Phil Gulley: The Lie of Progress

It makes lots of promises, but rarely delivers.

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gulley-copyWhen my mother-in-law died, my wife and I inherited her farmhouse and decided to renovate it. Once we had finished, the garage looked shabby in comparison, so we spruced it up, too. The man we hired to do the work suggested we add electricity to the garage to light it up. My mother-in-law had kept a flashlight by the front door for when she went to the garage at night. Now there’s a switch on the porch and, when it’s flipped, the yard and garage are illuminated as bright as noon. I miss the slight intrusion of the flashlight, the beam slicing through the dark, highlighting only what we needed to see and nothing more. The whole enterprise has made me wonder what other developments I’ll come to regret. I’m at peace with my current life and sometimes worry a burst of innovation will upend things. One can only endure so many advances.

I recently came across an internet
radio. I knew they had been invented, but I had somehow avoided seeing one until dining at a friend’s house.

“What’s that?” I asked, pointing to a box on his kitchen table.

“An internet radio,” he said. “We can listen to thousands of stations from all around the world.”

When I hear the word “radio,” I think of the first one I ever owned, a 1931 Philco floor model, the kind families gathered around while Franklin Delano Roosevelt told them things weren’t as bad as they seemed, that we had nothing to fear but fear itself. The Philco was a gift from the widow next door, Mrs. Stanley, who gave it to me in 1971, on my 10th birthday. It ran on vacuum tubes, which frequently blew, requiring a bicycle trip to Al Money’s radio shop on the town square. It had six buttons on it, each one bearing the call letters of a specific radio station, depending on where you lived. It was like your favorite uncle—solidly built and authoritative, in a kindly, glowing sort of way. The technology was done in by three engineers from Bell Labs, who invented the transistor in 1947. All those gorgeous old radios in their handsome wooden cases that had faithfully accompanied us through the Great Depression and World War II were kicked to the curb. I’m still not over it.

A few years ago, Ford had the bright idea of ditching the volume and tuning knobs on its car radios and replacing them with a flat-screen system called Sync. In addition to being complicated, it routinely fails to follow commands. My 2013 Ford Flex has a Sync system, though driving it makes me suicidal, so I bought a 1999 Toyota Corolla from my neighbor and drive it instead. The alternative was driving to Detroit and roughing up the Ford engineers who wouldn’t leave well enough alone.

That’s the dark side of innovation—it seldom produces something entirely new, filling a much-needed gap. Instead, it replaces a device already admirably performing its intended task. Was the gasoline-powered lawn mower superior to the goat, which in addition to keeping our lawns clipped also gave us milk, cheese, and wool? Was the electric shaver an improvement on the straight-edge razor and shaving soap, which left our skin smooth and fragrant? Has Otis Spunkmeyer made a better cookie than your grandmother? Was Mike Pence a greater governor than Mitch Daniels?

The house I was raised in was built before automobiles were in wide use, so it lacked a garage. It did, however, have a barn with a stall for the horse that pulled a carriage. It had a hayloft to store the straw for the horse, a long workbench, and a basketball rim nailed to wooden planks over the door. The young couple that bought the house from my parents had the good sense to leave the barn standing so their sons would have somewhere to play on rainy days. There isn’t a garage in town more useful than that barn, but several times a year someone will say to them, “If it were up to me, I’d tear that barn down and put up a garage.” It’s a frightening thought that such people are permitted to vote.

Before we decide to improve something, we should make sure improvement is needed. Over the years, I’ve known several men who thought they’d be better off ditching their perfectly good wives to run off with someone they met at a bar. After a month or two, they realized their mistake, and begged their wives to take them back. The wives, having the good sense to know when they were ahead, usually refused and went on to live perfectly happy lives, while their ex-husbands ended up eating Thanksgiving dinner at Waffle House.

As long as we’re discussing developments we’ll later regret, Google and Tesla are now racing to see who can mass-produce the first driverless car, anticipating a big demand in the years ahead. I’m not sure what to think about this. While it will likely reduce human error, thereby making travel safer, it will simultaneously exclude human whimsy. We’ll be ushered from one place to another by the shortest route possible. There’ll be no detours down scenic roads, no speeding up on a straight patch of pavement to see how fast our new car will go, no slowing down to enjoy the scenery. We’ll type in where we’re going, sit back, fall asleep, and wake at our destination. My wife and I were driving to a Quaker meeting not long ago and stopped to watch a bald eagle high up in a tree over White Lick Creek. With driverless cars, there’ll be no more stopping on country roads to look at bald eagles.

What we really need is to figure out how to uninvent things. I’d pay good money for someone to uninvent the smartphone, which has single-handedly killed our dinner conversations, allowed parents to rob their children’s independence, and eliminated the thrill of being lost. On the plus side, we can now go on Facebook no matter where we are and argue with people we’ve never met.

Come to think of it, in addition to uninventing the smartphone and driverless car, I would eliminate cars in general. I’m not sure getting places faster has been all that great. I once took a train from Helsinki, Finland, to Moscow, Russia, meeting people I never would have met had I been driving. In the evening, I walked back to the dining car and ate a delicious supper while rolling through the countryside. I think about that train trip every time my wife and I drive to our farm in Southern Indiana, stuck in construction traffic between Martinsville and Bloomington, the promise of progress all around us, forever out of reach.

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