You don’t need to keep up with the Jone­ses

Marlborough Express - - COMMENT&OPINION - JOE BEN­NETT

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.

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