Like a lot of basically happy people, I believe the general public is getting stupider over time. It’s not a novel idea. In the Odes, Horace complains that “our fathers, viler than our grandfathers, begot us who are even viler, and we bring forth a progeny more degenerate still.” That was in like 12 BC, and we can only imagine how he would have felt had he lived to see everyone adopt Christianity a couple generations later. The future always looks weird and scary. Since the present is basically a broke-ass version of the future, it follows that it should appear gross and dumb. Or maybe—and I’m just spitballing here—the people alive now really are exceptionally lazy and stupid. The very notion of human progress implies the possibility of regress, so some iterations of society must be more inept than others, right? If only there were some way to measure it. Incidentally, airline boarding times have doubled since 1970.
That is good news for misanthropes. It gives us something to mention to the person next to us while we’re waiting in line to get on the plane, in the hopes of eliciting the misanthrope’s most cherished response, the rueful grunt. Also: why is someone always standing next to us in line? Look at the picture above. Is that a line to get on the plane or a glut of people measuring their opportunism against their social anxiety? That is what we call a collective action problem, right there. If there is one measure of the wisdom and competence of a people—what our grandparents called character—it lies in how well they solve collective action problems. Over the last four decades, we as a people have become half as good at getting everybody on the plane.
There are a lot of good reasons for that, if by “good” you mean “greedy and selfish.” After it spent all its money preventing the United States from building trains, the airline industry began charging a fee for checked bags in 2005. That raised revenues, but it also encouraged passengers to cram their belongings into multiple carry-ons. In response to demand, these carry-ons got larger.* The amount of overhead bin volume necessary to accomodate 140 passengers shot up and dragged boarding times with it. And airline industry revenues went down.
Here we must pause and answer the important question of what we mean when we say that a society is getting dumber. It’s true that the collected efforts of our transportation industry and our general public yielded a system more expensive and time-consuming for both. But you don’t judge a season by batting average; you go by total wins. It’s hard to argue we suck worse than Horace when we have science and computers, which the Fermilab astrophysicist Jason Steffen used to construct a better method of airline boarding. Steffen employed a “Markov chain Monte Carlo optimization algorithm” to discover two things: 1) random boarding is faster than the standard back-to-front method and 2) the fastest way is to board passengers who are two rows apart starting at the back. The airlines then dismissed that method because it was too complicated.
So on the one hand, we have Fermilab and mathematical models. On the other, the people we have charged with rocketing us through the air are maybe too dumb and/or lazy to make use of such things. Dumb is not inaccess to information; it is disinterest in information. Some egghead’s perfect plan to get on the airplane is too complicated for the airline industry to implement. The discovery that random boarding works better has apparently been too complicated to implement, too. Given that boarding times have doubled over the past 40 years, angering customers and reducing profits, and having carefully considered available information, the airline industry is going to keep doing what it’s doing.
So we are not really talking about dumb. We are talking that combination of dumb and selfish and inactive that yields what little league coaches call frustration. We can measure it in person-hours spent grumbling to the person next to us, who also recognizes that everyone is getting dumber and has joined us in being them. In such moments we find ourselves in presence of the three meanings of vile: unpleasant, morally bad, and the archaic of little worth or value. Our fathers, viler than our grandfathers, begot us who are even viler, and we find it harder and harder to get on the plane. The more of us there are, the less good any of us seems to do.