Suckers and Monsters

February 21, 2010 | 25 comments
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We human beings don’t handle technological progress very gracefully. Those of us who have spent years doing things “the hard way” can feel cheated when suddenly someone invents an easy way.

Take, for example, the ballpoint pen. This little invention (and its immediate predecessors) essentially obsoleted centuries of tradition in penmanship, calligraphy, and pen care. And it’s not just pens. The same thing happened with the advent of painkillers. Or television. Or typewriters. This sort of change leads to all kinds of post hoc justifications for why the old way is better.

We don’t like to feel like suckers. We don’t like to feel that our sufferings have been needless, and we especially don’t like to feel that skills we’ve obtained “the hard way” are suddenly invalid and irrelevant. So we create narratives whereby “the hard way” is recast as “the right way”.

Problems come when we introduce this moral element of “rightness” to technological advances. These narratives discourage us from improving our situation by claiming that our suboptimal way is, in fact, the ideal way. That’s when we really become suckers. We’re not suckers for having gone through the hard way when the hard way was the only way. We’re suckers for sticking with the old hard way when we see there are better ways to be tread.

Once we’ve become suckers by morally obligating “the hard way” to ourselves, we become monsters when we apply our self-defined lens of rightness to others. We say, “Because I grew up in this way, and because it was good for me, it must be good for you!” In our day, I see this happening with anti-depressants, cosmetic surgery, and online relationships. I’ve seen each of these advances work for great good in the lives of my friends, yet they are consistently demonized by people who have no understanding of or experience with them.

So may we spend less time condemning others for doing the things we wish we could have done (or even the things we’re glad not to have done). And may we then pick ourselves up and live out our own lives with passion. Let us seek out the praiseworthy and the lovely and leave behind our baggage and hangups.

[Comic removed]

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25 Responses to Suckers and Monsters

  1. Julie M. Smith on February 22, 2010 at 9:30 am

    Item number one on your list should be birth control.

  2. Bob on February 22, 2010 at 10:28 am

    Dane, I am mixed on this. I like the New ( But I am waiting for the dust to settle before going to Windows 7). Sometimes the new fails. The digital watch failed, 1/2(??) the world still need fountain pens to write their languages, (I like pencils), and I have some cast iron pans I like to cook in. I am unsure the cell phone has been a total step forward.
    Where I fight this the most, is in working in Family History with others. A lot of folks still want to stay with paper. They will not go to computer storage, (or accept it). They will not use the power of email to trade photos, etc.

  3. Eric Boysen on February 22, 2010 at 10:30 am

    As a general principle I agree with this post, but there are a lot of exceptions where the old way produced an item of higher quality and the new wayis more efficient in production. The method in general use will shift, but people know there is something missing.

    Take the pen and ink. Ball point writing is ugly. Typing or word processing is an advance, but there is still a place for calligraphy. I love looking at old documents as artwork and text art adorns some of my wallspace.

    Technological progress is not to be sneered at, but unintended consequences can ruin a good thing.

  4. Tracy M on February 22, 2010 at 10:31 am

    Yes- birth control is a biggie.

    And while I both see and agree with your point, why is it when I want to write a meaningful note to a friend, Cranes paper and a fountain pen carry much more weight than an email?

  5. Tracy M on February 22, 2010 at 10:33 am

    Others beat me to it.

    BTW, I’ll fight to the death for the non-stick-ability of my 50 year-old cast-iron pan- you can have your teflon.

  6. Sean on February 22, 2010 at 10:42 am

    Before you listed your examples, Dane, I was thinking more of American auto companies.

  7. Dane Laverty on February 22, 2010 at 11:02 am

    I agree that there are plenty of places where it makes sense to use the old. The point I’m trying to make is that if you want to defend using the old, defend it with rational arguments (like the ones you given here) rather than taking the easy cop-out of saying, “We’ve done it this way for hundreds of years, and that makes it God’s way of doing it.” The moral defense works well when you’re defending moral issues. However, when it’s co-opted as a defense against technological progress, it just results in people suffering for no good reason. If I’ve got a headache, I’m going to take two ibuprofen and be grateful that I can, even if the saints traveling across the plains just had to suffer through theirs.

  8. SLO Sapo on February 22, 2010 at 11:05 am

    +1 on the cast iron cookware.

    Synthesized music does not feel like a technological advancement to me.

  9. Hunter on February 22, 2010 at 11:25 am

    Good example (Ibuprofen for the headache vs. the pioneers crossing the plains with no Ibuprofen).

    One example I’ve seen of this phenomenon of irrationally defending the old ways was in a Bloggernacle post a while back where the post and comments were discussing the drawbacks of too many meetings and the deleterious effects of being away from your kids while giving Church service. A couple of commenters had been bishop’s wives and had given so much of their blood, sweat, and tears through the years with the belief that the time their husbands were away would actually turn into a blessing for them and their kids. These bishop’s wives felt hurt and disrespected by the discusssion. So, it’s a difficult thing, this idea of moving on from the old way of doing things.

    Great post. Thanks.

  10. Dane Laverty on February 22, 2010 at 11:27 am

    Hunter, that’s a great example of what I’m talking about. Change challenges the validity of the suffering of those who went before. I only hope that we can respect their trials without feeling the need to justify ourselves by re-living them.

  11. Brad Dennis on February 22, 2010 at 12:18 pm

    Excellent post. People lived through great trials so that future generations could benefit from a life of greater facilities. We should appreciate those trials, but also embrace new technologies and become acquainted with them.

  12. Alex T. Valencic on February 22, 2010 at 1:40 pm

    I have a feeling that this post is going to bring out all the Luddites in full force.

    Me, I am a happy neophile. I wait for the product to be tested and refined, first, but I will gladly hold onto my ballpoint clicky pens, BlackBerry, and iPod, until something shiny and new comes around.

    I will also gladly embrace the mental anguish of having my computer crash and destroy all of my financial records over the physical anguish of walking for 2000 miles. All folks have problems. We only cheapen ours by saying, “Oh, but the pioneers had it so much worse!” I bet pioneer children were told to be happy they had hats and bonnets, because back when their parents were children, they didn’t have the luxury of shade!

  13. Bob on February 22, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    I think the pioneers had some good old Opium for their headaches.
    I also imagine, for many, a day walk was as easy as a day farming. For many, the trip across the sea was much harder than the walk.

  14. Ardis E. Parshall on February 22, 2010 at 2:57 pm

    You see what Dane is talking about in church history as early as 1869 and 1870 when the first immigrants are able to gather to Zion by riding the train the entire way. There begin to be remarks in private letters and public newspapers about how much easier the new folks have it, how they’re soft, and that *real* pioneers of the olden days (two years earlier) had walked.

    It would be interesting to know many of those who sniffed in disapproval at those who came by train also turned up their noses at the cheaper and more plentiful consumer goods that arrived on the same trains.

  15. A Turtle Named Mack on February 22, 2010 at 3:35 pm

    I’ve heard similar sentiments from more “orthodox” members who turn their noses up at contemporary designs for temple garments. Any innovation in that area produces a backlash from those who have suffered through hot summers and wardrobe limitations their entire lives. Of course, what’s new and innovative in temple garments is hardly refreshing or innovative in its application. We’re all suckers!

  16. Left Field on February 22, 2010 at 9:51 pm

    Two-piece garments will be an improvement when they figure out a way to make them comfortable and well-fitting. Until then, I’m sticking with my comfortable and well-fitting one-piecers.

    It took me three or four years of wearing the newfangled two-piece garments before I finally figured out that newer isn’t always better. I still have a couple sets of two-piece that I wear when I go to the doctor, though.

  17. Ugly Mahana on February 22, 2010 at 9:57 pm

    what’s worse than nonmembers asking embarrassing questions about special underwear? Mormons who flaunt it!

  18. Mark B. on February 23, 2010 at 6:42 am

    I think I’ll stick with the old usage that says that “obsolete” is an adjective, and consider attempts to use it as a verb a descent into barbarity.

  19. Eduard A. Erdtsieck on February 23, 2010 at 9:53 am

    Dane, your post reflects a dilemma of the last days. MULTITASKING. It means we have more time to do more things in the same 24 hours as someone 200 years ago.

    A farmer, 200 years ago, would work as far as his horse or oxen could travel and come home for supper and take care of his family. Today, the ends of the earth are less than a day away. A farmer, today, does not have to travel it himself, but how many intermediaries are there between him and our refrigerators?

    There are now, over 6 billion people on earth and if 1 billion have the wealth enough to worry about our challenge, your post. It reflects well on you, for seeking an explanation; why is all this is happening to us?

    God’s purpose; the Plan of Salvation is to earn an income to provide for our families and to instruct them to become lawful citizens. As Mormons and Christians we think of it, more discreetly, as “blessings”. However, some of these intermediaries think of us as “Suckers”.

    Jesus of Nazareth said, in the last days, He would shortened day, otherwise His followers would not survive our day.

    What is behind the Lord’s strategy?

  20. lyle on February 23, 2010 at 10:40 am

    For synthesized music haters…I’m guessing you don’t have kids or use “white noise” makers that create repetitive sounds of oceans, rain, etc. But you don’t have to throw out the old to accept and appreciate (and not demonize) the new.

  21. Raymond Takashi Swenson on February 23, 2010 at 5:21 pm

    Ardis: My wife had ancestors who were in the last handcart company in 1860, before the “down and back” wagons headed out from Salt Lake and provided transportation for everyone. But in checking out the specific history of the handcart company, I found that they traveled by all sorts of railroads and steamships across the ocean and up rivers and across the eastern US, before they got to the town in Iowa where they assembled their handcarts. They didn’t walk up the Hudson to the Erie Canal, and ride a canal boat to Lake Erie, and walk overland to Illinois via Missouri. Nope, they had it easy!

    Brigham Young contracted with the Union Pacific to provide labor to help finish the railroad into Utah because it would make immigration, and missionary travel, so much simpler and safer.

    When it was time for the Book of Mormon to be published, it was done with a modern press that used movable type, not handwritten one copy at a time by scribes.

    The Church has embraced new technology to do its work as each development has come into being, from radio and movies to television and satellites and the internet. There is no virtue in doing things that are more costly and less effective.

    Now I know that old style craftmanship was used in constructing the visible aspects of the Nauvoo Temple, including hand carved sunstones and handmade windows. On the other hand, modern technology has given the Latter-day Saints the capital that allowed us to rebuild it, along with many other historical buildings.

    Modern technology including multi-spectral imaging, DNA matching and digital recording and retrieval has allowed the Church to play a major role in the recovery of ancient original documents, like the Dead Sea Scrolls. The value of the old is preserved and recovered through use of the new. The same goes for the family history and church history.

  22. Bob on February 23, 2010 at 5:23 pm

    #20: Pray for me Lyle. I have little liking of music not 40 years old or more. I have a dislike for Rap, or today’s Rock ‘attitude music’. I am trapped in a vinyl world.

  23. queuno on February 24, 2010 at 1:50 pm

    Consider me one who still doesn’t have an iPod. But mostly because I don’t listen to music that way. And I hate cell phones. Hate them.

    I still prefer to edit my html code by hand…

  24. living in zion on February 25, 2010 at 2:05 pm

    I have many Amish and Mennonite clients who I serve. They feel very convicted that by refusing modern technology it is easier to serve God.I gotta say,even though I don’t want to be Amish, I respect that it works for them. In general they are the most laid back people I have ever met. They don’t live by the clock and their healthy adrenals and good blood pressure reflect that.

  25. Ziff on March 2, 2010 at 12:36 pm

    I really like this post. The example that springs to mind for me is that we continue to use the KJV when there are much easier to read translations out there. And just as you said, we try to make the sufferings of sticking with the old way a virtue: “The different language forces us to concentrate more or it marks scripture as different.” etc.