There’s a lot of hype and propaganda these days about how progress and change are such positive forces for mankind — the COVID vaccine was invented and disseminated in record time, saving millions of lives — and books and pundits are celebrating humanity’s triumphant march into the future.
I don’t win any popularity contests with friends or on Facebook when I not-so-respectfully dissent from all this optimism. The common response is, “There he goes again! Always being negative!” In fact, to me, the only positive thing about most of these comments is that someone will occasionally use the word curmudgeon as a term of ignominy — a description I actually love.
But I believe that many of those who celebrate the “positive” things in life know they’re just lying to themselves and trying to bury their fears about the future and their terror at growing old under a cloak of false optimism.
“Change is good!” is a mantra that is drummed into us — often by those whose real definition of change is the kind that rings merrily in the cash register. But if we’re being honest, who actually feels anything but a shard of dread each time “upgrade necessary” flashes on the computer? (It’s no surprise that last year’s incredibly dangerous SolarWinds software hack, probably a Russian attack on some of our most sensitive computer systems, was embedded in one of these “routine upgrades.”)
Yes, progress has brought us many good things, but do we need to get them every week? Our great-great-grandparents were happy for decades to enjoy music in the concert hall, or, at home, on the piano. Then the gramophone was invented, and for many years afterward, people thrilled to those big, heavy 78 rpm records. Then around 1950, the 33 ⅓ record displaced these — along with those little 45s we loved to stack on the record player. Some 30 years later, cassettes and then CDs took their place.
But in the 21st century, new innovations spring forth almost every year. We can now stream music at will, from phones, computers, and shower stalls — and we can order it up by shouting at Siri or Alexa, getting any music, anytime, anywhere … isn’t that something to be celebrated?
I’d say no. What used to be special has now become less-than-ordinary. It used to be an occasion to buy a new record — just holding it in our hands, perusing the cover and the jacket copy — all of this is just a distant memory to those of us who are lucky to actually remember it. And if you do remember it, don’t you miss the excitement, the specialness of those experiences? Streaming new sounds on Spotify constantly is no replacement.
Of course, there are truly positive and enchanting novelties to discover. I certainly love to try different foods — if they are genuine cuisines and not some concoction of a celebrity chef attempting to trend on Twitter. And I’m happy to say yes to reading some new books and meeting (some) new people. But there’s so much more richness in exploring what we already have — in learning more about those places that are already part of our lives instead of endlessly jumping into those depressing airplanes to take us to disparate and foreign places to check off our bucket lists.
One of the more amusing aspects of our addiction to novelty is that the past keeps getting recycled as what was boring and passé one minute becomes “retro” and exciting the next. Are people actually rediscovering the joys and innovations of the ’90s? The ’90s?!
I’m sorry, but the charm and the excitement of this increasingly dizzying merry-go-round escape me. And I’m happy to just jump off.
I would happily adopt Nancy Reagan’s anti-drug motto, “Just say no!,” but since I’m a curmudgeon in the face of the 21st century’s cornucopia of newness, I’ll settle for Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener’s response: “I would prefer not to.”
This article is featured in the March/April 2022 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
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