You don’t need to keep up with the Joneses
There was a discussion on National Radio. The subject, as far as I could tell, was the internet of things. Most of the speakers were decades my junior, people bang up to date with technology. I listened for a while but in the same spirit as I might have listened to the proceedings of parliament in Azerbaijan. The youngsters spoke a language I simply didn’t know. I could have written down the words they said but with no more understanding of their meaning than a parrot squawking knickers. They’d left me behind.
Keeping up with technology is like running the Olympic 10,000 metres. It is all very well when you are in the leading group. You can see the point of the exercise and you take strength from those around you.
But then the pace increases.
You have to fight to keep up. You begin to labour while others seem to glide. Then up goes the pace again. For one fatal moment you drop just a little behind. You tell yourself you’ll catch up again in a minute. You will never catch up again.
Once a gap has opened that’s that. The leaders stream away and they will continue to stream away. Of course you keep running, even though they’re now out of sight round the bend. Anything could happen, you tell yourself, and besides this is an important race. Running is expected of you. Running is what you do. Everything hurts but you keep running.
Then you hear the leaders behind you. They are shouting for you to get out of their way. You’re going to be lapped. You step aside. You cede the inside lane to the important runners, the ones the crowd have come to see. You have become a comic backdrop to their excellence. You can hear the crowd sniggering.
For a moment pride urges you to keep up with the leaders for a bit, even though you’re a lap behind. But you know it’s a notion born of desperation. And besides, those leaders are already sprinting away again in what seems a separate realm of running, incomprehensibly fast. They disappear around the bend once more and you are left with defeat. You are broken.
But it is then that a strange thing happens. Some might call it an epiphany. You become alone. The crowd forgets you and you forget the crowd. Your pace slows yet further to ease the pain in your body. It feels good. You catch a glimpse in the far distance of the leaders striving so very hard and for the first time you doubt the worth of what they’re doing. And that is when the devil speaks. That is when the devil puts his question. It’s the only question he ever has to put, the one that sows the seed of everything that follows. ‘Why bother?’ says the devil. ‘Why bother trying to keep up?’ And in the middle of the Olympic stadium you stop.
You look around at the madly cheering spectators and the frantic lung-busting runners and the earnest uniformed officials and bristling television cameras and from somewhere deep inside you comes a laugh. And you sit down, with the devil. It’s the sweetest moment. Why bother indeed?
Most of us, I suspect, have a point where we stop running with technology and sit down. Mine occurred some years ago. I’d discovered email. I’d discovered word processing. Both made my trade far easier to practise and I was grateful for both. But I had need for nothing more and nothing since has impinged on my world.
My mother’s moment came decades before that. She kept the same old chunky landline telephone for fifty years. She
Most of us, I suspect, have a point where we stop running with technology and sit down.
changed it only when she grew too deaf to hear it ring. And she hated the thing that replaced it. ‘‘Too many buttons,’’ she said. And she was right.
If others want to run the race then that’s just dandy. But not wanting to run it is every bit as dandy. There is no virtue inherent in keeping abreast for the sake of keeping abreast. The only reasons to adopt technology are the reasons Dr Johnson gave for reading a book: the better to enjoy life or the better to endure it. Anything else is is just keeping up with the Joneses.
It seems to me the one important thing is not to mind the technological Joneses. They remain powerless to change what matters: the nature of human nature, the things that make us happy, the things that make us sad.
These things shall continue the same, said Hardy a hundred years ago, though dynasties pass.