Can we awaken from the dreams of recent years?

Following is a variation of a piece we wrote exactly three years ago, with some thoughts in a postscript. There are elements of the original piece that perhaps recommend themselves to reconsideration today, due to the historic bubbles of recent days and their sudden, sometimes calamitous collapse.

We have written a number of pieces about the remarkable changes of the last 130 years; they often include a variation of this characterization of our recent technological and economic progress:

Some signal facts 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 perhaps 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 invented 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 at the end of an era; soon, 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 easily 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 hope we are not romanticizing a world we have lost; it is common enough, as well as wrong, to excessively mythologize the past. 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 some form of return to a isolationist’s vision of a manufacturing economy. However, we are saying that it is fit and proper 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 very unlike 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, change, and hope, thinks itself superior to all those who have come before. Such flummery is also as destructive as it is common.

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.

Postscript: A sharp sting of reality tends to focus the mind. While it certainly seems possible that the cure can be worse than the disease, is it also not possible that, if those predicting really tough times ahead (eg, this and this) are correct, the American mind could get refocused away from the easy, lazy fantasies of recent years? Or have we fallen so far that recapturing a traditional American perspective on hardship and progress is beyond our grasp?

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