Thursday, 15 June 2017

"Further progress? Hell yes!"

After dinner was over, we moved out side into the cool evening air  to continue our conversation over cocktails. Everyone was feeling happy after our huge barbecued steak dinner. We were in a self-congratulatory mood, with plenty of affable back-slapping; stocks were riding high and the middle of the 20th century was all ours.

As we made our way out, Clarence said that he wanted to carry on about with his main theme of the day's conference. "Let's go back, my friends, to the America of our childhoods, and just think about the progress that our generation has gifted to humanity." We sat ourselves down in the sunloungers around the pool and waved to the boy to wheel out the drinks trolley. Clarence continued: "Look at it this way. The atom will soon be giving us unlimited, free, energy. Mass production brings all sorts of devices, from the vacuum cleaner to the Frigidaire, into the financial reach of consumers in markets around the world. It will do more and more, until everyone has everything he needs. We can fly at the speed of sound. Passenger flights from coast to coast are now commonplace. Television will soon replace radio, like the jet plane will replace the steam train. The workforce at my plant are more prosperous than any employees of any employer ever. Why, most of my guys drive to work in their own autos! And just think back to the horseless buggies that our fathers drove! That is progress! Ignorance and disease will soon pass into history. If you think that progress of the past half-century has been fabulous - and it has - just wait to see what the future brings. Our grandchildren will be conquering space."

Self-satisfaction settled upon us all. Yup - we were sure this is how it would be. No dissenting voices. "Let's just make sure no commies get in our way!" said Earl, waving his beer glass.

I felt it was time to say a few words. "Fellows - I'm sure that like me, you can remember that day, nearly half a century ago, when you first heard about powered heavier-than-air flight. As a child, the exploits of the Wright Brothers gave me the sense that the world was ours to conquer. And the automobile. When I got back from France in 1918, first thing I did was to go out and buy a Model T.

"The Wright Brothers flew the length of a football field. Just 45 years later, Chuck Yeager breaks the sound barrier. Aircraft can fly faster, further, carrying ever-heavier loads; jets replace propellers. Imagine the same pace of change brought forward another half-century or so." I went on: "If we could build a time-machine, and could bring a man born just a century before us to today, he'd be unable to cope with the marvels that he could see, wherever he looked. Imagine packing such a man, born in the 1790s, onto the American Airlines flight from Roanoke to New York, then showing him the skyscrapers, the stock exchange, the Subway..."

As that thought sunk in amongst my listeners, I allowed myself a pause to take a sip of bourbon on the rocks. In the distance, I could hear the comforting muffled roar of trucks and autos on the newly-built state highway. I continued:

"Now, gentlemen, let us imagine stepping forward into 2051! How will our world look then? Nuclear-powered space liners taking us to our holidays on Mars? Cars that can travel at 250 miles per hour? Miniature televisions that we can wear on the wrist?"

Clarence took a puff on a Havana cigar, sitting forward, elbows on his knees. "Gentlemen - the pace of change is accelerating. Can we even begin to imagine life in fifty, a hundred years time? We're unable to catch that. Our minds are just... too dull, too tied down to the everyday to catch just a sliver of a sense of what it will be like."

I realised that sat by the pool was this Red Indian guy, around the same age as us, dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and khaki slacks. Had he been there all along, except that I'd failed to notice him? Who was he? Had he been invited, or was he a worker here - or even a guest? Don't know.

Anyway, he stood up and said: "White man - you have created the jet plane and the V-8 motor - but you have lost within yourselves that which is of the spirit. For what end are you devising these inventions? You think you are clever - you think they are bring happiness - but you're spoiling our world - and the saddest thing is - you don't... even know it." Having said these words, he left.

The awkward silence that fell upon our company was replaced by laughter that felt in equal measure aggressive, and defensive.

And so ended a most insightful evening.

This time nine years ago:
The 1970s and the 2000s

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