Everybody knows Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr’s famous line regarding the illusory nature of change and what it means: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose is almost always used correctly as a literary way to observe that the more things appear to change, the less they really change. That change itself is illusory, generally denoting a shift in the cosmetic while leaving the essential untouched. That when someone tells you society has changed and adds the words “and we have to change along with it,” that person is more often than not trying to justify some wished-for innovation in the way we live by presenting it as an inevitability rather than attempting to demonstrate why it actually is a good idea. Why the French is so often misattributed to Proust, I have no idea. But the idea itself fascinates me and is what I’d like to write about this week.
The specific kind of change that Americans love the most is progress. But unlike “change,” the word “progress” is a loaded term, carrying along with its basic meaning the intimation of approval, the suggestion that the development in question is not just change for its own sake, but change for the better as society attempts to allow its reach to exceed its grasp and thus to self-improve through the sheer force of its own will to morph into a finer iteration of its earlier versions. That the way we live now is dramatically different now than the way people lived a century ago in the year of my father’s birth, let alone in 1816 or 1716, hardly seems worth bothering to demonstrate with examples. But whether things have really changed other than in terms of the specific way we wash our clothes or send each other letters—and if those changes can be labelled as true progress (that is, as the kind that results in a profoundly better society, not merely a different-looking one)—that is the question that engages me. Email is obviously a huge advance over snail mail, just as airplanes are incredibly more efficient than stagecoaches…but is efficiency a subcategory of true progress or is it just another example of the kind of change that, to go back to Karr’s epigram, doesn’t really change anything at all?
I’ve been reading and listening lately to an interesting debate between two professors at Northwestern University. On the one side, we have Professor Robert Gordon, author of The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War, published just this month by Princeton University Press. (To listen to a TED talk by the author summarizing the book’s findings, click here. To read more about the book itself, click here.) Professor Gordon’s argument, quickly summarized in the lecture and meticulously laid out in the book, is that the dramatic changes in American life that characterized the hundred-year stretch between 1870 and 1970 were real and profound, but that they will not be replicated in the years to come. And, that being the case, that it would be foolish for our nation to develop policies that blithely assume that the future will replicate the past merely because everyone wishes the rate of progress we have experienced in the relatively recent past would continue unabated into the future.
There are, according to the professor, several different reasons for this, but the one that interests me the most has to do with the concept of innovation, a subcategory of change related to, but not quite synonymous with, progress. The inventions that totally altered life in the one hundred years between 1870 and 1970, the professor argues, have truly changed society through and through and not just with respect to its outer appearance. But this kind of progress cannot be endlessly replicated with ever-newer gadgets because those machines addressed needs that, although they could conceivably be addressed even more efficiently (i.e., by having washing machines that do the laundry even faster than current models can manage), still cannot—or at least will not—be addressed with revolutionary technologies that require the population completely to re-conceptualize the tasks at hand and the way in which those tasks are performed. (In other words, the goal of doing the laundry will always be to take dirty clothing and make it clean. But now that the process is automated and efficient enough, the likelihood of anyone inventing and marketing an entirely new, dramatically better, way to accomplish that same goal is minimal.) Other kinds of changes could have been dismissed as mere upswings in efficiency, but taken as an aggregate have altered so much of how we live to warrant describing the century in question as a true boundary between what came before and what has and will come after.
Within the hundred years under consideration, for example, people stopped having to shop daily because of the introduction of electric refrigerators and this dramatically affected the nature of commerce in this country. The invention of the electric elevator made it possible to build buildings with many, many more floors than would have been possible if people had to walk up to their apartments, which innovation dramatically and permanently altered the nature of urban living. The invention of the internal combustion engine allowed America to divest itself of most of its horses, who in the nineteenth century stayed alive by eating produce grown on a full quarter of American farmland, and this in turn permanently changed the pricing of foodstuffs in the marketplace in a way that had profound implications for family life. The invention and installation of underground pipes allowed people no longer to have to walk to public wells to draw or pump their water, which changed the nature of neighborhoods and the level of hygiene that characterized urban, suburban, and even rural living. None of these things will be redone, let alone undone, because they all work well enough as is…and simply making them work better or more efficiently will not change society in anything like the way their initial introduction did. So, to sum up, the concept is that there surely is such a thing as progress…but it is something that alters society when a perfect storm of factors materializes, not an inevitable feature of societal life that we should expect to characterize the future merely because it characterized the past.
On the other side of the argument is Joel Mokyr, a professor of economics at Northwestern, who argues that innovation is an endlessly replicating thing, that the flaw in Professor Gordon’s thinking is that he imagines the future in terms of the past. (For a summary of his thinking in this regard, click here.) But is that reasonable? The truth is that the large majority of the most interesting innovations, including ones that changed entire industries, derived not from needs long felt and otherwise satisfied, but by needs never previously perceived at all that would have seemed unimaginable to earlier generations. The internet itself, for example, is not something someone invented to speak more efficiently to a need that generations past all dealt with, only less well and far less efficiently, but rather something entirely new, something that developed out of emerging technologies that suddenly came together to create something unprecedented that truly has changed the face of society as we know it. Are cell phones really just more efficient models of the huge plastic telephone attached to the wall of my parents’ kitchen? You could argue that, I suppose…but my parents’ phone didn’t take pictures or play music. You couldn’t read books on it, let alone daily newspapers and magazines. You certainly couldn’t speak to it and expect the telephone itself to answer you clearly and correctly when you asked it when the next train to Penn Station will leave Mineola or what some stock is trading at or what the weather is like in Auckland. So it’s only slightly correct to refer to my phone as a direct descendant of my parents’ wall unit, reasonable only in the same way you could refer to the space shuttle as a descendant of a birch canoe. All that being the case, it seems pointless to imagine that progress will slow when what we mean is merely that we have no idea what form it will take or in what direction it will take us. I suppose we probably have come about as far as we can with washing machines and dishwashers: new versions will just do the same thing faster and better not really differently. But what has that to do with the kind of progress that builds on itself to create not improvement of past things but entirely new things of which previous generations could not possibly have conceived?
I’d like to suggest a different way to think about the issue. To me, what impresses me about the past is how similar, not how different, it is from the present. The computer on which I am writing this would surely have seemed unfathomable to my great-grandparents, but when I read the books that were published in their lifetimes—the great novels, say, of Henry James or Leo Tolstoy—I’m struck not by the enormous differences between the world depicted in those works and our world today, but by the similarities. Yes, the people they write about don’t have telephones at all, let alone cell phones. They don’t have indoor plumbing, most of them…and their homes are illuminated by gas lamps or even by candles. But the issues they face—and the people they are—are not really all that different from the ones we ourselves face and who we ourselves are. The issues that form the narrative core of these books—the relationship between husbands and wives or between parents and children, the delicate nature of friendship, the misery of betrayal, the consequences of judging character poorly, the yearning for adventure, the deep need to feel anchored and safe in one’s own home, the complicatedness of sibling rivalry, the complexity of adolescence, the excitement of sexual awakening (and its attendant woes and insecurities), the yearning for love, the need for friendship, the mixture of satisfaction and terror that results from self-knowledge—these are the same issues we face today, all of us. Nor are they faced, encountered, or dealt with differently because my iPhone 6S is a million times more sophisticated than the phone in my parents’ kitchen, let alone anything in a Henry James novel.
I suppose it all comes down to what we mean by progress. If we mean the introduction of ever more sophisticated items into the world of things, then there has been immeasurable progress since my great-grandparents’ day and the debate about whether this will now be a permanent feature of society or not is one worth having. But if we focus instead on the landscape of the human heart…then it’s hard to see in what profound way the world my great-parents inhabited differs too profoundly from this one in which we live. I can’t even begin to imagine what gimcracks and geegaws my own great-grandchildren (please God) will have in their pockets, but my guess is that on every truly profound level they will be just like us, struggling to find a place in the world, to invent themselves, to learn how to love. Karr was wrong and right: wrong because things really do change…and right because, for all things change profoundly and meaningfully, they also remain just as they were as we make our way from cradle to grave along the landscape of human life itself and try to negotiate the journey successfully and well.