At the start of the summer, I attended a graduation ceremony in Vermont, for which a bigshot speaker had been flown up from New York. “Your world is changing so fast!” he told them, as is traditional on these occasions.
I couldn’t see it myself. For one thing, no matter how fast our world changes, college education seems to get slower and slower, judging from the remarkably aged appearance of many of these Green Mountain “youth.” But in a broader sense, precisely what is changing so fast? Their first car is no different from my first car. Which was no different from my grandfather’s first car. To be sure, they’ve dispensed with the hand crank and rumble seat and installed a GPS and iPod dock, but essentially it runs on the same technology as a century back. Which are the faster-moving times? The age that invents the internal-combustion engine? Or the age that plugs a Justin Bieber download into it?
I make a similar argument in my new book, and I find it’s the part that most annoys those folks otherwise supportive of my thesis. After all, they point out from various corners of the planet, without the Internet they’d never have heard of me. Fair enough — if your measure of societal progress is more efficient means of Steyn distribution. But I can’t help feeling there ought to be more to it than that.
Imagine that Vermont class a century ago, the summer of 1911. The Model T had just gone into production a couple of years earlier, the age of manned flight had gotten off the ground. And they had their version of Justin Bieber downloads, too: Do you know Lady Gaga’s smash hit “Telephone”? It was the latest thing for ten minutes a year or so back. But they had telephone songs at the turn of the 20th century, too! “Hello, Ma Baby!” “Hello, Central, Give Me Heaven.” They had lots of songs about other exciting new inventions, too: There were telegraph numbers (“There’s a Wireless Station Down in My Heart”), automobile numbers (“Come Away with Me, Lucille, in My Merry Oldsmobile”), aeroplane numbers (“Come, Josephine, in My Flying Machine”). There were so many inventions for singers to sing about, they had no time left to sing about the novelties of their own industry, in which the wax cylinder was about to be superseded by the 78-rpm phonograph record. In the years that that Vermont Class of 1911 had been in college, the Nickelodeon had led to a boom in what we would soon call motion pictures. And yet, what with all the other things going on — with electrification and the internal-combustion engine enabling man to conquer both night and distance, time and space, and other footling stuff — these exciting showbiz novelties were generally regarded as peripheral to progress. Instead of the be-all and end-all of it. In the second decade of the 21st century, technological innovation means we’re thrilled if Apple invents a device for downloading Katy Perry that’s an eighth of an inch slimmer than the previous model. So today, instead of songs for the age of invention, we have inventions for an age of songs.