Change or Perish

Change or Perish

LONDON — Before leggings, when there were letters, before texts and tweets, when there was time, before speed cameras, when you could speed, before graffiti management companies, when cities had souls, we managed just the same.

Before homogenization, when there was mystery, before aggregation, when the original had value, before digital, when there was vinyl, before Made in China, when there was Mao, before stress management, when there was romance, we had the impression we were doing all right.

Before apps, when there were attention spans, before “I’ve got five bars,” when bars were for boozing, before ring-tone selection, when the phone rang, before high-net-worth individuals, when love was all you needed, before hype, when there was Hendrix, we got by just the same.

Before social media, when we were social, before thumb-typing, when a thumb hitched a ride, before de-friending, when a friend was for life, before online conduct, when you conducted yourself, before “content,” when we told stories, we did get by all the same.

Before non-state actors, when states commanded, before the Bangalore back office, when jobs stayed put, before globalization, when wars were cold, we did manage O.K., it seemed.

Before celebrities, when there were stars, before Google maps, when compasses were internal, before umbilical online-ism, when we off-lined our lives, before virtual flirtation, when legs touched, we felt we managed all the same.

Before identity theft, when nobody could steal you, before global positioning systems, when we were lost, before 24/7 monitoring and alerts by text and e-mail, when there was idleness, before spin doctors, when there was character, before e-readers, when pages were turned, we did get by just the same.

Before organic, when carrots weren’t categorized, before derivatives, when your mortgage was local, before global warming, when we feared nuclear winters, before “save the planet,” when we lived in our corners, before the Greens, when we faced the Reds, it seemed we did somehow manage just the same.

Or did we? Before iPads and “Search,” in the era of print, before portable devices, when there were diaries, before the weather channel, when forecasts were farcical, before movies-on-demand, when movies were demanding, before chains and brands, in the time of the samizdat, before curved shower curtain rods, when they were straight, before productivity gains, when Britain produced things, and so did Ohio, did we really and honestly get by just the same?

Before January cherries, when fruit had seasons, before global sushi, when you ate what you got, before deep-fried Mars bars, when fish were what fried, before New World wine, when wine was tannic, before fast food and slow food, when food just was, before plate-size cookies, when greed was contained, before fusion, in scattered division, before the obesity onslaught, in our ordinariness, could we — could we — have gotten by all the same?

Before dystopia, when utopia beckoned, before rap, in Zappa’s time, before attention deficit disorders, when people turned on, before the new Prohibition, when lunches were liquid, before Lady Gaga, when we dug the Dead, before “join the conversation,” when things were disjointed, before Facebook, when there was Camelot, before reality shows, when things were real, yes, I believe we got by just the same.

Before “I’ll call you back,” when people made dates, before algorithms, when there was aimlessness, before attitude, when there was apathy, before YouTube, when there was you and me, before Gore-Tex, in the damp, before sweat-resistant fabric, when sweat was sexy, before high-tech sneakers, as we walked the walk, before remotes, in the era of distance, I’m sure we managed just the same.

Before “carbon neutral,” when carbon copied, before synching, when we lived unprompted, before multiplatform, when pen met paper, before profiling, when there was privacy, before cloud computing, when life was earthy, before a billion bits of distraction, when there were lulls, before “silent cars,” when there was silence, before virtual community, in a world with borders, before cut-and-paste, to the tap of the Selectra, before the megabyte, in disorder, before information overload, when streets were for wandering, before “sustainable,” in the heretofore, before CCTV, in invisibility, before networks, in the galaxy of strangeness, my impression, unless I’m wrong, is that we got by quite O.K.

Before I forget, while there is time, for the years pass and we don’t get younger, before the wiring accelerates, while I can pause, let me summon it back, that fragment from somewhere, that phrase that goes: “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production ... and with them the whole relations of society.”

Yes, that was Marx, when he was right, before he went wrong, when he observed, before he imagined, with terrible consequences for the 20th century.

And if back in that century — back when exactly? — in the time before the tremendous technological leap, in the time of mists and drabness and dreams, if back then, without passwords, we managed just the same, even in black and white, and certainly not in hi-def, or even 3-D, how strange to think we had to change everything or we would not be managing at all.


Hopewell, NJ

Before political correctness and tolerance, when we were allowed to speak what we believed. Before "your truth is not my truth," when we had shared values -- a culture. Before the deprecation of marriage, when the promulgation of our culture depended on successful families. Before individual self-fulfillment was the highest good, when we would make choices considering the good of the whole.

Barbara J

Before modern sewage systems brought us reliably clean water, we did not get by just the same. Before antibiotics, we did not get by just the same. Before open-heart surgery (dependent on antibiotics), some of us did not manage just the same. Before the work of Jonas Salk, some of us did not manage just the same.

Before the death of Mao, some of our extended family did not get by just the same. Before the work of Norman Borlaug, some of our neighbors' extended families did not get by just the same. Before accessibility laws and the technology that enabled wheelchair users to get through doorways and use public transportation independently, some of us did not get by the same.

I'm not sure, Mr. Cohen, what your point was, but some other readers may have fun adding to this short list, or have already posted their own.


Before it was "cool" or "hip" to be rude and aggressive.

Before it was "hot" to flaunt ones "attributes" for the world.

Before it was boge to show compassion.

Before it was "necessary" to invade other countries for Oil.

Before we had an all volenteer army, when the whole country was involved in the fight.

Before "support the troops ment more than a flag magnet on the back of one's car.

Before hate and lies were on Fox news 24/7.

Before facts didn't matter.

Before our government was sold lock stock and barrel by the supreme court.

Before the supreme court elected a president.

My question : What comes AFTER? Will the USA survive as a democracy?

New Jersey

This prose poem is just brilliant, making my jaw drop as I read. A lot of people talk about these losses of a slower, more thoughtful life, but we all seem to just go along. Except for the random friend who has actually turned off the TV; or the even rarer friend who doesn't even have a computer but goes to the library to use one; or the techno grouch friend who has the simplest cell phone money can find because you really only need to make calls. More of my friends have signed off forever from Facebook and eschew Twitter because, after all, what is the point? To put a layer of technology and distance and isolation between you and real in-the-flesh people?

I make a major exception for Kindle because I have never read so much since I bought one eighteen months ago, and the form of a Kindle rather than the form of book is so much easier to carry around. I should also mention the great added value of instant access to the Oxford dictionary, and of being able to refresh my memory during the reading of a long book about which character is which by just a simple 'search'. So, yes, some things are more convenient, but not necessary: I could still use a real dictionary, finding other interesting words as I flip through to find the word I want,and could take notes about characters, with a real pen on a real piece of paper.

D Scott
Castine, ME

From the perspective of my 70th year, my first, and certainly unoriginal, thought is that every generation has said much the same of the generation before. But then...

On second thought, maybe this time it really is different. This time, the brush of technology is so broad and has bristles so long and sharp, that it reaches into every nook and cranny of our lives, making avoidance, or at least a respite from it, something that we have to work ever harder to obtain.

This article is a "keeper", to be kept on the desktop (wood or electronic!). Cohen has done much more than just compare the old times and new times; he has provided an important checklist of things that we might choose to ignore or turn off when we feel crushed by the need to "keep up"; when we desperately need a quiet rock on which to center ourselves. This is the time to go for a walk in the woods, preferably with a small child, and see and feel, through those unpolluted eyes and ears, the pure and essential roots of our being and relationships.

No comments:

Blog Archive