Your iPod is ruining America, updated for iPhone and twitter

We have written a number of pieces about the remarkable changes of the last 130 years; they often include a variation of this:

Here is the signal fact of our progress in the last century. If you were born in 1900, your life expectancy was in the forties, and GNP per capita was about $4000. If you are born today, your life expectancy in about eighty, and statistically, as an average American, you are ten times richer. In reality you are a hundred or a thousand times richer, if you factor in your ability to be in Paris tomorrow for $500, your ability to watch events from fifty years ago as they actually happened, etc. – not to mention that your toddler’s severe pneumonia can be reliably cured in 48 hours or so. Only a little of this has to do with government.

Mostly it is because far more than 50% of everything ever invented in the history of humanity was invented in the last 130 years, and perhaps 50% of that was invented by Americans. Milton Hershey invented the candy bar, Carrier invented the air conditioner for a tire plant, Sears invented catalogue distribution, Henry Ford invented cheap cars, some guys from Texas Instruments commercialized the transistor. It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of the invention and wide use of brand names, which communicate the quality and dependability of every product we buy. This alone deserves the Nobel Prize. And it was a large and growing market, the availability of risk capital, the development of standardized accounting principles, and protection of intellectual and personal property by the courts that made this possible.

We are coming to the end of an era, the time when there will be no one in America who remembers what life was like without telephones, running water, indoor plumbing, cars, airplanes, central heating, or electric lights; for our purposes here, we’ll include the children and grandchildren of these men and women as participating in a chain of continuity to those old days. One of our favorite quotes from Henry Adams is apt: “The American boy of 1854 stood closer to the year 1 than to the year 1900.” Soon, almost no one in America will have a visceral understanding of what 1854 was like, and what the heck Adams was talking about.

It is even worse than that. The transistor was invented in 1947 and patented shortly after, and since that time devices of all sorts have been getting smaller, smarter and less mechanical. There is another loss happening because of this, and Americans — including us — have no idea what it means for the future, though we think it is, on balance, bad:

A typical boy of 1854 knew what farming was like and may well have worked on a farm, knew horses and other animals, and learned how to maintain and fix things, from houses to wagons to furniture. A typical young man of 1947 had been in the army, knew people who lived on farms, could tune and maintain his own car, and could change the fan belt on the refrigerator and refill it with Freon. Both the boy and the young man had some feel for the technologies that were developing and changing around them, since the technologies were often sized on a human scale and involved mechanical processes that they had some acquaintance with.

To an important extent, this is no longer true. You can’t fix an iPod the way you can fix a record player; indeed you can’t even open up an iPod to understand it, as you could unscrew the turntable cover to figure out how 33 1/3 rpm became 45 rpm. Nor can you fool around with a Toyota Prius the same way you could try to replace a 283 with a 327 in a ’57 Chevy.

We are not trying to be gooey and sentimental. We are not romanticizing The World We have Lost. Far from it. Today’s technology provides far greater health and wealth to a vastly larger world population than existed in those other times. We love refineries, steel mills, job shops, machine tools and oil rigs, but we are not suggesting, like Mao, a steel mill in your back yard or, like some current political nativists, some form of return to a manufacturing economy. However, we are saying that it is necessary to understand such things.

We hypothesize that, to some extent, the microchip culture we have now, where miraculous tiny things just somehow work, without moving parts, has produced a form of magical thinking in our country. (We also blame the Hollywood Utopians for this too — their creations often seek, not to mirror or enhance reality, but to create rather harmful alternative realities, but that is another matter.) Americans complain about gas prices, but they don’t like refineries, and they oppose oil drilling in godforsaken wastelands; yet somehow the gas is supposed to be readily available at low prices: this is but one example of a sort of magical thinking that seems to us the exact opposite of the way Americans thought in 1854 or 1947.

We think it is urgent for our future that Americans understand and teach our young people about the enormous developments that have happened since the nineteenth century. So far, such efforts seem to us to be largely centered on self-congratulatory sociological claptrap, where the current generation, with all its “diversity,” is superior to all those who have come before. Such thinking is worse than nonsense; if unchecked, it is a steppingstone to the downfall of the country.

In some small way, we think that standing on its head the thinking of Charles Eliot is what is required today. Harvard President Eliot was a great educator and thinker who changed the classical curriculum to make it more suitable for fast-developing America, through increased specialization. (Eliot began teaching at Harvard in that year of 1854, by the way.) We quote him via an unusually well-written entry in Wikipedia:

“As a people, we do not apply to mental activities the principle of division of labor; and we have but a halting faith in special training for high professional employments. The vulgar conceit that a Yankee can turn his hand to anything we insensibly carry into high places, where it is preposterous and criminal. We are accustomed to seeing men leap from farm or shop to court-room or pulpit, and we half believe that common men can safely use the seven-league boots of genius. What amount of knowledge and experience do we habitually demand of our lawgivers? What special training do we ordinarily think necessary for our diplomatists? — although in great emergencies the nation has known where to turn. Only after years of the bitterest experience did we come to believe the professional training of a soldier to be of value in war. This lack of faith in the prophecy of a natural bent, and in the value of a discipline concentrated upon a single object, amounts to a national danger.”

We agree with Eliot of course that the modern world needs specialization, but it needs anew the inculcation of a general understanding of and feel for the development of our technologies and businesses and how we came so far as a people so fast. There is no argument for Americans’ being as cut off from the world of 1854 or 1947 as they are today; only harm can come from such ignorance.

Update to iPod Ruining for the further consequences of iPhone and twitter:

Within the lifetime and personal memories of many Americans still living, most everyone knew farmers and soldiers. As late as America’s entry into World War I, over 42% of Americans still lived on farms. Your grandparents knew farmers and soldiers. It’s hard not to know a farmer or have spent time on a farm when 4 out of 10 of your countrymen lived their lives in agriculture.

Similarly, everyone knew soldiers not so long ago. WWI drafted 2.8 million Americans, when America only had 50 million men in total. WWII took 10 million draftees, and there were 3.4 million between Korea and Vietnam. One way of looking at Vietnam, for example, is that the draftees were as many as all boys in the United States who turned 18 in 1970 — a pretty large group of Baby Boomers. And none of these figures include the men who enlisted — surprisingly, perhaps, the total number of Vietnam veterans is over 2,500,000. So for a long time in America it has been true that most Americans knew something of farming and the military in a direct personal way.

No longer. As a statistical matter today, there are almost no new soldiers or farmers in America. Annual military recruits amount to 175,000 or so a year in a country of 300,000,000. And it’s even worse in agriculture. There are lilterally almost no new farmers in America today. At the time of WWII, farming still occupied 18% of the labor force — it’s less than 2% today. Every single year America loses more farmers than it creates. Many (perhaps most?) young Americans probably have not one single friend who becomes a farmer or soldier today.

Mark Steyn asks from time to time why there have been virtually no war songs during the last decade, as opposed to WWII. Part of the reason is Hollywood, of course, but another aspect of the phenomenon is this: all Americans were involved in WWII (see the PBS Soundies program, for example); very few are involved in America’s battles today. In WWII, war songs were about us; today war songs would be about them.

We sometimes hear from voices in the new media that this is the same America that won WWII. Well, this is pretty clearly not the America of WWII. Not even close, as the 5.4 million majority of those under 30 proved last November when they voted. And there is not much memory of that older America to boot. There are justifiable reasons to be very concerned about these collective losses of experience, memory and toughness in our very dangerous world.

The inventions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were disruptive, as we noted seven years ago. But they were disruptive over an extended period of time, since their roll-outs were slow and uneven. But seven years ago there were no iPhones, no twitter, no tumblr, almost no YouTube, and indeed, our first mention of Google was only months old. Furthermore, the roll-out of these technologies has been nearly instant and worldwide. Six years ago, for example, Facebook was arguably worth a mere billion dollars or so. Fast forward: there are more than a billion smartphones in use today, for example. We have a country where the young don’t know Shakespeare and haven’t read the Bible, and their lives are almost wholly unconnected with the past. No wonder that things are so messed up.

It will be interesting to see whether and to what extent values of the past might be recaptured in the USA after the inevitable debt crisis hits. Hard to say what will happen when behaviors like illegitimacy can’t be afforded anymore and the religion of secularism breaks down. Better to be in a red state than a blue state when that time comes.

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