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Have you ever thought about the march of progress? For many millennia, our ancestors lived much the same way. You could die, be brought back to life 10,000 years later, and discover nothing had changed. Food was still wormy and rancid, tools were still made of rocks, folks still walked everywhere, and the Cubs were still losing. Then, a rapid series of developments dramatically increased the rate of human progress: the domestication of animals; the forging of metals; the shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture; the emergence of written language, eventually followed by the printing press, which permitted the dissemination of ideas, which inevitably led to the computer chip, which culminated in our generation’s greatest invention, the battery-powered pepper-grinder.
If you feel as if you can’t keep up with modern society, it’s because our knowledge and technology are expanding at a faster clip each year. Imagine progress is a baseball and you are a batter. Instead of the ball losing power and dropping to the ground as it approaches home plate, it increases in speed, unaffected by the forces of gravity and inertia. When the ball reaches you, it will be traveling 1,000 miles per hour. By the time you swing the bat, the ball will be 50 feet past you, which explains why you always feel behind and why, when you buy a cell phone, a new cell phone is introduced the next week with twice the features.
This is all to say that I have a house full of stuff that yesterday was deemed essential to life but today is considered worthless by everyone but me. In my office closet is a Smith-Corona manual typewriter. It saw my wife through high school and college, and then I used it for seven years of college and graduate school before I purchased a Panasonic word processor in 1991, which I still have, next to the typewriter, in the back of the closet. I gave them up only because it was impossible to find ribbons and ink for them. At the turn of the century, when we thought our electrical grid was going to crash, I dusted off the Smith-Corona, ready to face any and all calamities. I’m keeping it just in case the Mayans were right and the world blows up in 2012. Our electrical grid will be the first thing to go, and I will record the apocalypse for posterity, pecking away on my formerly obsolete Smith-Corona.
Propping open our kitchen door is a clothes iron that my mother-in-law gave me. It belonged to her mother, predates electricity, and was heated by placing it on a wood stove. When electric irons were introduced, people couldn’t get rid of their old irons fast enough. When our world collapses, everyone is going to be staggering around in wrinkled clothing, looking like hell, except for me. I will heat the iron on our wood stove, sprinkle a little water on my pants, and iron a crisp-as-you-please crease down each leg. We’ll see who’s laughing then.
My brother Glenn was in the Coast Guard, where he learned to use semaphore flags to communicate with neighboring ships. When his enlistment ended, he brought the flags home and stashed them in my parents’ attic, where I found them and then stashed them in mine. When our phones no longer work, and that day will come sooner than you think, I’ll hurry to my attic, carry down my semaphore flags, and not miss a beat. If my neighbor Brian wants to know if I can go to lunch with him, all he’ll have to do is stand out front of my house and watch me flag “Meet you at the Clayton Cafe at noon.” My wife doesn’t know how to use semaphore flags, so she will be unable to tell me it’s my turn to wash the dishes. Since man first crawled out of the primordial ooze, there has been no greater invention than the semaphore flag.
When my in-laws’ farm got electrical power in 1948, my mother-in-law stored their kerosene lamps down in their cellar on a shelf next to the potato bin. Now the government is mandating the use of fluorescent lightbulbs, which are supposed to last twice as long as an incandescent bulb and use a fourth of the electricity. Because I’m a law-abiding citizen, I bought several dozen fluorescent lightbulbs to illuminate our home. Within a few months, all of them had burnt out, except for the three that blew up. I later learned I was supposed to have emptied the room of people and pets, opened the windows to ventilate the room, shut off the central heat, donned gloves and a mask, swept up the broken glass from the shattered bulbs using stiff paper or cardboard, used sticky tape to pick up any remnant pieces of glass, mopped the floor, placed the debris in a glass jar, and then contacted the local authorities for the disposal requirements. I didn’t do any of that and fully expect to fall over dead from mercury poisoning, or face indictment. Meanwhile, those kerosene lamps, which the government warned my in-laws not to use in 1948 because of the danger they posed, are still in the cellar and looking better every day.
Another device I’m glad I’ve held onto is the slide rule my science teacher, Mr. Kirts, taught me to use. For years, people have mocked me when they’ve seen it in my pocket protector. But when sunspots emit huge bursts of electromagnetic power, frying all of our electronics, those same people will be standing in line to use my slide rule. Fine Christian that I am, I will forgive them and, for a modest fee, let them use it. I will also let them borrow my manual pepper-grinder.
Far be it from me to question the tide of progress, but someday we might want to ask ourselves whether all this advancement is desirable. A long time ago, before we killed them off in the name of progress, Native Americans believed we should never travel so far in one day that our souls couldn’t keep up. Now ethicists think our rate of progress has outpaced our moral development. For instance, Dr. Richard Gatling invented the Gatling gun in 1861, and our souls have struggled to keep up ever since. He invented it to make the practice of war so horrible it would become obsolete. Unfortunately, Dr. Gatling seriously misjudged our capacity for gore. Now we can kill our fellow man from thousands of miles away with a push of a button, return home to our families in time for supper, fall asleep watching The Tonight Show, and be up and at ’em early the next morning, ready to kill with cheerful efficiency more fathers, mothers, and children. Aren’t you glad we’re not cavemen?
Illustration by Ryan Snook.
This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue.
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