The late-1960s seem to have been a fertile time for generating anniversaries that have been marked In countless media items fifty years later. A brief look behind many of the stories reveals the times were not the best in which to live. The civil rights movement emerged because of the denial of fundamental human rights; the Vietnam protests were a response to the massive slaughter in the Vietnam war; the psychedelic culture caused death, or permanent psychological harm, for many of those who withdrew into a narcotic-fuelled lifestyle.
Life fifty years ago was very different, as was life forty years ago, and life thirty years ago, and life twenty years ago. Most people in the world are substantially more wealthy now than they were two, three, four or five decades ago.
I remember visiting the Philippines in 1990 and having to book a three minute telephone call to Northern Ireland, a call which cost £6. Returning in 2001, I put a pre-paid SIM card into a mobile phone I had been lent. The cost for ninety minutes of calls was something like £5.
In Tanzania in the 1990s, a telephone call could only be made from the front desk of a hotel where coarse blankets covered metal beds. The phone was the only one in the building. Calls were around £1 per minute. Sitting in a guest house in neighbouring Rwanda two decades later, WhatsApp had superseded landline calls. The WiFi was so good that when I called my sister our conversation was so clear that she assumed I was at home until I talked about the banana tree in the garden.
Communications have changed in ways that could not be imagined. The most ordinary smartphone is said to have a computing capacity thousands of times that possessed by Mission Control Houston in 1969. Hundreds of millions of people have the world’s collected knowledge instantly available in their pockets. Our capacities far exceed much that was envisaged in science fiction.
It is not just in the field of information and communication technology that life has improved, in every other sphere, there have been changes for the better. Undoubtedly, relative poverty, the gap between the richest and the poorest, has increased, but the number of people living in absolute poverty, those struggling merely to survive, has halved.
People feeling less sanguine might point to the threats to the survival of the Earth presented by climate change, and suggest that these are the worst of times, but in the 1980s the threat of nuclear warfare was perceived to be such that the British government sent a pamphlet called “Protect and Survive” to every household. The pamphlet contained information on such things as how to build a nuclear fallout shelter under the stairs.
If anyone is tempted to complain about the world’s present political leadership, in 1969 it was Richard Nixon, Leonid Brezhnev and Mao Zedong, compared with whom the current premiers are benign.
The last fifty years have been times of extraordinary human ingenuity. There is no reason to imagine that the capacity for problem-solving has been lost; no reason to believe that progress will not continue.