the internet become 'more real' than the world of ideas it is mirroring?"

The cliche is, "perception is reality." Of course it's not, yet for some purposes it may as well be. We still react to the shadows in Plato's Cave (although lately we've got some marvelous new machinery for generating amusing those Shadows.

"Do we academics live in a simulacra?" Oh oh, here comes The Matrix (and how do you know you're not already in it)?

"If the 'alt right' exists mainly on the internet, does that make it more or less powerful?" The 'alt right' is today's bogeyman, the moral equivalent of McCarthy's communists. Except there were far more communists then than there are alt-rightists now, and the communists had the support of a powerful state. Yet the threat of McCarthyism proved greater than the threat posed by these communists. Might something similar is true today?

"Do all innovations improve system quality, and if so why is a lot of food worse than before?" Food is plentiful, cheap and almost always safe to eat. Perhaps in some ways it's not as good, but overall it seems a whole lot better.

"and home design was better in 1910-1930?" Esthetically it was in some ways, although part of this is availability bias in that the worst examples of 1910-1930s housing vanished long ago. Is it necessary to point out that a many of these homes lacked running water (and electricity in rural areas) and that they were, at best, cold and drafty in winter and nasty hot in summer? Does "home design" include the SRO "cage hotels" for the down-and-out that were once common in all American cities?

"How does the world of ideas fit into this picture?" How indeed.

I agree with most of what you say except the relative harm of McCarthy and the communists.

Communists had deeply infiltrated our government, including Harry Dexter White and Alger Hiss but not limited to them. Hollywood was (and is) the propaganda arm of the left.

The "harm" of McCarthy consisted mainly of a handful of personal reputations and careers damaged. Certainly this is devastating to those individuals but hardly a national tragedy. Meanwhile, the effect of communist agents on our national security is inestimable. The Rosenbergs stealing nuclear and aviation secrets likely led to the deaths of tens of thousands of people at the margin.

If anything, McCarthy underestimated communist influence in the US and our government.

If my cook doesn't arrange my cooked carrots just so, then obviously I'll fire her ass. I'll have no deterioration in MY quality of life, thank you very much. We can agree, I assume, that food you have to prepare yourself OR which isn't made with freshly gathered/butchered ingredients are an enormous deterioration in "quality", can't we? Ah! Wood fired stoves! Nothing better!

I have discovered that a house can be designed from the inside, to function for its occupants, rather than from the outside to be seen as an artifact. Too much adherence to this can result in an artifact that is unappealing, or unsettling, or even straight-up annoying to view. But as you are all aware, most houses conventionally conceived are likewise annoying.
Lots of lines, drawn on paper, extra roofs and corners to reassure the marketplace that this one is just as good as all the others, just....the same...

The website says that some of these seminars are recorded. Do you know if yours will be and if the recording (or even better, a transcript) will be made available?

Well, at least it isn’t a Conversation. Though maybe in the future

"What happens when a simulated system becomes more real than the system itself? Will the internet become “more real” than the world of ideas it is mirroring?"

If the first sentence also refers to the internet, then it's just wrong. The internet doesn't 'simulate' anything. It's as real as any other communication medium, and it is different in critical ways from everything else.

If we're talking just in general, you will never have a simulated system that is 'more real' than the system itself. If instead what is meant is that people will live more of their lives on the internet instead of the 'real world' and you wish to discuss the ramifications of that, it' s a totally different question, with answers that are unknowable to us today. But "we can't predict the future' is not a phrase that wins over conference attendees.

"Do we academics live in a simulacra?"

Apparently, since no one else would use the word 'simulacra' in this way.

If the word is being used in the sense of, "A poor substitute for reality", I would have to say yes. If it's just meant to mean "part of a larger simulacrum", then I'm not sure what it's supposed to mean.

I suspect the correct word here is 'bubble', which is not only a word that people understand and therefore enables better communication of ideas, but which is also more accurate in that people have a clear understanding of what living in a 'bubble' means, while 'simulacra' can lead to many interpretations. But then, when your average academic is forced between choosing a simple yet very accurate word or a multi-syllabic, arcane word that is not as clear but which evokes intelligence, we know which way they lean. Just saying. Or maybe I've had to read too many academic papers lately.

"If the “alt right” exists mainly on the internet, does that make it more or less powerful?"

If the 'alt-right' consists of humans, they can't exist 'mainly on the internet'. If you're suggesting that the majority of their organisation and communication happens on the internet, how is that different than any other political group? However, complex systems are defined more by the number of connections between actors than by the number of actors themselves. So in this sense, any group or movement organizing on the internet is going to grow in complexity and therefore is more likely to do surprising things and maybe even gain extra power as a system than the sum of its parts would indicate. But this isn't anything unique to the 'alt-right'. In fact, I'd say our current situation of revolving moral panics, mostly associated with the left, is the result of the rapid increase in connections between everyone enabled by the internet, creating complex cultural systems we do not understand and cannot control or predict.

The difference in physical representation between the 'alt-right' and the activist left is that the left takes protesting and marching to heart, and is made up of a lot of young people and others who can spare the time to march. Thus organizing and marching is part of their culture, which makes them very visible in the 'real world'. The alt-right people tend to be blue-collar working class types, and they've never been much for marching and protesting. For one thing, they have jobs with bosses who won't be understanding if they miss a deadline because they just had to go off and march for Peace or Equality for Chickens or whatever. On the other hand, if a dozen gender studies grads walk out of the HR department to march, productivity in the firm will probably go up. So there's that.

"Do all innovations improve system quality, and if so why is a lot of food worse than before and home design was better in 1910-1930? How does the world of ideas fit into this picture?"

Okay this question answers the first one, because I believe anyone not living in an academic simulacra probably did a big spit-take at the idea that housing design and food quality were on balance better 100 years ago.

But snarkiness aside, let's start with innovation: No, not all innovations improve system quality, in the same way that not all genetic mutations improve the health of the species. A society is an evolutionary structure that is innovating all the time, both for good and bad. But like all evolutionary mechanisms, we reject the bad change and keep the good, and that's how we advance. So the Segway never changed cities as promised, three wheeled cars never took off because they tend to tip over, and we no longer fly supersonic airliners because that turned out to be really expensive and couldn't be managed without government subsidy. But iPhones stuck around.

As for housing... This might actually be a good example of living in a bubble. Because if your daily experience observing housing is to drive around the rich old areas of Boston or other Ivy-League locations, those old mansions can look pretty spectacular beside the latest modern houses. So maybe that's why this question exists?

The reality for other people is that 100 year old houses tend to be cold, drafty, tiny things that are hard to maintain and which have substandard mechanical and electrical systems. I grew up in a house in Saskatchewan that was built in 1900. We didn't have running water or a heating system. The electrical wiring was exposed on insulators running on the wall, because it's not easy to run wiring inside a wall with plaster/lathe construction. This was the norm for old houses back then. As for 'design', again other than rich people building mansions there wasn't a lot of room for design. Most common houses of the time had simple gable roofs, front doors with no windows, small windows with no decorative trim, etc. In the South, houses were often brick and had high ceilings, but this was for function - brick is impervious to vermin (and we had much worse vermin control back then), is a good insulator, and high ceilings keep the heat off you. Air conditioning solved that problem, and probably killed the giant parlor with 12ft ceilings. It also helped kill off the porch which was another design feature of those old grand southern houses. And Bricklayers also got very expensive for the common person.

One thing I will give you is that that they were probably better structurally, as today's houses are more likely to be made of laminates and drywall and soft wood, as large pieces of hardwood for beams and such are no longer available at reasonable prices. Likewise, 'McMansions' tend to look a bit cookie cutter because they use factory-formed ornamentation for ceiling trays, baseboards, and railing spindles. Removing manual labor as much as possible resulted in nail guns instead of screws, metal joiners instead of dovetail joints, etc. One might be 'better' from a structural standpoint, but the other is WAY better from a price/performance standpoint. And when you're building for the masses, the latter wins.

The days of craftsmen building custom ceiling treatments and hand-turning custom railings are long gone for average homes, but that's not the fault of innovation - it's because craftsmen have been priced out of the market. There are railing systems in grand old homes that would cost the price of a luxury car if they were handcrafted today. Likewise for kitchen cabinetry and the rest.

Also, the design and construction of homes basically just reveals the preferences of home buyers. Faced with the option of building a 900 square foot home (about the average for new homes in the 1950's) on a small lot with lots of custom woodwork, or a 1900 square foot home with manufactured trim for the same amount of money, people choose size every time.

The same goes for food, but much more so. I can't imagine anyone thinking food was better 100 years ago. Today the average person has access to fresh fruit from around the world. The rate of stomach cancer has dropped dramatically, due to the reduction in food poisoning. There was no pizza, no Chinese food, no fast foods. Spices we take for granted were not available or even unknown at the time. And also, there may be more revealed preference here - people who don't have private chefs are often willing to settle for a slightly worse meal in exchange for cost and time. And average people in 1910 or today could not afford to eat in 5-star restaurants, except maybe on very special occasions. So if we look at what was available to those not in a simulacra, I'm guessing a modern Denny's beats the daylights out of a low priced restaurant ca 1910. But I suspect that food is actually much better today across the board, at every income level.

An even better example would be air travel. I'm guessing that if you were a millionaire in 1970 and flew first class internationally a lot, you would think that air travel has 'degraded' since then, since you no longer get 5 star meal services and treatment, but have to share a cabin with that mom with two smelly kids and a family wearing shorts and T-shirts on their way to Disneyland. How awful.

On the other hand, I'll bet the family going to Disneyland has a very different view of things, seeing as how they couldn't even afford the trip at all in the 'good old days'.

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