All Commentary
Saturday, August 12, 2017

The New Dawn of an Amazing World

There is absolutely nothing I will do today that could have been done 100 years ago.

Someone just told me that I can say to my digital home assistant, “Buy me some new toilet paper” and it will arrive the next day. It’s true.

But I can’t do that right now. I don’t want to interrupt “You Go To My Head” performed by Chet Baker as part of an amazing jazz mix I chose from my computer to display and play on my huge TV that is about one inch thick (as compared to my childhood big-back TV which was thicker than the display).

Mind changed: now I’m listening to Tudor-era music by John Taverner. I caused this musical switch to happen by…talking. What’s that sound? My goodness, some creative person has made electronic versions of this 500-year-old vocal polyphony. The sound is indescribably beautiful.

In any case, while I’m listening to this music, and watching the beautiful images on my screen, I’m also busy buying $2,500 suits on eBay for $25, paying with one click. I don’t how it happens that I can get amazing suits for this price.

I also don’t understand how retail shops can stay in business by adding two zeros to the price of anything you can buy on the Internet for less than a Chet Baker song. It must be due to unknowing consumers, which, God bless them, some retailers seem to exploit to their advantage (and, evidently, to the consumers’ advantage too).

Dream it and it will be there tomorrow.I’m trying to think how much this life costs me. I pay $0.03 a day for my Google Music subscription (would you even bother to pick up three pennies off the ground?), and of course there is my broadband connection, which costs less than gas for my car, which, speaking of, gas seems to be falling in price by the day, disincentivizing my desire to shell out for the world’s greatest car, the all-electric Tesla, which is an iPhone on wheels and mostly drives itself.

As for the iPhone itself, that we call it a phone at all is an homage to the ancient world, since no one talks on the phone anymore except in extreme emergencies. When the phone rings, you think: “who died?” Instead we use this device to set the temperature in our home, monitor our exercise, text with anyone in the world, and instantly access all knowledge generated in human history.

And it’s not just that we can do cool things with these gadgets. It’s that they are all rooted in scalable platforms that can support infinite numbers of other things. The smartphone is a device that can control and access anything. Our convoluted wireless systems offer up an infinite number of applications. The only limit is the imagination itself. Dream it and it will be there tomorrow. Or more likely it was there last week and you just missed the headline.

You and I are always behind the times. Our technology is always out of date. There is always a better service we didn’t know we should be using. There is always a cooler app. For example, someone just told me about, another attempt to displace the global communicator Facebook, but with encrypted chat and there is a new economic model that pays for providing content. Interesting.

Nice problem: your cheap food isn’t sold at a place that plays classical music and has a philosophy. But not as interesting as discovering that while I slept, my magic Internet money account gained another 7% in value. I’m that much digitally richer by doing nothing but not spending. Come to think of it, that’s how money is supposed to work. How quickly we forget! We had to reinvent money via anonymous code slingers to save it from the wreckage of central banking.

Wait, I’m hungry. I can order takeout from just about any restaurant within 15 minutes, or even have groceries delivered to me, with a $5 premium over going there myself. And the prices of these things are far lower than they used to be.

I can bother to drive to Walmart where it seems like they are giving food away. I can’t stop bragging about this huge thing of sausage or cheese that I snagged at Walmart, and my friends respond with a sniff: I’m not going to that place.

Nice problem: your cheap food isn’t sold at a place that plays classical music and has a philosophy. So sorry for your life.

At the store itself, you can get…anything from anywhere, which is a weird thing to realize. I was in Grand Rapids last year and saw a replica of a typical grocery from a century ago. Everything for sale was in boxes, all dried goods. Oh yes, there were some eggs floating in a jar of vinegar. That was the most enticing thing there, unless you just love cereal for every meal. Pickled eggs: yum (I guess).

Recall that in those days, you couldn’t refrigerate anything. People had “ice boxes” until about the 1940s, which meant that nothing stayed fresh. If you snagged some veggies from the farmer’s market, you had to spend all weekend boiling them and putting them in jars so that you would have food for the winter. And what about meat? It mostly had to be jerky, if you could get it. Probably most of the stuff was rancid.

There is absolutely nothing I will do today that could have been done 100 years ago. This instant I’m mostly sad for these people back then because they couldn’t drink this amazing canned Loco coconut milk from Mexico, which tastes so good that there has to be something unhealthy about it. Too bad, people from 100 years ago: you could only get this if you lived in some far-away exotic country, or maybe on Gilligan’s Island.

And yet, as I think about, there is absolutely nothing I will do today that could have been done 100 years ago. Try to think of an exception. Sleeping: nope. I slept on my digital-age mattress made from various techy foam things that provide uncanny support and doesn’t shift when I move. I could put a glass of wine next to me and it would stay that way all night. Plus I have super fancy sheets that would have cost a fortune if you could even get them at all.

One-hundred years ago, I would not be sitting in this air-conditioned room, in which the temperature had better not be one degree warmer or cooler than it is supposed to be else I will complain. People in cold climates remember that the whole of their childhoods consisted of chopping, gathering, and cleaning the wood-burning furnace to stay warm (and cook!).

And we forget about the glories of indoor plumbing and sewage. I can take a hot shower just by walking over there. Unthinkable in past ages! And laundry? Wow. Imagine a world without a washing machine. Don’t imagine too long because it is unthinkable.

There was no recorded music. Books were only recently available for a mass consumer market, and were still a huge sign of luxury. The middle class was only then imagining the possibility of having a home library. Cars were for the richest of the rich, air travel was only by balloon to the next county, and there was an emergent controversy on the farm: should we really sell some horses to buy one of these new tractors or is this a fad that will come and go?

Even my mother got kitchen appliances as wedding gifts for a lifetime of use, and she and they thought they were amazing. Now we buy and throw out these things as consumerist sport.

Except for the Home Assistant. This is the new indispensable thing. How did we live without it? I guess I can ask. “My apologies,” she says, “I don’t understand.”

It’s a beautiful sentence because it reveals the most salient fact in our world: there is always more to do to make a better life.

That Not This Is Reality

Back to the news.

There are people protesting in the streets, seething in hatred of each other, struggling for power over each other, and there are statesmen holding their respective populations hostage in vicious battles for control.

What our times should actually teach us is that the good life comes through the opposite means: harmony not hatred, creativity not destruction, peace not war. It is through getting along, negotiating, inventing, marketing, and service that we advance as a people.

This one my home assistant gets right: “People who hope for a better world feel the need for a shared vision of the good life, a vision that is flexible enough for innumerable individual circumstances but comprehensive enough to unite people in optimistic, deliberate, progressive social change.”