When some new progress is made in society, science, or technology, there is usually a lot of fanfare around it. People cheer, people "wow!", people get happy. But the truest measure of progress being absorbed into the society is when it loses the "wow" -- when it becomes completely normal and accepted and utterly taken for granted. And because it becomes quickly taken for granted, people often have the sense no progress is being made at all.
We're used to seeing this in technology all the time. Technologies that happened in the previous generation -- commercial air travel, space flight, central heating and air conditioning -- are not even thought of as "technological breakthroughs" in our consciousness. Even most technologies that emerged in our own lifetimes are utterly taken for granted. I remember when I was six years old, a salesman came to our house to give a demonstration of an amazing device called a microwave oven. That was a brand new consumer item in my lifetime. When was the last time you heard someone say, "God, aren't microwaves great!" I had lost all consciousness of their greatness until I lived in an apartment in Houston that didn't have one. (Apparently the restaurant scene in downtown Houston was so great that no one ever ate at home.) For some reason, boiling water on a stove for coffee or tea seemed primitive and strange . . . Even though I myself did that, in my own lifetime.
Computers! The desktop computer happened in my lifetime! The tool that I spend most of my waking hours in front of . . . In my lifetime! Nobody says anymore, "Gosh I love computers." Instead they say, "My %^&^&*/! computer hung again this morning . . . Could you resend that attachment?"
The Internet happened in my adult lifetime. I remember being in the workforce before email. You still occasionally hear people say, "Wow, I love the internet!" but only because of Google -- something that only happened in the last decade but is rapidly becoming routine. "Duh, why didn't you just google it?" is commonly heard in schools and offices.
Cell phones, iPods, cable TV, really good coffee . . . All very recent, all utterly taken for granted. They are so taken for granted, in fact, that many college students sit around (surrounded by cell phones and iPods and TVs and double-shot-lattes) thinking that the economic standard living for the average joe has decreased. "The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer" . . . And yet nearly everyone is enjoying enormous lifestyle boosts that couldn't have been foreseen even ten years ago.
Why do I bother cataloging all these changes? It's because of the way people have greeted the results of this election. The same sort of changes have been happening in our social sphere for the past sixty years, with steady regularity . . . And yet everyone in the whole world is standing around gawking, like we reinvented ourselves overnight, because, "holy shit, we just elected our first black president!" Yes, yes, yes, it's an important milestone, but why is everyone so surprised?
I was so gratified to hear an interview on NPR with singer/songwriter Janis Ian, who voiced exactly the same sentiment. "I hear people say, 'We haven't made any real social progress,' and I tell them, oh my gosh, you have no idea how far we've come. In my lifetime an outed homosexual could be put in an institution and lobotomized."
Does no one remember that a couple years ago the "inevitable" candidate for the Democratic nomination was a woman? We have been expecting history to happen for some time now.
I do not mean to trivialize the accomplishment of Obama's election. I know that civil rights, equality under the law, and broad acceptance into society has been a long hard journey for African Americans . . . and women . . . and homosexuals. It took a lot of work, perseverance, and sacrifice. But then again, so did the cell phone. And black leaders might be mildly disappointed when the children or grand-children of our generation hear of the first African-American president, and they don't say, "Wow." They will say: "So?" The ultimate victory will be won when it is completely forgotten.