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The Sand Pit Story
Nor lose the common touch.
In 2000 my wife was working her second Olympic Games. The first time, she was the primary food buyer for the Athlete’s Village in Atlanta. This time, we had three kids under 5 years old, so she took a smaller position. Still, it was very exciting to fly out to Sydney with my son to reunite with her and my two daughters.
I liked the way the Aussies handled the games. Even though they made Cathy Freeman the national sweetheart of the games, they had a much more serious attitude to all of the sports as sports. I was actually transformed by the step by step commentary of the 50km women’s speed walk. The announcers made it captivating. There also was another great story of the games they told. It was the story of an engineer.
This particular genius spent over 6 years designing, building and perfecting a sand pit Zamboni. For all of the events that involved the official sized sand pit, men’s and women’s long jump, triple jump, heptathlon and decathlon, precision measurement is necessary for fair competition. In all games before this, officials and helpers would manually rake the pits after each jump and measurement, but this inventor pledged to bring such jump events into the 21st century.
The device was mounted on rails and straddled the sand pit. During the competition it would be rolled back on those rails further than the end of the pit. The Aussie commentators were proud of the inventor and his machine and dedicated quite the mini-documentary to his million dollar machine.
Unfortunately on the first day of the long jump competition, it rained. The machine failed to work for more than 30 minutes. It broke down halfway through its precise sand leveling task on its way back to its parking space. It took another 45 minute delay of the competition to get the monstrosity detached from the rails and off the field into some basement of shame.
It struck me during this minor catastrophe that all of the time, money, documentary work, licensing, patent filing and other business of invention could have been ignored in favor of employing a dozen young people. It would have given them the thrill and honor of their lives to do the same boring manual labor of leveling long jump pits that was the tradition of the modern Olympic Games.
This is the story I always think of when people start yelping about the future of technology and how sure they are that it will improve our lives. We’ll be free from manual labor? The honor and glory will go to the inventor and rob ordinary young people of noble purpose.
For some time, after having read Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, I fancied myself as a prototypical Neo-Victorian. That solidified a bit more after having read Dickens’ Bleak House. I am sharply aware of those trade-offs we make when we allow society to automate us out of work and seduce us into luxury.
Growing up, I took this to be an intellectual vanguard-ish thing that I called being organic. And this was after the fashion of Cornel West who, predictably, sought to throw capitalism under a dark bus. In truth, for much of my life I sought to stand on my own with as little social leverage as possible from corporate high life. It wasn’t until I walked several miles in the shoes of the political right that I came to give markets their full due. So now I am much more comfortable in splitting the difference. I cannot be fully seduced by consumer markets and their silly bourgeois products, nor would I leave my talents unrecognized by a complete lack of marketing. You can be an organic townie. Nothing wrong with that. I’m too cosmopolitain for that. I’ll take leverage, but not for the sake of idle luxury.
That doesn’t change the appeal of the handmade product, the bespoke suit, the craftsmanship of code, of paragraphs, of solo piano performance. The Neo-Victorian establishes a necessary counterpoint of taste and preference for that which respects the labor of the individual, of service to the righteous household, in a more significant way than that the luxuriant indulgence of the farm-to-table diner. It demands the social skills and manners of the man who thinks of the honorable labor of youth over the sweaty basement inventions of the crafty inventor whose machine ‘frees them’ from service.
So we should think carefully of whom we seek to respect in our bourgie daily routines. Are we sucking up and seeking the blessing of the Ruling Class? Are we held in thrall to the utopian promises of the Genius Class? Are we reaching out to provide an honest day’s wage for a job well done? If not the latter, we will never learn what it takes to rule with an even hand.