Ten years of wielding a blunt instrument

Ten years of wielding a blunt instrument

Bill Gates once said that people tend to overestimate what's possible in one year, and underestimate what's possible in 10. He was talking about technology, but think about your life 10 years ago and you'll probably agree that the super-nerd spoke the truth. I wrote my welcome column here at the Instrument 10 years ago today. I've filed just under a thousand times since then.

The first issue? Sudanese refugees and why they probably wouldn't destroy our civilisation. Ten years later and we're still worried about foreigners, but they're still the wrong ones. Our civilisation is kicking on and the greatest threat to it isn't brown or black people, it's the arrested emotional development of a small-handed orange groper with access to the US nuclear codes.

Ten years from now he'll be gone.

Hopefully we'll still be here.

John Birmingham has been writing this column for 10 years. Makes you think.

John Birmingham has been writing this column for 10 years. Makes you think.

Photo: Ben Rushton


But it wouldn't do to underestimate just how much can change in 10 years.

When Brisbane Times launched, Steve Jobs was alive and the iPhone was still a rumour. Our reporters carried a not-very-smart phone called a JasJam. It was an abomination in the eyes of God and Man. The iPhone didn't set the world afire in that first year of its life, but 10 years later the world is radically transformed because of it. Not just because of Apple's device of course, but because of the way mobile computing exploded shortly afterwards.

Do we have Donald Trump without Twitter?

The very first Blunty. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The very first Blunty. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Photo: Screengrab

Do we have Twitter without Android and iOS?

That blast wave of disruption — technological, economic and social — set off by Apple and massively amplified by Google, is just one small element of the change we've lived through. In the same time huge, almost unknowable amounts of wealth have been created and mostly concentrated in the hands of a tiny super-elite. Billions have been lifted out of abject poverty in parts of the Third World, and cast down into perdition here, there and all points in between. We've fought holy wars and made an unholy mess of them. Authoritarianism has surged. Liberal humanism wanes.

Culturally, the West has undergone a sort of metaphorical runaway fission process, the atomisation of the 1960s paying off half a century later in the meltdown of post modern identity politics.

Oh, and the planet is dying.

Ten years from now is that likely to be any better? I doubt it, but I can virtually guarantee that until climate change starts to actually destroy wealth, the individuals and corporations that accumulated that wealth by destructively exploiting the planet will keep on doing so.

Every year of the last decade has seen record breaking heat. Every year of the next decade will likely be the same. At some point we'll reach a discontinuity but it will likely be a moment of political rather than climatic violence.

My money is on food riots and water wars.

But I don't want to bring you down. The past 10 years have been awesome in a good way too. The media tend not to report the incremental improvement of most things because it doesn't feel like news. As a species we're hard-wired to respond with much greater intensity to threats than we do to slight changes in stasis, especially if the change is positive. And there have been many, many changes for the better.

Acid pollution of the atmosphere has been reversed to the levels of the 1930s. We've kicked so many diseases in the butt that we are now the greatest danger to ourselves. Take that, bubonic plague! Ninety-three per cent of the world's children now learn to read and write and any one of them could be a potential Da Vinci or Einstein. Teen pregnancy rates keep falling. Solar power keeps proving its coal-powered critics wrong. Elon Musk is going to colonise Mars. ISIS has quietly been preparing its followers for defeat and collapse. The ozone hole gets smaller every year. India is reforesting up to 12 per cent of its land surface. Green sea turtles, giant pandas and humpback whales came off the endangered list. Giant pandas! There is always something to watch on TV now. People are happy to pay for stuff on the internet if you're happy to offer it at a reasonable price and without stupid restrictions.

And I weigh about 20 kilograms less than I did in 2007.

John Birmingham

John Birmingham is a columnist and blogger for the Brisbane Times. He is also an award winning magazine writer and the author of Leviathan, the Unauthorised Biography of Sydney, which won the National Award for Non-Fiction. He amuses himself in his down time by writing novels which improve with altitude.

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