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The Price of Progress

I had a birthday a little while ago. Yes I know it's just a number but it still surprises me when I notice how big that number is getting!

One of the things my good lady and I did as part of the celebrations was to visit the Australian National Museum in Canberra. It's a fascinating place with lots of very interesting stuff on display in its various galleries. We wandered around in there for hours, looking at stuff and reading the descriptions of what the stuff was and what it was once used for. You can tell that you're getting older when you see stuff like that and you don't need to read the description because you remember what the object is and have used one yourself, back in the day. As time and technology marches inexorably onward we can all expect to have more and more experiences like that. So you think your shiny new iPhone is super-cool, do you? Just you wait, it won't be long before you'll be seeing one in a museum somewhere near you!

In a world where we have to have the latest new thing, whatever it is, it's inevitable that technology will go obsolete ever more rapidly. One of the things I saw in the museum was a pay-phone; it wasn't that long ago that you'd find one of those on every street corner. In fact, they do still exist in some places - there's one outside the front gate of our rural property. Sure enough the telephone company has found it too tedious to send someone out to collect the money out of its coin box, so calls are now free, but the old thing is still there and

it still works. It's in a rural location but it's not out back of woop-woop, as the saying goes. There is a new mobile phone base station just across the road, so the writing is clearly on the wall for the old call-box. I'd better go and make a video of myself using it, so I can record this piece of living history for posterity.

There were things in the museum that would still be perfectly serviceable today and in fact would probably do a better job than the modern-day equivalent. For example, there was an old-fashioned "brace and bit" drill in one display case. I inherited one of those from my grandfather and still haven't found anything better for drilling large holes. Sure I have a battery-powered drill nowadays but it struggles to make holes bigger than about 15mm in diameter. Chances are I won't have the correct sized hole saw for the job I want to do, and when I eventually get the right one the drill's battery will go flat halfway through the job!

With the old brace-and-bit, no worries. It came with a full set of bits in various sizes and its battery never went flat, ever. It was slower and much more controllable so never tore the edges of the hole and you got a good quality result every time, unless you were a complete dunce. Score one for General Ludd.

Then again, there was also an old wooden wash-tub complete with a hand-cranked mangle that was once used for doing the laundry. My grandmother had one just like it, and used it until the day she died despite the existence of new-fangled gadgets such as washing machines. She said it did a better job. It was back-breaking work but perhaps people were built tougher way back when. Personally, I'm not unhappy that this kind of thing has largely been consigned to history. General Ludd 1, technology 1.

We have all these labour-saving devices these days that allow us to get jobs done faster and with less effort, but what do we do with all the saved time and unexpended energy? It seems to me that very often we simply cram more and more activities into our day, so we never have time to sit back and notice the world around us.

My grandfather may have been a ditch-digging peasant but it took him all day to dig a ditch with his shovel, and that gave him plenty of time to be present in the world and to contemplate the meaning of life. He worked hard, grandad did, but he'd never heard the word "stress" because he had no need for it in his life. The pace of life was slower then and people had time to pause in a task and pass the time of day when a friend came by.

(For the record, grandad - Charles Sydney Kates, known to his many friends as Syd - passed away in 1961 at the age of only 63. He succumbed in the end to the insidious effects of the mustard gas to which he was exposed in the trenches during the bloody battles in northern France in 1917. Chemical weapons, another fine example of technological progress.)

A faster pace of life, with less time to stop and smell the roses, may well be the price we pay for what we call "progress." I guess the question is, are we actually better off than previous generations were? Do we have a better quality of life? In some ways we clearly do - for example, advances in medical science mean we're not afflicted by many of the diseases that our forebears had to deal with - but in many other ways, I'm not so sure. The incidence of stress, anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions is at an all-time high. We don't appear to have learned anything at all from the wholesale death and destruction of the wars of the 20th century and seem hell-bent on repeating that insanity over and over again. We're destroying our planet at an ever-increasing rate. Is that really "progress"?

I'm not against progress per se, but I do find myself wondering what it's all for. What is the point, if it doesn't lead to a better quality of life for everyone on the planet? What is the point if the price of progress is worsening mental health for everyone? And especially, what is the point if all this "progress" puts us on a slippery slope that leads to the destruction of the planet itself?

We have forgotten that there is no "us" and "them," there is only us, one humanity, with one planet on which all of us must live. We have forgotten that every individual human being on this planet is a person just like us, doing their best to live their life in the best way they can. Sure enough, their "best" - our "best" - is sometimes not very good at all, but as human beings we have a remarkable capacity for learning and adopting new ways of doing things. Above all, we have forgotten that the reason we fight each other stems from one thing: fear. Fear of the "other." But there is no other! We are it. So what is the answer? Obviously, we must stop the fear. Replace it with something else. Would it be so hard to try kindness instead?

Of course it's hard to be kind to others when we're frequently very unkind to ourselves, so if you agree with me that a change is needed in the world today, you could start with yourself. Quit that vicious, unkind self-talk! Be kind to yourself. And then, if that feels good, try spreading a little kindness around you to the people you meet in your everyday life. It's amazing how a smile here and a kind word there can make someone feel a whole lot better about their day. Go on, stop judging the hell out of everyone you meet and try being nice to them for a change!

Now I'm sounding like an old hippie, which I never was, though I have to admit that some hippie philosophy is actually pretty cool.

Speaking of "cool," doing a bit of reading yesterday I came across something called the "Geezer Paradox," which states that you don't become cooler with age but you do care progressively less about being cool, which is the only true way to actually be cool.

If you're old enough to know what "cool" actually means then by this measure you must be very cool indeed. That's an encouraging thought, isn't it, even if you're one of us really cool old geezers who don't give a rat's you-know-what for how cool we are!

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