This morning I came across a headline that Alberto, an 11-year-old boy in southern Mexico, might be the youngest father in the world. His parents traded him to another family in exchange for a couple of animals. Shortly thereafter, his 16-year-old girlfriend became pregnant and gave birth to a baby boy. Alberto told local media that he and his girlfriend were happy, though he recognizes the difficulties they face. “I would have preferred to have stayed at home with my mother,” Alberto said, “but whatever; when my son grows up I won’t do the same to him.”
Just as shocking as the news of Alberto, a working father and a young boy himself, is the fact that his life is not abnormal when seen through the long view of history. This is the inevitable conclusion after reading Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order, which Duncan Green has summarized masterfully. What’s strange — again, through the lens of history — is not that an 11-year-old boy was traded for two farm animals, or that he works most days as a farmer, or even that he has a baby boy. What’s strange, relatively, is that we choose our leaders, that we’re (mostly) equally protected by the same laws, that our leaders (sometimes) must step down when convicted of stealing, that we can own property and that it isn’t regularly taken away from us.
That we no longer live in the world portrayed in Game of Thrones is, through the lens of history, very strange.
Strangest of all? To come across news of Alberto directly from his village in southern Mexico, followed up by an article summarizing recent advances in robotics and AI, including a small drone autonomously avoiding obstacles at 30 MPH, restaurants where tablets have replaced waiters, Gmail’s automatic drafting of email responses, and the accelerating replacement of factory workers with robots. What is the future of work? A certain kind of service work. The two fastest growing jobs, according to Carl Benedikt Frey, are Zumba instructor and personal trainer.
That we’re happier today than your average peasant in medieval Europe (or anywhere else) I have no doubt. Are we, day to day, happier than Alberto and his girlfriend? I’m not sure even how one would go about making such a comparison. Are we, as we continue to develop new technologies and services and culture, finding more meaning and joy in our lives with our iPhone apps and our Zumba classes and our Sunday brunches? Probably, though I have my doubts.
Twenty years from now some enterprising journalist is going to find a reference to Alberto and track him down. Maybe she’ll do a 3-minute, 3D virtual reality story on his life and his son’s life, and whether they are more or less happy than the folks who spend their days getting news on their virtual reality headsets. Whatever she finds, it’s going to be strange.