Who are we?

Larry Summers: I think the overwhelming force that shapes the world that we have today is new knowledge, science and its application through technology.

Living standards were essentially the same in ancient Athens and in 1800. People lived to the age of _____. A century ago, essentially no one had a vacation. Life expectancy was 47. Most people never ventured more than a hundred miles from the place where they were born.

It’s completely different now, and it’s completely different because of what technology has brought, and because the expectation of the continuing gains from technology is imbedded in a way that hasn’t been there in the human experience before.

We take it as a cliché that it is a reasonable question for someone running for president to discuss, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” From the vast majority of the human experience, there would have been no particular reason to think that people would be better off than they were four years ago.

So it seems to me that technology that is brought by science, and the way in which that technology is organizes and applied, is the central force that drives history. And that has both a scientific and a technological dimension. And it also has the social scientific dimension; the domain of economics; the domain of politics; the domain of sociology, of how society organizes itself as all of this changes.

And I emphasize the importance of this in part not to say that human nature doesn’t in a profound way shaping history; not to say that the forces of jealousy and anger and love and greed and the stuff of great tragedy aren’t central in shaping history. But they are relatively constant, it seems to me, the range of human emotion, the response to provocation of human beings, I doubt these things are fundamentally different today than they were in the times of the classics.

And yet the world is hugely different today. And so if one asks what it is that changed, I think one has to ultimately bring that back to science and technology and the modes of social organization that bring them forth; and the condition that are application.

I hope we are moving to a world in which the range of human opportunity will be expanded and will have steadily expanded in the years ahead. And part of that is, what’s created as people become educated; as people are free from pain; as people’s material capacity increases and they get the ability to broaden their world, whether it’s in the different clothes that they can wear, or the access to the world that telephone or TV or Internet connection can provide.

For me it’s about an ever-expanding provision of opportunity to an ever-growing number of people. And I see the kinds of opportunities that I’ve had, contrast them with the opportunities that a previous generation has had. Look ahead to the kinds of opportunities that my children will have. And I don’t think that’s a process that ever stops, but I think there’s a vast amount we can do to promote more opportunity for more people.

Recorded On: July 13, 2007

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