Progress that is both rapid enough to be noticed and stable enough to continue over many generations has been achieved only once in human history: right now. Around 1800, humanity made a stark turn from misery and stagnation to prosperity and progress. This is a truly unique moment in time, and yet one that most of us aren’t even aware of.
It’s not just GDP. Poverty and child mortality rates over the last two centuries have dropped while literacy and vaccination rates have climbed. Many more people live under democratic forms of government. The world today finds itself atop this upward march of progress, but we think we’re going the other way. When surveyed, only 6% of Americans think the world is getting better, while in Australia and France the figure stands at an even more ominous 3%.
This is a sad state of affairs; we are lucky enough to have found ourselves living through this incredible point in human history, and yet we have no idea that we’re even here. Progress is rapid and powerful, and yet invisible—a “secret, silent miracle,” as Hans Rosling, the Swedish health professor and data visionary, put it. Why is progress so hard to see?