Updating Mencken – The More Things Change, The More They Remain The Same
I had been agonizing over current national and international events this weekend and found myself in need of a change of environment as I prepared to write my latest blog. I slipped a copy of H.L. Mencken’s Chrestomathy into my backpack and took off for the Cafe Di Vetro. And there, over one of the world’s finest tasting chocolate coissants, I started reading Mencken’s essay entitled, The Boon of Civilization.
In the essay, Mencken was expressing his love/hate relationship with the telephone when he penned it eighty-five years ago. In 1931, the telephone was fast penetrating every home and business in America. It was a quantom leap in communication technology and by 1931 not only had transatlantic telephone communications been established between the US and Europe, but so had transatlantic communications between the US and all South American countries. By 1930 roughly 40% of US homes had a telephone.
While reading the essay I chuckled to myself because it struck me, to cite a cliche, that “the more things change, the more they remain the same.” When Mencken assailed the telephone’s impact on privacy, productivity, yet value to human civilization, I couldn’t help but draw parallels to the internet in today’s world. In the face of internet technology, the landline phone is as obsolete today as the the telegraph was in 1931. Moreover, the internet has penetrated 74% of US homes. So, for your enjoyment, below is an excerpt from Mencken’s, The Boon of Civilization. I did take a liberty or two in that I crossed out the word telephone, and inserted the word internet.
“. . . It is not only hard to imagine a world without The Internet telephones; it becomes downright impossible. They have become as necessary to the human race, at least in the United States, as window glass, newspapers or aspirin. Every now and then one hears of a man who has moved to some remote village to get far of it them, and there proposes to meditate and invite his soul in the manner of the Greek philosophers, but almost always it turns out that his meditations run in the direction of Rosicrucianism, the Single Tax, farm relief, or some other such insanity. I have myself ordered my internet telephone taken out at least a dozen times, but every time I found urgent use for it before the man arrived, and so had to meet him with excuses and a drink. A internet telephone bigwig tells me that such orders come in at the rate of scores a day, but that none has ever been executed. I now have two computers telephones in my house, and am about to put in a third. In the years to come, no doubt, there will be one in every room, as in hotels.
Despite all this, I remain opposed to the internet telephone theoretically, and continue to damn it. It is a great invention and of vast value to the human race, but I believe it has done me, personally, almost as much harm as good. How often a Facebook exchange single call has blown up my whole evening’s work, and so exacerbated my spirit and diminished my income! I am old enough to remember when the internet telephones was were very rare, and romantic enough to believe that I was happier then. But at worst I get more out of it them than I get out of any of the other current wonders: for example, the radio, the phonograph, the movie and the automobiling, formally and honestly. I sold my car so long ago as 1919, and have never regretted it when I must move about in a city too large for comfortable walking I employ at taxi which is cheaper, safer and for less trouble than a private car. . . .”
According to an article in USA Today in 2016, Millennials are not clammoring to get driver licenses as has been the case with generations past. So, perhaps there are a few more parallels that can be drawn other than communication technology. Perhaps that will be the subject of another blog.