One of my top ten movies of all time is the classic 1979 flick The Warriors. It’s based on (a novel that’s based on) Xenophon’s Anabasis, updated so that it follows a gang based in Coney Island whose members have to fight and sneak their way back from the Bronx, dodging the police and every other gang in New York City along the way. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it. It’s not a spoiler to tell you that the viewer finds out they’re marked men almost immediately, while the characters themselves only find out during the course of the movie. </intentionally vague>
I owned a cell phone for several years before I ever saw The Warriors. I couldn’t help thinking, even as I first watched it, that you could never make a movie like that nowadays. Cell phones make it so easy to exchange information that our world is very different from the world of 1979. I remember a time when, like almost all human beings who ever lived, I had to coordinate plans with people without cell phones. It seems like a different era!
Innovation changes our lives on different margins all the time, and we rarely get the opportunity to appreciate it. Whether innovation is in technological capability, organizational practices, or social movements, it’s disruptive. It changes things. It’s a minor, relatively unimportant consequence that a book or movie like The Warriors would simply not be believable in the modern day. It’s a much more important consequence that a movie like 12 Years a Slave could not be made in the modern period.
Hardly any significant change in the world happens quickly. Most important progress is made a little at a time. These increments of progress are so small we rarely notice them individually, and only when the dam bursts does the broader picture become intelligible to us. A dramatic event like the American Civil War is easy to remember and point to, but the elimination of institutional slavery throughout the civilized world was several hundred years in the making.
I don’t mean to suggest that we should not aim for large-scale reforms of things we find objectionable. Obviously it is important to keep end goals in mind. I only mean to say that most of the things we consider victories when we look back at history were the accumulation of innumerable smaller things that were not usually memorable in themselves. What starts as the impossibility of remaking The Warriors in the present ends up as the impossibility of remaking 12 Years a Slave in the present.