The past isn't what it used to be
On carved roast beef, narrow airline seats, and the misleading nature of gauzy memories
Gauzy reminiscences about the past are easy to find. There's never been a shortage of people willing to wax poetic about whatever they consider the "good old days". But it's worth training ourselves to dismantle the flawed arguments (and they are almost always flawed) by realizing that although human progress is anything but linear, it has many incentives to keep improving in the aggregate, even if certain creature comforts are lost along the way.
■ Take, for example, the fawning over the supposedly glamorous days of regulation-era air travel. When airlines were told that they couldn't compete on price, it's no surprise that they turned to competing on accoutrements, like the quality of in-flight dining. Between some hazy recollections by grandparents and the yellowing pages of carefully-staged magazine ads from the time, it's easy to get the impression that something has been lost in today's era of bags of tiny pretzels and Biscoff cookies.
■ But even setting aside the really important differences -- like the vast improvements that have come about in both affordability and safety since deregulation in 1978 -- the in-flight experience today is markedly better, even if you're one of the few who wishes smoking were still allowed onboard.
■ To be fair, the basic coach seat is smaller than its predecessor. (Anyway, for those to whom seat size is a priority, there's always the upgrade to business class, by whatever name it is found. Everyone else just implicitly chooses to pay less and endure the smaller seat.) But once stationed in the seat, the modern traveler has, for one thing, infinitely more choices than in the past.
■ It wasn't that long ago that in-flight entertainment was limited to perhaps ten channels of audio, a mediocre in-flight magazine, a well-worn copy of the Skymall catalogue, and (for the lucky passengers) a pre-selected in-flight movie. Now, even the passenger sitting in the very last row next to the lavatory more often than not has the option to watch or listen to an unlimited range of content. Airlines generally offer free WiFi for a broad array of streaming services (and the savvy traveler already knows to download some preferred content before departure). Seatbacks now often include not just power outlets, but also device holders to make the viewing experience more convenient.
■ We have migrated away from the one-size-fits-all model that used to predominate (with a single in-flight movie shown on unreliable projection screens that were too close for those sitting right behind a bulkhead and too far away for almost everyone else) and towards virtually infinite customization. Giving everyone almost exactly what they want is vastly better than giving everyone the same milquetoast offering.
■ Entertainment is only one aspect of the total experience, of course, and not every aspect has gotten better. But over time, the system has optimized around those things people actually care about the most, not what they merely say they want. You can still get carved roast beef when you're traveling, but it will generally involve ordering from a sit-down restaurant inside an airport terminal between connections.
■ Anytime we are presented with an over-simplified assessment of reality that assumes the best about the past while dismissing the state of the present, it's worth remembering that the reality we inhabit today is the result of an evolutionary process shaped by the past.
■ Not all things that are worth keeping survive, and not all things that survive are truly worth keeping. But in general, the burden of proof ought to be on the upon those who argue that something different than the present state is what's worth keeping, equally whether they think there is progress yet to be made or that the progress achieved thus far ought to be rolled back.