Which Way is Straight Ahead?
It may be uplifting to think in terms of constant and inevitable progress – but it’s not very realistic. In many ways, our society seems to be stuck, or even sliding backward.
As one example, consider this anachronism: in an era of streamlined electronic cyber-finance, we are still accepting as “legal tender” little round pieces of metal not substantially different from the coins which circulated two millennia ago. They are certainly not necessary – and neither are postage stamps – but we cling to them.
Yet none of this should surprise us, when we are surrounded with other relics of bygone times that are still in use. We still have pens which we “operate” by hand – and pencils have changed even less. And we still write on wood-derived sheets of paper, hardly changed (except now of poorer quality) from those used centuries ago.
And despite all the technological advances which have in fact been made, it is still human beings (at least in my part of the world) who come around from door to door, to deliver the newspapers and the mail, collect the garbage, and tend the shrubbery – to say nothing of those whom we still have to go out to in person, to have our hair cut, our nails trimmed, or our teeth cleaned.
Our garments too are antiquated (look at all the men who are still wearing neckties!) and our dwelling systems, based on individual domestic units, each requiring its own temperature control, plumbing system, and food facilities, are incredibly redundant and wasteful.
But I am not complaining. We should probably be glad that we still have so much of the past to hold on to, as we plunge into an uncertain future. I, for one, take comfort in what we have retained of old songs and stories, old buildings, and even old ideas about manners, loyalty, and love.
Nevertheless (if I may return to yesterday), the persistence of metal coinage astonishes me. In our country, it has survived to a ridiculous extreme, as embodied in the so-called copper penny, which, since 1982, has contained only 2.5% copper. The other 97.5% is zinc. Yet, it still costs significantly more than one cent to make each of these coins. And, as everyone knows, there is virtually nothing you can buy with one of them anymore, anyway.
But you can bet that when the time finally comes to do away with these vestigial oddities – (no doubt as the first step toward eliminating all “cash”) – there will be a great public outcry, mass demonstrations, and genuine emotional anguish at the loss of something which has, since time immemorial, been a part of all our lives. I suppose the action will be phased in gradually, to lessen the pain.
But the penny is only one example of how our advanced society, always on the cutting edge of civilization, is in fact still sucking its thumb. An even more blatant case is America’s refusal so far to join the rest of the world and “go metric.” Are we hoping that they’ll all eventually see the light, and come over to our system?
Don’t get me wrong. These issues aren’t always cut and dried. You might think that driving on the right, as we do, is, or by now should be, universal. But in fact, one-third of all the world’s peoples (including Japan and India) still keep to the left.
For me personally, however, a particularly galling relic, which we all live with every day, is the ghastly blight of utility poles and wires that still deface most of our streets, as they have done for much of the past two centuries. It’s a matter of aesthetics versus economics. Most people would probably like to get rid of this grotesque eyesore by putting the whole system where it belongs – underground – but few are willing to pay the cost, especially when there are so many more pressing needs – such as for bombs and missiles.
Anyway, where do we draw the line? There can, of course, never be a time when everything’s “up to date” – not even in Kansas City. For the foreseeable future (which is itself something of an oxymoron), the new and the old will continue wrestling with each other.
Long after our time, issues pitting Belief against Disbelief, Marriage against Sexual Freedom, and Velcro versus Laces will be gallantly fighting it out on the battlefield of human prayers and preferences.