Thursday, July 17, 2008

Visiting Lithuania in Sixteen Years

Sixteen years ago this week, I was traveling in my family's ancestral home of Panevezys, Lithuania.  A New York Times travel writer visited there now, searching for his family roots, just like I did, only he was more successful.

What a difference sixteen years can make in the life of a country!  The place I visited was terribly poor, and although it was a free country, it had been liberated from the Soviets only six months before I arrived.  I saw Russian soldiers everywhere, people paid for everything in rubles, and absolutely nobody spoke any English whatsoever.

Of course, during the same period things have changed a lot in the U.S. as well.  Average Americans were much poorer back then (per capita incomes in the U.S. are up 77% in real terms in the past 16 years (15% in the past 4 years).  Almost nobody used the internet or email. Cell phones were called "car phones" because they were so bulky, and only rich people had them.  Although a lot of people had PCs, they were hard to use -- no Windows back then.  Digital cameras?  GPS?  none of that stuff existed. 

And what about sixteen years from now?  If anything, I'm sure the world will have changed by an even greater amount.  You'll be richer (probably at least by double).  There'll be new, impossible-to-imagine technologies as significant as the internet in common use.

It's so easy to take today's bad news out of its long-term context.  Step back a little, though, and you'll become an optimist like me.

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