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Posted at 04:35 PM ET, 03/22/2012

Chaos, Britannica, babies and bathwater


I stand by these. (HANDOUT - REUTERS)
It’s amazing how little nostalgia the old seem to have. “Things are better now,” they say, fondling their iPads. “Look. No icebox! Central air conditioning! And very few world wars, compared to my day!”

Glimpsed through the eyes of the past, the present looks absolutely swell and groovy. Had polio lately? No? You’re good to go. Onward and upward!

But I am still too young to be so sanguine.

I don’t feel young, though. I feel ancient. I once touched a VHS tape. I remember back when it took a full day to download two minutes of video, a story I now use to frighten children. I remember the sound of dial-up.

I am in the uncomfortable position of being old enough to remember when we had things we don’t have anymore. This never used to be the case. “Man, do you remember the stone wheel?” you used to say. “Yes,” everyone said. “We have had it for the past eight millennia, and we’ll have it forever.” Now, blink and you’ll miss the next six smartphones.

Viewed one way, the past is a total mess. It’s a ruck of people with no indoor plumbing whose idea of a good night was to stay in and listen to lute music while everyone around them died of plague.

There’s nothing in it really. Just a lot of bathwater. Toss it all out! Daguerreotypes — chuck ’em. Wurlitzer? I hardly know ’er. Betamax? The less said about it, the better.

Look, I hate bathwater as much as the next girl. But I think there are a few babies in there.

Viewed another way, the past is where we obtained most of the knowledge we take for granted these days. It's where we figured most things out. I am not saying we must cling rabidly to it, like limpets. Limpets never amount to much.

It’s like a room of family heirlooms. Hatbox? Toss it. Uncle Melvyn’s diary? Well, thumb through it and see what it has to say.

What worries me is that we don’t seem to be thumbing through things and seeing what they have to say.

I only mention this because I found myself in the awkward position this week of writing an elaborate paean to the Dying Art of the Encyclopedia, only to see George F. Will (a few years my senior) go sprinting by to dance vigorously on the print encyclopedia’s grave. Apparently, folks like me are something dreary-sounding — “stasists.” We want the future to look just like the past, while “dynamists” want things to keep getting better every day in every way.

Was I really a stasist reactionary, at 24? The world swam around me. To calm myself, I ate several dry bagels in rapid succession.

I agree that an effort to keep the future too orderly will destroy the germ of creativity.

But I think there’s more to choose from than the idea that “technology is a killing thing,” a horrible, destructive force that harrows all that is good and beautiful, or the Panglossian approach to the future that says we only lose what was holding us back and that everything is for the best in this best of all possible futures.

I am young enough to be bothered by the sense that Everything Will Be Taken Care Of. And it has crept into even our most vigorous thinkers. “We’ll innovate our way out!” they say. “We always have.”

You have to at least find one guy who doesn’t think that everything will be taken care of, or civilization stops.

Modern life bears more than a trace resemblance to a burning building. All our stuff is in there. Books are especially flammable.

“Been there, done that,” murmur our elders. “Who misses them? Who misses record stores?”

I do.

And I’m not alone. The people buying and listening to records in ever-increasing numbers are not the elderly. They are the young. Maybe it’s a weird retro thing. (Durn hipsters!) Or maybe it’s the sense that we need to start combing more carefully through the bathwater for babies before we chuck it, a desire for something tangible and permanent and enduring.

Nostalgia, that homesickness for the past, is an insidious disease. Maybe we are only nostalgic because we missed the past the first time around.

The future is full of things we can’t imagine or pronounce. I have no doubt that it will be barrels of fun. To try to keep it looking like the present — especially through centralized planning — is the absolute limit of foolishness.

But that’s not the only option.

Every possible evolution, every move from one state to another involves a decrease in the amount of order in the universe. I don’t want us to stop moving to preserve the order. But something is lost every time we do. And it’s a constant struggle to make certain that it isn’t something of value.

As you grow older, you can wave magisterially at the computers and say, “Don't worry, someone has these things in hand.” But I’m not so sure. Unplug us and will all the lights go out?

Conservatism is more than the adherence to the old and tried over the new and untried. If it were, the Tea Party would still be using the cotton gin. Or worse, Windows 95.

It’s the assertion that some babies are worth diving in after.

And people who dive into the rapidly swirling bathwater to rescue stray babies aren’t stasists. We are just doing our part to determine what shape the chaotic future is going to take.

I don't crave stasis. I crave the future — with books. Call me whatever you like.

By  |  04:35 PM ET, 03/22/2012

 
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