Electrify me

Times Square LOC 1938 3b02164v

Times Square north at night, New York City, circa 16 January 1934. Digital ID: (digital file from b&w film copy neg.) cph 3b02164 http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b02164. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-54205 (b&w film copy neg.); Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print

Last night, Matt looked up the rate of electrification in the US in 1916, a century ago. How many households had electricity?

Strangely enough, it’s possible to find such information – a little Wikipedia, a little bit of reading on various websites, and you can cobble together the picture that few people had electricity in their homes. Buffalo, for example, was an early adopter, but mostly for public spaces in the city. Not until the 1920s were cities in the US fully electrified, and rural areas followed more slowly (with help from the Rural Electrification Act of 1936, updated today to include things like broadband internet access).

[Digression: Check out this illustration of the electrified farm of the future, where everything is powered by electricity, from threshers to chainsaws to water pumps and chicken feed delivery. What happened to that future? Even in the 1920s, farmers used their own wind turbines to create electricity locally. We need that now! But as I said, I digress.]

All of this information, of course, is thanks to the Internet, the equivalent of electricity in this era. It’s so easy to look at your phone and call up the world, as easy as flipping a switch to create light.

Matt had turned to the Internet for the answers initially because we were talking about technology and societal rates of change. It seems like everything is changing so fast these days, faster than, say, when the steam engine was first introduced, or the cotton gin. Did people feel the same as we do now, that innovations in technology and the networked world are moving at light speed? What will people in the future think about our time – will it look slow to them?

Matt’s grandmother is going to turn 97 this year. A century ago, she lived in a world with iceboxes, outhouses and few cars; two world wars in her young lifetime; massive immigration; the introduction and normalization of air travel, and so much more, let alone computers. I bet she bathed only once a week, if that.

Today, we shower or bathe almost every day. With centralized water treatment and delivery systems, that’s no longer a luxury. It’s the norm. If you smell someone’s body odor on the street these days, you probably do a double take and walk away quickly. (I inhaled the funky scents of two men deep in conversation on the sidewalk as I pass on my bike yesterday on my way to work; I suspect they came from an African country, from their dress, hand gestures and skin color.)

The story that Matt looked up mentioned that women in the US only washed their hair once a month, using Borax or egg yolks. I woke up this morning wondering if I should do that –-  I only recently started washing my hair once a week. That’s not the usual, I suspect. The rows of shampooing products in any store underscore this. But wouldn’t washing less often be better for my hair, not to mention for the environment? Less soap and hot water to dry out my scalp, fewer chemicals to make and then wash down the drain. Hmm, sometimes it’s nice to have clean hair, I have to say, but it’s all a matter of what one becomes accustomed to doing.

How we eat, bathe, travel, communicate –- everything changes. The world was a very different place a century ago, and even five years ago, and it will be very different again a century from now, and even a few years from now. And I haven’t even mentioned climate change yet. Don’t worry, I’m getting to that.

So, how far back do we have to go to find a time when things didn’t seem to change much at all? Two millennia ago, new religions were cropping up, changing how people lived their daily lives (and probably why people fought some wars). Ten millennia ago, new ways of getting food anchored people to the land and their crops — and those practices may have changed the climate. Millions of years ago, someone picked up a stone and flaked it into a blade for the first time. Talk about a planet-changing innovation.

I am dangerously close to espousing post-environmentalism here. Embrace the change! But I have to say, I am a hypocrite. I only embrace the change because I want to keep living the way I do (lots of air travel, for example). And at the same time, I want to preserve the way I live, and the penguins that also live on the Antarctic ice shelf that is soon to disappear (read Jonathan Franzen’s latest essay in The New Yorker, “The End of the End of the World,” to observer one writer struggle with how to express it. It’s an ambiguous, fraught feeling.)

I want to have all the latest toys, travel where I want and when I want, and eat fruits, vegetables and other foods from farflung places. I want my local news and my New York Times.  I want it all and I want it now. Modern life. And soon, I might be a dinosaur, unable to engage with new technologies — mostly because I might be satisfied with the old and what they can give me. I can only live longer to find out what the future will bring.

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