[Epistemic status: not very serious]
[Content note: May make you feel overly scrutinized]
Sometimes I hear people talking about how nobody notices them or cares about anything they do. And I want to say…well…
Okay. The Survey of Earned Doctorates tells us that the United States awards about a hundred classics PhDs per year. I get the impression classics is more popular in Europe, so let’s say a world total of five hundred. If the average classicist has a fifty year career, that’s 25,000 classicists at any given time. Some classicists work on Rome, so let’s say there are 10,000 classicists who focus solely on ancient Greece.
Estimates of the population of classical Greece center around a million people, but classical Greece lasted for several generations, so let’s say there were ten million classical Greeks total. That gives us a classicist-to-Greek ratio of 1:1000.
It would seem that this ratio must be decreasing: world population increases, average world education level increases, but the number of classical Greeks is fixed for all time. Can we extrapolate to a future where there is a one-to-one ratio of classicists to classical Greeks, so that each scholar can study exactly one Greek?
Problem the first – human population is starting to stabilize, and will probably reach a maximum at less than double its current level. But this is a function of our location here on Earth. Once we start colonizing space effectively, we can expect populations to balloon again. The Journal of the British Interplanetary Society estimates the carrying capacity of the solar system at forty trillion people; Nick Bostrom estimates the carrying capacity of the Virgo Supercluster at 10^23 human-like-digitized entities.
Problem the second – does the proportion of classics majors remain constant as population increases? One might expect that people living on domed cities in asteroids would have trouble being moved by the Iliad. Then again, one might expect that people living in glass-and-steel skyscrapers on a new continent ten thousand miles away from the classical world would have trouble being moved by the Iliad, and that didn’t pan out. A better objection might be that as population increases, amount of history also increases – the year 2500 may have more historians than we do, but it also has five hundred years more history. But this decreases our estimates only slightly – population grows exponentially, but amount of history grows linearly. For example, the year 2000 has three times the population of the year 1900, but – if we start history from 4000 BC – only about two percent more history. Even if we admit the common sense idea that the 20th century contains “more” historical interest than, say, the 5th century, it still certainly does not contain three times as much historical interest as all previous centuries combined.
So it seems that if human progress continues, the number of classicists will equal, then exceed the number of inhabitants of classical Greece. Exactly when this happens depends on many things, most obviously the effects of any technological singularity that might occur. But if we want to be very naive about it and project Current Rate No Singularity indefinitely, we can just extend our current rate of population doubling every fifty years and suggest that in about 2500, with a human population of five trillion spread out throughout the solar system and maybe some nearby stars, we will reach classicist:Greek parity.
What will this look like? Barring any revolutionary advance in historical methodology, there won’t really be enough artifacts and texts to support ten million classicists, so they will be reduced to overanalyzing excruciating details of the material that exists. On the other hand, maybe there will be revolutionary advances. The most revolutionary one I could think of would be the chronoscope from The Light of Other Days, a device often talked about in sci-fi stories that can see into the past. Armed with chronoscopes, classicists could avoid concentrating on a few surviving artifacts and study ancient Greece directly. And since the scholarly community would quickly exhaust would could be learned about important figures like Pericles and Leonidas, many historians would start looking into individual middle-class or lower-class Greeks, investigating their life stories and how they tied in to the broader historical picture. A new grad student might do her dissertation on the life of Nikias the random olive farmer who lived twenty miles outside Athens. Since there would be historian:subject parity, it might be that most or all ancient Greeks could be investigated in that level of detail.
What happens after 2500? If the assumptions mentioned above continue to hold, we pass parity and end up with more classicists than Greeks. By 3000 there are a thousand classicists for each ancient. Now you wish you could do your dissertation on the life of Nikias The Random Olive Farmer. But that low-hanging fruit (low hanging olive?) has been taken. Now there is an entire field (olive orchard?) of Nikias The Random Olive Farmer Studies, with its own little internal academic politics and yearly conferences on Alpha Centauri. In large symposia held at high-class hotels, various professors discuss details of Nikias The Random Olive Farmer’s psychology, personal relationships, opinions, and how he fits in to the major trends in Greek society that were going on at the time. Feminist scholars object that the field of Nikias The Random Olive Farmer’s Wife Studies is less well-funded than Nikias The Random Olive Farmer Studies, and dozens of angry papers are published in the relevant journals about it. Several leading figures object that too little effort is being made to communicate the findings of Nikias The Random Olive Farmer Studies to the general public, and there are half-hearted attempts to make little comic books about Nikias’ life or something.
By 3150 this has gotten so out of hand that it is wasting useful resources that should be allocated to fending off the K’th’rangan invasion. The Galactic Emperor declares a cap on the number of classics scholars at some reasonable number like a hundred million. There are protests in every major university, and leading public figures accuse the Galactic Emperor of being anti-intellectual, but eventually the new law takes hold and the grumbling dies down.
The field of Early 21st Century Studies, on the other hand, is still going strong. There are almost a thousand times as many moderns as Greeks, so we have a more reasonable ratio of about fifteen historians per modern, give or take, with the most interesting moderns having more and the ones who died young having fewer. Even better, the 21st Century Studies researchers don’t have to waste valuable chronoscopes that could be used for spying on the K’th’rangans. They can just hunt through the Internet Archive for more confusing, poorly organized data about the people of the early 21st century than they could ever want.
Gradually the data will start to make more and more sense. Imagine how excited the relevant portion of the scholarly community will be when it is discovered through diligent sleuthing that Thor41338 on the Gamer’s Guild forum is the same person as Hunter Glenderson from Charleston, South Carolina, and two seemingly different pieces of the early 21st century milieu slide neatly into place.
A few more population doublings, and the field of Hunter Glenderson From Charleston Studies is as big as the field of Nikias The Random Olive Farmer Studies ever was. The Galactic Emperor is starting to take notice, but the K’th’rangans are in retreat and for now there are resources to spare. There are no more great discoveries about new pseudonyms to be made, but there are still occasional paradigm shifts in analysis of the great events of Glenderson’s life. Someone tries a Freudian analysis of his life; another a Marxist analysis; a third writes about how his relationship with his ex-girlfriend from college ties in to the Daoist conception of impermanence. All these people have grad students trawling old Twitter accounts for them, undergraduates anxious to hear about their professor’s latest research, and hateblogs by brash amateurs claiming that the establishment totally misunderstands Hunter Glenderson.
Late at night, one grad student is preparing a paper on one of Glenderson’s teenaged Twitter rants, and comes across his tweet: “Nobody notices me. Nobody cares about anything I do.” She makes special note of it, since she thinks the irony factor might make it worth a publication in one of the several Hunter-Glenderson-themed journals.