Science fiction has always adumbrated science fact, and in the 21st century the gap between the two is narrow. Medical technology saves lives that would have been lost even a decade ago. Automobile engines run 100 thousand miles without a major repair. We tinker with the very source code of our human operating system and peer into what we believe are the fundamental building blocks of reality, at least until we discover something even more fundamental.
Yet every time I walk into places like the old Sautee Store down in the Nacoochee Valley, I have to wonder whether we took a wrong turn somewhere on the path that brought us to this time of fear and confusion.
The student of history will remind me that humanity has a long resume of the same; of war and famine and pestilence, of climate change and mass migration, of tyrants and barbarians, horror and death in times when it was rare to live more than 40 years. But for me, the period of time during which the Sautee Store and others like it thrived represents an optimum period in the history of our technology.
The store began operation in 1872, and it was in its heyday during one of those bubbles of of peace and prosperity, relatively speaking, that the US enjoyed between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of WWI as the industrial age literally gathered steam. It was a locally owned business that served the needs of the community, both physically and socially. Just about every community in Georgia had a store like this, and many survived until the age of information and outsourcing and big box stores took the life from them.
We like to visit the Sautee store every year or so to recharge the memories. The old part of the store hasn’t changed much since I was a kid begging my mom for change to put in the nickelodeon. There are brands on the shelves there today that I remember seeing in my grandparents’ attic, and some of the farm tools in the store are almost identical to the “antiques” the grandparents were still using when I would help out in the garden. No, I’m not that old, but my grandparents’ generation saw no need to buy a new manufactured tool when they could continue to maintain something hand forged and of proven reliability.
Just about everything in those stores was something you could understand, or repair, or make yourself. Human nature doesn’t change, but in retrospect it seems that when this brief bubble in time popped with the onset of World War One, greed and war got a firm grip on the reins as the driving force behind technological advance. Our maturity and integrity have always lagged behind, but at the end of this period, science and technology ran far ahead, and continue to do so.
Now our entire economy is geared to condition us to consume more stuff. We replace instead of repair, and our gizmos are so complicated that even the experts only understand parts of them. You can’t even work on your own tractor because it’s full of “intellectual property,” and our refrigerators spy on us and conspire to get us to buy more things.
And war? A glance at some of the recent pictures of the Taliban occupying Kabul should put things in perspective for Americans addicted to our distractions. Witness a Stone Age culture armed with modern weapons at the end of two decades of blood and treasure poured into pounded rubble. The payoff? Defense stocks continue to thrive, and our bad chess players played at thwarting Russia and then China in a game where they were never in danger of suffering the consequences of their mistakes.
Our empire builders could have learned a lesson or two from the Romans, who extracted tribute from their conquests, and consolidated their gains in ways that actually benefited Roman citizens. Compare this to our own oligarchy in its “nation building,” which was always a cover for other intentions. If our oligarchs truly cared about humanity, imagine the “nation building” that might have helped Haiti on our own doorstep at a fraction of the cost – Haiti, pounded into rubble by nature much more efficiently than by bombs, though without any profits for American defense contractors.
It’s right there in front of us – no, not the tragedy in Haiti, which is on the back page behind Britney Spears’ latest struggle, but the end of the game in Afghanistan. It’s the next political football between the republicans who started it, the democrats who continued it and the president who fumbled in the end zone. The ruse stretches out behind us at least as far as the “nation building” war in Vietnam. But we’re too distracted, too divided to see it, distracted by our desires and enraged by the politics of pandemic, pigment and pronouns.
Distracted? Perhaps I’m being kind. We’re too dull. “Dull as a fro,” my dad used to say before I learned to sharpen a knife properly. Dull as the fro that hangs on the wall at the Old Sautee Store. Dull as a tool designed, not for sharpness or finesse, but for brute force division.