The 1900 House

Date: Wed Jun 14 2000 - 22:21:48 MDT

PBS is running a British series called The 1900 House. The producers
took a London house and restored it as nearly as possible to the state
it would have had in the year 1900. They took out the electricity and
modern appliances, put in a coal burning stove and cast iron tub, moved
the toilet to an outhouse, and so on.

A British family of 7 was selected from hundreds of volunteers to live in
the house for three months. They're supposed to dress like Victorians,
eat and sleep and live as they did. (Of course there has to be some
cheating - no one expects the residents to go without modern medicine,
and some safety modifications were made so that the house wasn't the
deathtrap that so many were in an era when life was relatively cheap.)

The first episode was mostly about finding and fixing up the house, but
future episodes will apparently emphasize the many difficulties the family
faces in trying to live without modern "conveniences" (really essentials
for most people). It looks like the family will more or less go crazy
from the drudgery of spending hours each day cooking and cleaning.
Just doing the laundry practically takes all day. It's a terrible way
to live, in many ways worse than a prison labor camp.

This fit in well with one of the essays on the web site of
Brad De Long, the economist Robin mentioned the other day. discusses how
much the U.S. economy has grown over the past 100 years. One approach is
to measure how many hours the average person had to work to earn enough
to get a new bicycle, dinner set, piano, and so on. If you do this we
appear to be about six times richer than people 100 years ago on average.
I gather that this is more or less the conventional economic wisdom.

However DeLong points out that this methodology restricts you to only
buying things that were available 100 years ago. Obviously most people
prefer to spend their money on more modern goods, which means that we
are really much richer still. DeLong comes up with a rough estimate that
we are actually 30 times richer than a century ago. This difference is
so large, he points out, that it makes the comparison almost meaningless.

It looks like the residents of the 1900 house will be ready to agree
with DeLong by the time their three month sentence is over.

The interesting question is, what will people think who watch The 2000
House, 100 years from now? How much richer will they be, how much would
they have to sacrifice to go back to living as people in our day did?

Of course we have to assume there is no Singularity (or one which leaves
people behind), and we manage to avoid both blowing ourselves up and
melting ourselves down. But if there are recognizable humans 100 years
from now, chances are they would have to give up far more to live in the
2000 house.


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