Saturday, November 12, 2011

In those days , they had time for everything...

...could be a comment heard today about life before the age of e-mail, the internet, and multitasking, back when people weren't teathered to their electronic devices and required to be accessible 24/7.

Isn't it ironic that the more time saving devices we have at our fingertips, the less time we seem to have at our disposal?

That sentiment is actually from a novel and later a classic movie, set at the turn of the last century. Its inspiration was not related to the computer obviously but the electric streetcar which replaced the horse drawn streetcar. Life it seems was a trifle slower in the pre-trolley days when the car pulled up to a house:
A lady could whistle to it from an upstairs window, and the car would halt at once, and wait for her while she shut the window, put on her hat and coat, went downstairs, found an umbrella, told the "girl" what to have for dinner and came forth from the house. The previous passengers made little objection to such gallantry on the part of the car: they were wont to expect as much for themselves on like occasion. 
In good weather the mule pulled the car a mile in a little less than twenty minutes, unless the stops were too long; but when the trolley-car came, doing its mile in five minutes and better, it would wait for nobody. Nor could its passengers have endured such a thing, because the faster they were carried, the less time they had to spare!
People have been grumbling about the "good old days" probably since the invention of the wheel, if not before.

The "good old days." Chicago Loop c.1900

The words are taken from the novel The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington. It was written in 1918 and chroicles the life of once the most prominent family of an unnamed Midwestern town.* It was the story that Orson Wells chose to be the setting for his second feature film. Like Wells' first film Citizen Kane, the chief protagonist of The Magnificent Ambersons, George Amberson Minafer is a flawed individual, arrogant with a supreme sense of entitlement, who is perfectly unwilling to change along with the world around him. His stubborn attitude that, for a person of his status it was more worthwhile - to be rather than to do, made him ill suited for life in a time when his prestigious family name had lost its relevance.

George's nemesis, Eugene Morgan, was the father of George's on again off again girlfriend Lucy, but also an admirer of his widowed mother Isabel. George eventually learns what we already know, not only was the admiration mutual, but it was in fact older than George himself, and were it not for a youthful indiscretion, Eugene may very well have ended up George's father, and Lucy... well you can figure out the rest. The stuff for great melodrama to be sure but the story takes place during the period of the most radical change in the history of this country, and that turbulent era serves as the story behind the story.

Although the film and novel center around George and the self centered existence that leads to his eventual "come-upance", the most compelling character is Eugene. He is a member of the new breed of do'ers rather than be'ers, an inventor and early advocate of the automobile. While he is a lifelong friend of the Ambersons, his world and theirs collide as the progress he is in part responsible for, crushes the old way of life that sustained the family and their significance. Yet George is the only Amberson who is threatened by Eugene; by his ambition, his newfangled horseless carriage, his self-made success, and mostly by his intrusion into George's family. One evening at dinner at the Ambersons', George's grandfather and uncle engage Eugene in conversation about the growth due to all the new roads and how it has been negatively effecting property values in their part of town. Eugene assures them that it will only get worse, that roads will soon be built all the way to the edge of town and the roads already in town will be widened to accommodate the automobile. At that point, George blurts out:
Automobiles are a useless nuisance. They'll never amount to anything but a nuisance. They had no business to be invented.
George's grandfather in the book, his uncle in the movie , admonishes him for his impertinence. Seemingly unfazed, Eugene in a remarkably insightful monologue says this:
I'm not sure he's wrong about automobiles. With all their speed forward they may be a step backward in civilization - that is, in spiritual civilization. It may be that they will not add to the beauty of the world, nor to the life of men's souls. I am not sure, But automobiles have come, and they bring a greater change in our life than most of us suspect. They are here, and almost all outward things are going to be different because of what they bring. They are going to alter war, and they are going to alter peace. I think men's minds are going to be changed in subtle ways because of the automobiles; just how, though, I could hardly guess. But you can't have the immense outward changes that they will cause without some inward ones, and it may be that George is right, and that spiritual alteration will be bad for us. Perhaps, ten or twenty years from now, if we can see the inward change in men by that time, I shouldn't be able to defend the gasoline engine, but would have to agree with him that automobiles had no business to be invented.
Pretty glum words indeed, especially coming from one of the inventors of that infernal contraption.

Later in the story, George leaves for an extended trip to Europe. Upon his return five years later, he found that the familiar world he left behind, was gone forever. This is how Booth Tarkington describes George's town that had become a city upon his return:
He walked homeward slowly through what appeared to be the strange streets of a strange city... the streets were thunderous; a vast energy heaved under the universal coating of dinginess...All the people were soiled by the smoke-mist through which they hurried, under the heavy sky that hung close upon the new skyscrapers; and nearly all seemed harried by something impending.
That dinginess and harried nature of life in this new world that Tarkington describes, is associated by the new people in town, with well being and prosperity. As long as the factories and mills were belching out smoke, people were making money and all was well.

Perhaps this is the "spiritual alteration" that Eugene so prophetically alluded to in his words.

It's funny, if we were to take Eugene's cautionary statement and substitute the word computer for automobile, and digital age for gasoline engine, his comments would ring true in our day.

Being in the middle of the digital revolution, we still may not begin to understand the inward change it causes in our souls. One thing is certain, computers are here to stay and they have inexorably changed our lives.

For better and for worse.

After all, as Eugene said in the movie:
There aren't any old times. When times are gone, they're not old, they're dead. There aren't any times but new times.

* It is said that Booth Tarkington based the unnamed Midwestern town that is the setting for The Magnificent Ambersons on his home town, Woodruff Place, Indiana, which today is a neighborhood of Indianapolis. For his part, Wells may have been influenced by the town of his birth, Kenosha, Wisconsin. In reality though, the town could be Anywhere, USA.

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