Thought experiment: A 50-year rollback

I'm 41 years old. I can see 50 pretty clearly. I know lots of people who are older than 50. You probably do, too. I'm not sure exactly what put 50 in my head a couple weeks ago, but we're coming up on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., so that's as good a place as anywhere to start, I guess.

My point in doing this thought experiment is for us to recognize three things:

(1) 50 years isn't very long in terms of human consciousness. Our brains and bodies take centuries — maybe millennia — to adapt biologically.

(2) So much happens in 50 years that it's amazing people who live 50 years don't short-circuit.

(3) Because of 1 and 2, have some patience with people who need a minute to wrap their heads around something newish.

Now: 2018

Since someone might read this in the future, let's take a look at where we are in 2018. The most recent estimated US census was 2016; the population is 323 million. The population of the world is estimated at 7.63 billion people. The market cap of the Disney Corp. is somewhere around $157 billion and its stock price is over $105; Amazon's market cap is around $750 billion and Apple is fast-approaching $1 trillion.

SpaceX recently launched a rocket into space then released a car on a trajectory toward Mars, just to see if they could do it. The launchers and the rocket both returned to Earth, landing on pads.

Most of the US has hand-sized computers/telephones/cameras/video cameras/music players/video machines in our pockets. About half the world has access to high-speed Internet.

A black man served as president of the United States for two full terms, with no known assassination attempts made public. Gay people can get married. Our current president is in talks to meet with the dictator of North Korea.

1x50: 1968

Now, let's roll back one set of fifty years. The US population was just under 201 million (less than 2/3 of what it is today). The population of the world was 3.53 billion (less than half what it is today). Disney stock was at 44 cents; adjusted for inflation, it was 30 cents a share. The guy who started Amazon, Jeff Bezos, was 4 years old. Apple wouldn't be launched for another eight years.

We hadn't yet gone to the moon.

Telephones were, by-and-large, on the wall. Some people did have mobile phones in their cars, but the handheld mobile phone wouldn't be introduced for five more years. Personal computers were still seven years off.

The Civil Rights movement was in transition from . Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were shot. Richard Nixon was elected president. "2001: A Space Odyssey" was the top grossing film. Arthur Hailey's Airport spent 30 weeks on top of the New York Times Bestseller list. There had been no openly gay people elected to any public office in the US.

2x50: 1918

The US population was 103 million, less than a third of what it is today. The population of the world was 1.8 billion, a billion of whom were incapacitated thanks to a flu epidemic that killed 20 million people.

The top five US companies the prior year were US Steel, American Telephone & Telegraph, Standard Oil of New Jersey, Bethlehem Steel and Armour & Co. US Steel is now #279 on the Fortune 500 list. American Telephone & Telegraph was broken up into the regional Bell Companies, and has since reformed as a more diverse communications company (AT&T). Standard Oil was broken up, also; the biggest remaining company is ExxonMobil. Bethlehem Steel stopped operating in 2003; Armour, a former meatpacking giant has been bought and sold a few times and is now a frozen foods brand.

World War I ended late in the year. The first scheduled passenger flight had only been four years prior, and the Post Office launched the first airmail service. Federal offices were racially segregated (and so were many businesses) and interracial marriage was illegal in many places. There were race riots. In 1916, the US Military introduced "blue discharges," which were neither honorable nor dishonorable and were often used to discharge homosexuals from the military.

3x50: 1868

We're only three sets of fifty years back now, and we're largely in the dark.

The 1870 Census put the US population at about 38 million people, only a little over a third of what it would be 50 years later. Estimates put the world population around 1.2 billion.

Tabasco first hit the market; MetLife and Pacific Life were both founded.

We didn't yet have a telephone or a light bulb.

Andrew Johnson became the first president to be impeached (like Bill Clinton, the only other president to be impeached to date, the Senate would acquit Johnson). We were very much rebuilding from the Civil War.

4x50: 1818

The US population, according to the 1820 Census, was a little over 9 million people. That's roughly the population of New York City today. The world population is estimated to have been between 950 million and a billion — less than the population of India or China today.

There were 20 US states, and the current design of the US Flag (though with 20 stars) was made the official flag of the nation. The steam engine hadn't quite made its way to the US from Britain.

We were still 11 years away from the first indoor plumbing.

The First Seminole War ended. Brooks Brothers, the men's clothier, opened its first store. Frankenstein was published.

5x50: 1768

Here we are, just five 50-year segments ago, we weren't the US yet. Estimates of the world population are around 800 million. The first modern circus is held in London. The Royal Academy is founded.

10x50: 1518

Just 10 50-year jumps ago, you might not recognize the world, which only had about 500 million people in it. Leonardo da Vinci was far and away the brightest technological mind, living in the Vatican during his waning years (he died the following year). Magellan went off to the Spice Islands. Thomas More's "Epigrammata" was published. Shakespeare wasn't yet born. There was actually a dancing plague — in Strasbourg, people just felt the urge to boogie, and many of them died of stroke, heart attack or exhaustion.

20x50: 1018

If you know someone who is 50 years old, and when they were a kid they knew someone 50 years old, you only have to go back 20 of those people to a world with fewer people than are in the US today. It would be another 48 years before the Normans would invade England, so the English language sounded very much like German.

There was no printing press. There was no Genghis Khan. We have a few written records about battles no one remembers.

50x50: 482 BCE

Socrates would be born in a dozen years. The earliest Kabbalists are starting to chase Ezekiel's vision of God on the chariot. The Buddha died the year before.

100x50: 2982 BCE

OK, here's the big one. Only 100 groups of 50 years, and we're basically on a different planet. The earth's population was nearing 100 million people. The Egyptian Empire is 100 years old and hasn't started building pyramids yet. The oldest city we've found in the Americas, Caral, isn't settled for another 300 years.

It's amazing how much happens in just 50 years. I don't even want to predict what our world is going to look like in 50 years, but hopefully I'm here to see it!

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