Our Town: Gentlemen, start your engines

Dr Tom Ferraro

Henry Adams was an American historian, Harvard professor, descended from two American presidents, was an American ambassador in London and wrote one of the most important essays in American history. 

He penned “A Law of Acceleration in 1907 for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. This had the simple and terrifying hypothesis that scientific progress was about to accelerate human life in ways that we would not be able to handle and that we had no choice in the matter.  

He wrote this at the turn of the last century as he observed the growth of coal power, chemical power, electrical power, radiating power and others forces. 

He sensed that the speed of life would only get faster and that nothing was going to stop this process.  He also suggested that this amazing growth of technological power would become our new religion and that we would become enslaved by it.   

Prescient to say the least. Anyone who lives in America and wonders about their mounting cell phone bills and  mounting stress levels may agree with Henry Adams and his predictions. I know I do.

Let us pick just one aspect of technology and observe how it has impacted our life in Williston Park. Let’s discuss cars.

One of the first columns I wrote for the Williston Times way back in 2012 was based upon a conversation I had with James Kunstler a former native of Roslyn and author of “Geography of Nowhere” an extremely influential and critical text about the flaws and failures of the suburban lifestyle.  

He said that thanks to a hodgepodge of architectural choices and accommodation to car culture we live in towns which are ugly and which are difficult if not impossible to care about. 

He told me that the ugliness of our everyday environment leads to an ‘entropy of the visible’ which means that most town environments lack coherent organization or beauty and that living in our virtual world of TV and computer life will never be an adequate substitute for real face to face interaction.

He laid most of the blame on the accommodation to cars rather than people.  

When a town shrinks sidewalks, removes trees, allows four lanes rather then two on Main Street and worries more about parking lots rather than piazzas  what you get are ugly towns that people avoid rather than gravitate to.  

Anyone who has walked down Ocean Avenue in Carmel-by-the-Sea, Worth Avenue in West Palm Beach or the Champs-Elysees in Paris knows just what a well-designed street feels like.  

And that is merely one aspect of car culture. 

Every day we all endure constant threats to life and limb as we drive. There is not a day that goes by when I am not scared to death as I try to merge onto Wantagh Parkway at 7 a.m. with traffic roaring along at 65 MPH. 

This is my daily wake up call as I drive to work.  And if one is unfortunate enough to be forced to drive west on Old Country Road you had better have your wits about you.  

A few days ago, at about 6:30 a.m. I was on Old Country, moved in front of someone who became so enraged that he proceeded to flash his headlights at me for a half mile. 

How do people get so angry so early in the morning? 

Last week I spoke about the process of dehumanization that we are all experiencing each day.  

I think this experience of becoming non-human is very much the case when we get behind the wheel.  I think we tend to merge with the machine and its power and woe to anyone who dares get in our way. 

It’s almost as if we become more cyborg than human the moment the engine starts. 

I think that Henry Adams was absolutely right when he warned of the dangers  of technology and its power and that we cannot do a thing about this. 

Technological progress is like a tidal wave that we cannot stop.  It reminds me of the famous poem by W.B. Yeats entitled “The Second Coming” written in 1919. 

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned,

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity…… 

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

Here we are, the second coming has arrived. Now where is my check book so I can pay that $80 electronic traffic ticket I just got in the mail? And I didn’t even know that I went through a red light. 

Yet another of the many marvelous uses of today’s technology. 

More evidence of the rough beast in action.  Let’s just say good luck to us all.

About the author

Dr Tom Ferraro

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