Think Tank

What a time to be alive. No, really…

The world is going to hell in a handcart. Right? Five minutes on Twitter and you'd think so. But we've never had it so good, says The Jackal's Editor-in-Chief

Words by
Robin Swithinbank
Illustration by
Jonny Wan

At some point in the mid to late 1980s, when I was a boy of about eight, I drew a picture of my dream watch. It had a screen for a TV, built-in extendable aerial and a speaker and microphone so you could make calls on it. Not long after, a friend of mine lent me his portable TV and I remember sitting in bed late at night watching Big Break (cross my heart) on its fuzzy black and white screen until I fell asleep. Despite not being the least bit technical, the concept of portable entertainment enthralled me.

No doubt that’s partly why I find this an extraordinary time to be alive. Today, in my kitchen, I have an Amazon Echo. When I talk at it (always in stern parent voice – why?), it gives me the news headlines, plays me some music or adds dishwasher tabs to my shopping list. I don’t even have to say please. And there’s my phone. Which isn’t a phone at all. It’s a TV. And an encyclopedia. And a portal into the mind of the leader of the free world. Quite often I remember my aspirations of 30 years ago and wonder at how quickly and how substantially they’ve been exceeded.

Now, without wanting to appear so glib as to judge the quality of life today through the lens of my iPhone, it doesn’t feel unreasonable to use Steve Jobs’ gift to the world as a fair yardstick by which to measure what it’s like to be alive in 2017. Ask any sane historian, and they’ll tell you there’s never been a better time to be alive. I’m 37, and according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), I should live until I’m 87. There’s a 1 in 10 chance I’ll live till I’m 102. Futurologists tell me that before then scientists will have found a cure for Alzheimer’s, leukemia and heart disease. And I already know that when my hair falls out, I can replace it.

But despite all this, boy, can we mope. Brexit. Trump. The NHS. The third runway. The demise of the Labour party. Affordable housing. Cycle lanes. The plight of newts. There’s always something to get in a knot about.

A good friend of mine is a pollster. As he often says to me after I rail about something that has very little bearing on my life, ‘Things are rarely as bad as people think they’re going to be.’ I don’t know that he has a poll to back that up, but I can’t help thinking he’s right.

A pollster said to me, ‘Things are are rarely as bad as people think they’re going to be’

Things are rarely as good as we think they’re going to be either. I sincerely doubt I’m alone in saying I miss Obama like I miss the sun in winter, but the promise of his premiership was always absurd. Trump’s victory was inspired as much by disappointment as by populism.

But back to the good. If only we liked hearing about it. In January, the ONS released figures showing income inequality in the UK is at its lowest for 30 years. World food prices have fallen for a fifth straight year, which – as I understand it – means more people can afford to eat. That’s according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. Last year there were more first-time home buyers in the UK than in any year since 2007. So says the Halifax bank. And if you’re the nostalgic type, sales of vinyl hit a 25-year high in 2016, shifting 3.2m records, a 53 per cent spike on the previous year.

There are plenty of theories for the spirit of misery we like to peddle, many of us, like me all too often, via our Twitter feeds. One of those I find most compelling is that offered by the French aphorist François de La Rochefoucauld, who observed ‘We are all strong enough to bear the misfortunes of others.’

I find intense relief in remembering to view the world through the prism of perspective, although admittedly just as much irritation when others struggle to do the same. This isn’t to decry vigilance, protest or debate – far from it. Not everyone enjoys the same freedoms I do. But the hysterical response is not often the right one, particularly when it fans the flames of extremes we’re trying to extinguish. See list above. Theresa May is rarely credited with one of her greatest assets – stoicism.

To return to La Rochefoucauld, ‘Nothing is so contagious as example, and we never do very good deeds or very evil ones without producing imitations.’ So perhaps The Jackal might be an example – of calm, careful thinking and proportionate living as a means to appreciating life is pretty good, all things considered. Not perfect, mind. I really am losing my hair.