I once heard an interview on NPR with a woman who had been born a slave in the US. What struck me most about it was that it had been recorded after I was born, in 1971. I had never even considered the possibility that my lifespan had overlapped with anyone who had seen the Civil War! One lifespan between me and the Civil War–that means two lifespans between me and the Declaration of Independence. A 90 year old could have seen both the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, and a 101 year old could have seen both the Civil War and me. I’m about halfway through my life, so that makes the US about two and a half lifespans old.

This was my first taste of what a young country the US is. When I learned about it in school, the Civil War seemed so long ago. People dressed funny, talked funny, and so many of them still thought slavery was a good deal. But that stuff just goes to show how fast fashion and ethics can change.

Before this experience, racism always seemed like this inexplicable anachronism: Where do these backwards idiots come from? We figured this stuff out ages ago! But the last Americans who actually owned slaves, bought and sold people, died only about 20 years before I was born.

My second taste was when I house-sat for a family who were Laura Ingalls Wilder fanatics. I re-read some of her books and watched a bunch of Little House on the Prairie episodes and started researching her life a little. She was born in 1867, just after the Civil War ended, had her log-cabin, covered-wagon young life, got married in 1885, and died in 1957. Laura Ingalls Wilder wasn’t just around for Manifest Destiny and the destruction of the last Native American societies. She saw cars, radio, television, airplanes, and  the Jazz Age. She saw World War I, World War II, the atomic bomb, communist revolutions, Fascism, the Great Depression, Hitchcock movies, nuclear submarines, the Korean War, and DNA.

Even if Kurzweil and company are wrong about an exponential change trajectory, linear change would be dizzying enough. If Laura went from covered wagons to nuclear submarines, what am I going to see as an old man in the 2060s? Let’s hope for sustainability, teleportation and compassion, not creepy geo- and bioengineering disasters!

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