Monday 05 Dec 2016

The Big Con
Sjef Frenken

"We've been bamboozled," said Jack.

"How so? And who do you mean 'we'? The editorial 'we', the you-and-me 'we' or the everybody 'we'?" I asked.

"I mean everybody," said Jack, "actually, more precisely, people in the industrialized part of the world."

I said "And what made you reach that conclusion?"

"I was at the dentist's the other day, and the man must have been emptying some of the boxes in his attic. I mean, the reading material in most doctors' waiting rooms is way out of date, but this guy had magazines from the forties and fifties. You name it -- defunct ones like Collier's and the Saturday Evening Post, and ones that are still going, like Reader's Digest and Popular Mechanics. So I started thumbing through some of the Popular Mechanics." Jack shook his head.

I said "Pray tell, how did you make the leap from Popular Mechanics to bamboozled?"

Jack said "Do you remember the visions of the future held out to the reader in those magazines in the fifties? Rocket planes that would take you from New York to London in 40 minutes, a helicopter in every garage, robots to help the little lady keep the house tidy, labour-saving devices of all kinds, and to top it all, a 10-hour work-week. Where the hell did things go wrong?"

I said "Well, we did have a plane that could go from New York to London in less than three hours, but that's out of commission now, and there is that little robot floor cleaner you can see in the late-hour TV infomercials, bumping into walls and furniture. But very few private helicopters, though, I give you that."

"What gets my goat," said Jack, "is this whole labour-saving thing. All these machines and products that are supposed to save you time, when in fact you have to work extra hours to be able to afford the damn things in the first place!"

Jack was on a roll.

"And another thing. In the twenties and thirties, hell, even in the forties and fifties -- except for the war years, there was only one bread earner in the house, and he probably worked 45 hours per week to support a middle-class family. Nowadays, with all the labour-saving devices, and all the efficiencies introduced in the work place, it takes both Momma AND Poppa joining the labour force to bring home the bacon. So now, the bread-earners in the family have to work 70 to 80 hours per week to be able to afford the modern middle class standard of living. Progress, my ass!"

There was no stopping Jack now.

"And take the bloody Post Office. In the fifties and even in the sixties, there was overnight delivery of a letter within virtually any town and city in the country. It would take one day to get a letter from Quebec to Montreal or from Ottawa to Toronto. Mail was sorted by hand, some on the train as it was travelling from city to city. And now, with all the airplanes, computers, satellites and postal codes at its disposal, it takes the Post Office two to three days to get a letter from one part of the city to another, and up to a week to make it from Montreal to Vancouver. And that's supposed to pass for progress?"

I said "Jack, it does seem that the benefits of automation and increased efficiency in industry have not been equitably distributed. But that's life, my friend. And even if the Utopia held out to us in the fifties never materialized, I'd still rather live now than then. And I'm not even referring to the tension generated by the Cold War."

Jack said "You're missing the point: we were conned, we were lied to."

I said "In the first place, Jack, Popular Mechanics is not exactly the Oracle of Delphi. Just because it painted a rosy picture of the future, doesn't mean that the world is obliged to follow its script! And besides, so much of the modern world is a con game! Do we really need iPods, 56-inch TV screens, and a cell phone in every teenager's pocket? And yet that's where so much of the money goes that we spent so much time working for."

Jack didn't look any happier for my argument. So I tried another tack: "Look at it this way: isn't it nice to be able to discuss the lost mirage of a 10-hour work-week from the perspective of our zero-hour work-week? After all, we're both retired!"

Sjef Frenken is a renaissance man: thinker, writer, translator and composer of much music. A main interest, he has many, is setting to music the poetry, written for children, during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Nimble of mind, Sjef is a youthful retiree and a great-grandfather. Mostly he's a content man, which facilitates his relentless multi-media creativity.

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