There is, or at least there used to be before the days of Nestlé in every pot and a Nissan in every garage, the idea of a stairway to Heaven. Jacob’s ladder, which the biblical patriarch famously dreamed about during the flight from his brother Esau, is a locus classicus, of course, but the idea is nearly as old as Heaven itself. When monotheism was not yet a twinkle in Moses’ eye, Gilgamesh was out to scale the skies in search of eternal youth.
All profane utopias have been modeled on that sacred original, and the Western obsession with progress is no exception. As science and technology—rather than, say, literature or religion—become principal matrices for civilized thought everywhere, that mythic stairway takes on the configurations of an electrically powered escalator or elevator, whisking entire peoples skyward with an efficiency of which old Jacob could only dream.
Efficiency is a key notion here, because science and technology are not merely in pursuit of the result, but in a race to beat the clock of entropy, decay, and mortality. Time is the magic ingredient in physical laws, and the step taken by the home-appliances manufacturer from a washing machine to a faster washing machine is, in rational terms, a step on Gilgamesh’s climb to eternity. Another key notion is easiness. If modern engineers were to design a stairway to Heaven according to the principles used in building just about everything today, it would be horizontal, like one of those people movers in airport terminals. And the doubt that enters one’s mind as one considers this odd proposition is that, while timesaving and easy on the feet, can a horizontal path really ever take one to Heaven?
In the final years of his life, the Victorian art critic John Ruskin repented his early endorsement of photography, which had helped him to catalog the relics of Italy he was always sketching. He had hailed the new invention as “labour saving,” yet went on to write in The Stones of Venice that “it is only by labour that thought can be made healthy, and only by thought that labour can be made happy, and the two cannot be separated with impunity.”
The computer is a perfect example of the arising contradiction. At first, it was little more than an efficient adding machine, so an adept of progress could very well laugh at the paranoid fancies of a blackguard like me: “Surely you can’t object to speed of calculation? If you don’t fear the slide rule, how can you call this a tool of the devil?” Then computers became interlinked, and now it was said that their World Wide Web would be a modern equivalent of the postal service: “Surely you don’t object to the Pony Express? Well, this is just like the Pony Express, but faster and easier!” Better yet, computers would allow the citizen in a progressive democracy to shop without leaving the house. “Maybe you’re also against shopping malls and credit cards? Well, I’m sorry for you, but that’s the way the world’s going. Besides, just think of the opportunities offered by the computer to the student, the researcher, the scholar . . . ”
The reality, according to Daily Infographic, is that 35 percent of all downloads today are pornography, the object of 25 percent, or 68 million, of all daily searches. Forty million American men and women are regular visitors to 24.6 million pornographic sites, 20 percent of American men admit to watching pornography while at work, and the average age at which an American child first sees online pornography is 11. “Well, you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs,” shrugs the adept of progress. “I’ll bet the Pony Express had its share of teething troubles, too.”
He shrugs in vain, because pornography was never at the focus of the blackguard’s paranoia. Rather, what looms through interstices in the net is a worldwide spying machine of post-Orwellian proportions, and it’s no good telling me, with a smile that is half condescension and half reassurance, that perlustration was very likely the fate of many a letter delivered by the Pony Express.
The moral? It has taken three days to write this column. I would only be happier had it taken 3 months, 3 years, or indeed all of 30. I like what I do. I like excising arcane references and introducing others, still more obscure. I love watching words perform their dangerous tricks, and admire their prudence when they balk at the jump. Were it not for the issue deadline, I would be writing this column my whole life long.
I do not dream of a labor-saving device that would streamline my task. If anything, I dream of something perpendicular, which would stand athwart all my effort, yet would be certain to be directed heavenward instead of toward Terminal C. I don’t want to be spared labor, with caesarean speed and efficiency, any more than a lovelorn swain wants a machine that would fire off kisses at a more ardent rate.
Shouldn’t all work be like love? Perhaps it once was.