By Rick Sutcliff

In abstract terms, we’ve all heard about the American slogan “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (with a little manifest destiny thrown in)”, the Canadian version “peace, order, and good government”, or the French (belied by the very revolution that spawned the slogan) “liberty, equality, fraternity.”

These have their idealistic attractions. So does Heaven. Meanwhile, more practical versions for this life may include that of the Old Testament — something like “the blessing of God with a chicken in every pot, many arrows in your quiver, and leisure beneath your own fig tree”, or here in North America, “Mom, apple pie, the picket fence, and a secure retirement.” What ever happened to these images of long-term stability and the social fabric they represented?

Mom has been replaced by your very best and dearest (though never personally met) friend, whom you’ve known online an entire half hour and have tweeted 10 times already. Cool! The lady of the house (to use another archaic term) is more likely not even to be a mother (so forget the arrows in the quiver), as her income is needed to pay the mortgage on that monster house that has to be bigger and better from either parents’ right from the get go. Mom and dad are too busy making a living to have time for living.

Apple pie?

What’s that? If it says “Apple”, shouldn’t it be iPie — some new device everyone just must own? Or is it the cloud service, as in iPie in the iSky? Where do I buy mine? Is it available in white? Hey, if kids today get an apple in their lunch they’re likely to complain that the workmen in the fruit factory attached the skin too tight.

Teacher: “No, no, apples grow on trees.”

Students (who live latchkey-style in bleak tenements, not houses): “Trees?”

Alternate answer: “Sure, sure.”

And, as for apple in a pie, you buy that in the form of a turnover at the golden arches or Timmies. Who would ever think of making one themselves? How quaint. You mean pies are round? I thought pies are square and cakes are round?

The picket fence

Be honest now. When was the last time you ever saw one of these? Isn’t a picket just a line of angry people marching in protest around a church, a school, place of business, or government office and demanding anything from more pay and benefits, justice as they define it, licensing for cats, an end of cruelty to spiders, or otherwise a recognition of their cause de jour (some of which may be even worthwhile in some eyes)? Is a “hey, look at me” publicity stunt always the best way to advance even a legitimate cause?

Seriously, the real symbolism here is the maintainable, affordable, small detached house on a decent sized lot (i.e. with a back yard for the kids) where a young couple can put down roots and raise a family in peace and security (see the fig tree above). But who builds those any more? Maximum profit in the minimum time for a given piece of land (including local taxes to the municipality) implies apartment condominiums.

If real houses are erected, they’re so big they consume the entire (smaller) lot, and the total incomes of two working adults to pay the interest (only) on the underwater mortgage that’s owned four derivative steps removed by a fiscal hock shop in Algeria. Forget families, kids, back yards, and gardens — no time for that; we sleep and entertain here, but the house is for show, we live at work and on the net, but for skiing and the RV.

Local government is in theory attendant to the community quality of living, but in practice often seems dominated by business interests that favour population growth solely because they are looking for more customers — whoops, forgot to set aside land for parks, schools, churches, and community centres. Also forgot to budget money for water, sewer, police, fire, sidewalks, roads, dealing with urban youth despair and the attendant drugs and alcohol problems that all intensify with densification.

Raise business taxes? No way. Let the government pay for all this, not us. It would eat into profit. Besides, governments have lots of money. They don’t need taxes. In any case, we can always build a casino and tax that. Problem gambling? Don’t be silly. There’s no problem gambling.

Provincial (read “State” if you will) and national governments cannot help with infrastructure, for they have so mortgaged our collective futures that our descendents will never in a dozen generations (if there are that many) pay for the excesses of this one. The fall of the old Soviets was supposed to be the end of history, the triumph of the dream of liberal democracy, the national secure picket fence at last realized. Instead, it serves as an cautionary object lesson on what happens when government (left, right, or centrist) tries to control everything, to have its finger in every apple pie — it inevitably collapses of its own weight, turning dreams of Manifest Destiny into nightmares of failure.

A secure retirement seems just about as much a case of a futile chasing after wind as the others. These days, with the greed-inspired recession having devalued everyone’s capital, retirement looks at least as risky as Microsoft stock, perhaps will have to be postponed till the next Toronto Stanley Cup win, and at worst, become impossible due to the potential of runaway inflation when all that monetary expansion hits the economic fan. Drat. I shoulda bought Apple stock at $5 or Google at $25.

Retiring at 65 was one kind of dream when pensions were first invented by the CPR, because few people lived that long. It is becoming another kind of fantasy now that few can afford it — including the shockingly underfunded pension plans.

Today’s goals are about the now — having the most followers on Twitter, the most “friends” on Facebook, the most and latest toys in the garage and entertainment console. Life is no longer lifetime commitment, 50 minute physics lectures or sermons, 18 holes, nine innings, eight semesters and a math or computing degree, four quarters or three periods plus overtime all at 100%, and three square meals.

Rather, moderns play at existence. It’s pitch-and-put (on an iPod touch), fast food snacks on the run, faster relationships, using people and loving things, “lite” lessons on art appreciation or web page building towards a six week certificate, five minute video clips, sermonettes to a drum beat, McJobs and McMarriages no one expects to last. Our span of being may be 80 to 100 years long and 60kilometres wide, but has become half a millimetre deep.

A more positive way of putting this might be to observe that we have become, as the Spy long ago predicted, more useful generalists than mere narrow specialists — adept not so much in knowing, but in finding. A problem solver will always have a job. Such had to be in the information age. What he did not anticipate was that the necessary deprecation of professional knowledge detail would be paralleled by a tragic loss of personal substance.

Technology plays a part in this to be sure, for it fosters the cult of instant gratification, tweeting instead of communication or relationship, a faster obsolescence than ever dreamed of by the old consumer-oriented manufacturies. Today, we can whine to the whole world about what we want and repeat the stunt again five minutes later over the unfairness of still not having our way at everyone else’s expense.

Why, we can make bad decisions, offend thousands, or gamble away a fortune in milliseconds instead of taking months or years. Perhaps one could hope that shallowness is itself a fad whose fame will not exceed the obligatory fifteen minutes. After all, new technology always first enhances existing social and business trends, and only later becomes the springboard for a new type of society, and we are most definitely still in the first phase of such a potential transition.

And hey, the very fact that our reader is perusing the ramblings in this column implies that the Spy is there, aware at least enough to observe all this, to comment, to review products, to try the software, and to dally slightly with some of the diversions (though by no means all.) He has written his hundreds of thousands of lines of code (some in assembler), his millions of words in novels, his interminable columns, and has sometimes been an early to mid technology adopter.

In recent columns, he has even complained about complaining, rogue directors, and crimes against the English language — and now about aspects of the very technological society that gives him the platform on which he stands. So take some of this as self-criticism if you will.

Yet it seems to him that there is more to the social fabric than one’s wall, that the best of instant gratification derives from his grandchildren’s smiles and hugs, from the student who thanks him 10 years later, from the use of technology to make lives not merely faster, but better. He strongly affirms that if he were to die with the most toys and the most followers, he would not only win nothing, but lose everything. And, he would still die. What then, oh faithful reader? Is there not more to this life than this life?

Wake up and smell the coffee was for years an Ann Landers’ slogan intended to demand from her readers a dose of reality. An aphorism that recognizes the above discussion might be “slow down and smell the roses.” An even wiser person said to those concerned with the building and subsequent fatal collapsing of towers (which can be taken as a metaphor for the impermanence of life’s seeming edifices, whether technological, social, or otherwise) “repent, or you will all likewise perish.” The Spy suggests his own collection:

Get your heart right rather than your wallet fat, live life beyond the soundbites, do something long, meaningful, and hard for a change from the trivial (how about a computing science or theology degree — grin?), give things away that can only be paid forward, love people rather than things, use things rather than people, give and receive love unconditionally (just “making” it doesn’t cut it).

The proud, the arrogant, the selfish, the critical, the greedy, the slanderers, the shallow, and the toy collectors will all be forgotten when they die, everything they thought they had secured sent to the dump, the second hand store, a museum, someone’s basement to await a garage sale, any monetary proceeds divided up among the bank accounts of temporarily grateful relatives.

So dream big, but dream real, dream to last, to be remembered, to win the accolade “well done good and faithful servant.” C’mon, all you bright innovators out there, take up the challenge. Use all this fabulous technology to make the world a better place, and not just for your own glory. For the toys may be handy till they become obsolete, but in the long run, they’re chaff in the wind, and you’ll no more take them beyond the grave than you will your fancy house, fat bank account, and even fatter debts.

–The Northern Spy

Opinions expressed here are entirely the author’s own, and no endorsement is implied by any community or organization to which he may be attached. Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor and chair of Computing Science and Mathematics at Canada’s Trinity Western University. He has been involved as a member or consultant with the boards of several organizations, including in the corporate sector, and participated in industry standards at the national and international level. He is a long time technology author and has written two textbooks and six novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (paper and online), and he’s a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of BC since 1972.

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