Retired software engineer. "What is that?", you may ask. It's someone who has time to blog about the weather...
By: Bogon , 7:50 AM GMT on November 12, 2012
I am a creature of the twentieth century. I was born smack in the middle of it. I spent all my youth and most of the better parts of my middle age in it. The thing is, when one lives for a long time in the same place, one acquires certain habits and expectations.
In the century where I was born, there was an expectation of change: political change, social change and, most of all, technological change. For most of my working life I was pleased to navigate the shifting currents of technology. My outlook is fundamentally scientific. As a young man I wanted to be out there on the bleeding edge, helping to scout out the future.
Not everyone was happy with the prospect of change. Take, for example, the religious conservatives who still travel by horse and buggy. They want to stop the clock, to live a more sedate life. More power to 'em, I say. I have a growing feeling that we could all learn something there. Not about religion, necessarily, but about how a human being is meant to live.
Then, as now, there were those who felt that change threatened their way of life or their privileged status. Often these folks are correct. Historic social trends point toward a more open and egalitarian society. Those who imagine themselves to be inherently superior and entitled are cruising for disappointment. Rank, privilege and respect must be earned. They cannot be decreed, arrogated or inherited. The same general idea applies to religious zealots, who claim that only they possess the keys to heaven. Those people need to get out more. Their deity, if he/she/it exists, is surely free to prove me wrong. I'm altogether willing to take that chance. I figure I know just as much about the unknowable as they do. Maybe a bit more — they apparently don't realize that some things are, in fact, unknowable.
Some people, myself included, worried that the hell bent pace of technological change endangered the welfare of the planet. Sometimes that put me in a conflict of interest. Most of the time I kept on doing my job and tried not to think too much about it. Some folks dropped out, joined a commune and sought to live closer to nature. Far be it from me to say they were wrong.
There were hopeful signs. During the seventies a wave of consciousness raising led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. Laws were passed to control pollution and to preserve extant species of plants and animals. It seemed an optimistic change. Maybe it wasn't too late to take action, to make a difference.
In the early eighties a majority of the American people got tired of the pace. They voted for Ronald Reagan. Avuncular cowboy Ron calmed them down. He represented a return to a simpler time, the mythical Good Old Days. He spoke for traditional American values. He reassured us that the American Dream was still achievable.
Reagan's message didn't jibe with reality. The pace of change was accelerating. Like it or not, things were going to get different. Personal computers hit the market during Reagan's first term. A decade later we had the internet. Phones became portable. People chose to share intimate details of their personal lives via the web.
Up until this time I had been a happy camper. The nerd in me reveled in high tech. The human in me was... aging. There were warning signs. I spent the late nineties working on Y2K bugs. Most of these came about because widely circulated paper documents were designed with date blanks of the form 19__. The software shop where I worked sold digital versions of several such documents. The fix we adopted was to introduce a four digit year: ____. It wasn't a perfect fix. Dates entered with only two digits still defaulted to the twentieth century. It was, after all, twentieth century software.
I continued to work at the same place after the millennial odometer rolled over. Increasingly I was obliged to fix bugs that arose because our old software had issues with newer versions of the operating system. Our customers understandably wanted to run the latest generation of computers. Our boss unaccountably refused to allocate the resources necessary to bring the company's software up to twenty-first century standards. Like me, he was getting older. Undoubtedly he was anxious about the future, complacent in the present.
Eventually I grew tired of chasing a moving target. Indeed, to a software engineer much of the change seemed gratuitous. It was not introduced to fix bugs; it was decreed by Microsoft's marketing department in order to sell more software. Each iteration of this vicious cycle introduced more bugs, more incompatibilities and more problems for people obliged to use the software. I wanted off that treadmill. Eventually I got married and moved away. I lost a job, but I gained a wife and measure of serenity.
Now I'm a 20th century guy adrift in the 21st century. Sometimes I feel a bit like this guy.
This picture was painted by Winslow Homer in 1899. Perhaps people back then worried about Y1.9K bugs.
As we age we weary of riding the wave. We look for shelter and something solid to cling to. We are increasingly comfortable with the old and familiar, the tried and true. The other day I watched an old movie, The Electric Horseman. I was surprised, actually, at just how old it has become. Doesn't seem that long ago...
Anyhow, there is one scene in which the enterprising reporter, played by Jane Fonda, enters a phone booth and calls her office. It all seemed utterly familiar. I remember how to do that. You have this big black phone constructed with the solidity of a vending machine. For decades (until roughly Y2K) they were everywhere.
Now we have the cellular phone. Cell phones contribute to that uneasy feeling I was talking about. To me they are a case of technology going one step too far. I don't like carrying the dang thing. Hands, keys, change and wallet are enough to fill my pockets. I don't like things hanging off my belt. Most of all, I don't like the implication that I have to be reachable. Wrong. You can call the number any time you wish. I might have the danged gizmo with me, and it might be turned on. All or nothing: I don't use the voice mail. Different era, different expectation. It amuses me that cell phones don't work at Mom's house. There's no signal. If you gotta have phone, it's land line only. I'm glad there's still somewhere like that on the planet. I know how to live there.
If you read the hype, you might believe that the whole world is on Facebook. I'm not. I never have been, and I have no desire to start. I believe in personal privacy. I don't need to emit a tweet every time I visit the restroom. Some things are nobody's business but mine.
So why am I hitting you with all this first person singular verbiage? Well, I guess I'm looking for company, for evidence of shared experience. A lot of us who blog here seem to be of a certain age. Are you also tossing restlessly on the Gulf Stream of a new century?
Today I had a sudden realization, a kind of epiphany, about a big part of what has been bothering me. As a 20th century man, I have been clinging to old habits of thought. Namely there was this optimism, that we might all find the wisdom to slow down, to back off, to seek a better balance with the planet that sustains us. I'm not talking about a retreat into Ronald Reagan dreamland. I'm talking about reordering priorities, inventing a better way to live.
That idea turns out to be a non-starter. It's too late. The polluters, deniers, flacks, shills and apologists have won. They have presented us with a fait accompli. The world that I hoped to save is lost and gone forever. Dreadful sorry, Clementine.
That's a big dose of pessimism to swallow all at once, but it helps to let go. I can stop caring now. Bring on the apocalypse.
On a personal level I can take comfort, that as a 20th century relic I probably won't survive to see the worst that is to come. I only wish I could live long enough to see the polluters, shills etc. discomfited. As things grow inexorably worse, the defenders of our carbon-based economy, who evidently consider present profits more important than the public welfare, will be obliged to spend an increasing fraction of their precious profits on things that are no fun at all. Things like filters to keep nasties out of their air and water.
They'll have to spend more for suitable land to construct their mansions. They'll have to build houses like fortresses to withstand the "new normal" weather.
They'll need fences and guards to keep ordinary people out of their estates, anyone who might covet their wealth or wish to hold them personally accountable for the deterioration of everybody's environment. They'll need to be secure at home, because they'll be spending a lot of time there. Travel will be risky. Their enemies will be following them on Facebook.
There probably won't be that many places worth going anyway. Will it still be possible to swim unprotected in the ocean? Will you risk prolonged exposure to sunlight on a mountain top? Can you buy local food for any amount of money? Can you buy safety, security, trust or allegiance?
Money is an abstraction. Reality trumps money every time.
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