Tag Archives: rotary dial telephones

AC and the Fall of Western Civilization

23 Jul

AC and the Fall of Western Civilization

By L. Stewart Marsden


Today the weather is challenging to my comfort zone. It is hot, and has been for the last several days. It is also very humid, and to add more hardship, there is little or no breeze. By way of explanation, I live in the mountains, where temperatures are normally dozens of degrees cooler than that of my friends, who do not live in the mountains. We are experiencing an extended heat wave throughout North Carolina.

Another hope for your sympathy is my home is not air conditioned. I rely on open windows, ceiling and various portable fans to move air and keep the condo cool.

My father used to tell me how in the winter men would cut ice blocks from the Rock River that meandered close to Luverne where he grew up in Minnesota. As in Disney’s Frozen, these ice blocks were essential during the short, but hot Minnesota summers, and were stored in sawdust to keep them from melting. People used them in their ice boxes, the forerunner of the refrigerator. Horse-drawn ice trucks cobbled down the dusty streets, stopping at each house to parcel out the ice, followed by swarms of young boys and girls who hoped to snatch a fallen piece of frozen river water to suck on.

What we now take for granted was more than appreciated in that day. Now, our “ice boxes” not only make ice, but tell us via cellphone what to buy at the grocery store.

Technology is great, and I love how it has advanced everyday life beyond that of basic struggles for survival. With every advance, however, we lose a part of another essential ingredient to life: appreciation.

It may not surprise you to know that names like Benjamin Franklin, Michael Faraday and others worked on evaporation and cooling. James Harrison, an Australian, developed an ice-making machine in the mid 1800s, and at the turn of the 19th century, Willis Carrier (that name sound familiar?), invented the first electric air conditioning unit in Buffalo, NY. His goal was not to cool, but to dehumidify the air to aid in the printing process.

In the middle of the 20th century, Packard offered the first factory-installed air conditioning in a car.

There it is.

Today we go from air conditioned homes and apartments and drive in air conditioned cars to our air conditioned places of work.

It’s not just AC that has cast a pall on who we have become. I chose that as an overall metaphor for technological advances. Again, I pretty much like and use them, and am guilty of the same ignorance regarding how each works. I have become dependent on all these advances. Heck, I’m typing on an iPad Pro ordered online and delivered in two days! Think of all of the advances that had to be made to enable that! And I don’t know much about any of it.

In Jurassic Park (the first movie of the series), Dr. Ian Malcolm complains of the laziness involved in the genetic engineering of the park:

Dr. Ian Malcolm: If I may… Um, I’ll tell you the problem with the scientific power that you’re using here, it didn’t require any discipline to attain it. You read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn’t earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don’t take any responsibility for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox …

I remember struggling in high school, and later in college, to solve a math problem using a slide rule (and slide rule doesn’t mean a baseball regulation for those who don’t know).

I remember sitting for hours on a chair in the kitchen, my ear glued to the telephone, having dialed the four- or five-digit phone number of my current girlfriend using a rotary dial.

I remember watching black-and-white television, and opting from three local stations for my viewing pleasure.

Today? I have a calculator on my iPad which I downloaded from the internet.

I have a smartphone that makes me accessible 24/7, regardless where I am located.

I have a smart screen that is connected to the internet via wifi, which gives me access to more channels and entertainment than I could ever hope to use.

You didn’t earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don’t take any responsibility for it.

Again, there it is.

I’m not advocating getting rid of all technology – far from it. I’m warning that as we continue to forge ahead with our technology and as it takes us and our civilization to places we’ve only imagined (remember the Dick Tracy newspaper comic strip?), we need to take responsibility for it.

Air conditioning, for example, drains the power grid when the weather turns hot. Use of social media on the internet provides the user with relative anonymity, meaning the temptation to do or say things we might ordinarily not do or say becomes compelling.

Perhaps the onus for this abdication of responsibility goes back much further. The invention/discovery of fire? The wheel? The printing press? The bow and arrow? Gunpowder?

Are we flying too close to the sun, as with Icarus and Daedalus? I wonder. Where will it all take us?