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Saturday, May 29, 2010

Benjamin Franklin Riding Shotgun

Because what happens always amazes and flummoxes me, when driving around I sometimes pretend that Benjamin Franklin has mysteriously been whisked from his own time and deposited on the seat next to me. I greet him courteously and explain what has happened to him, and that he is now riding in a vehicle traveling at 70 miles an hour on a road in the middle of Ohio in the year 2010. Ben, being Ben, takes this in stride and, characteristically curious about everything, begins to look around him. That’s when the complications start.

“How does this vehicle work? What propels it?” the good doctor asks. I explain that the “automobile” is fuelled by gasoline, but of course he has questions about what that means. Hmm. Well, these dinosaurs died, you see, and (“What are dinosaurs?”). It gets complicated fast. Then, annoyed at my ability to explain something so basic, he wants to know how the automobile is powered by the fuel. Well, another hmm, there was a day when I could have given a rudimentary explanation of the internal combustion engine, but that day has passed. I temporize by suggesting that later I’ll introduce him to someone who will provide him with a complete explanation. “Don’t you know?” he asks, astounded at my complacent ignorance of this marvel’s workings, and I squirm in embarrassment. In Gore Vidal’s comedy “Visit to a Small Planet” the alien from outer space is asked the same question about his spaceship, at which point he shrugs his shoulders and mutters, “It just goes.” Not a very satisfying explanation. Arthur. C. Clarke’s famous statement is all too true: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Ben is also in wonder at the traffic whizzing by on all sides at incredible speeds. “How do you keep from running into each other?” he marvels. That one I’m better at answering. I inform him that all American citizens are expected to drive, and to drive well. “All of them?” he asked, thinking of the collisions horse riders have in his day. “Yes, all above the age of 16,” I assure him, agog at the fact myself. (Indeed, contrary to what you might suspect, Americans are the safest drivers on the planet. We’re good at it.) He’s pleased, but immediately wants to learn to drive, a thrill we’ll also postpone until later. But, reader, stop and think how difficult a task it would be to teach Ben enough that he could safely drive through a busy downtown intersection. Would you want to ride in the car with him on his first outing?

Ben’s also curious about lights, both in the car and outside. Are they powered by his own personal baby: electricity? Yes, is the answer. “All of them?” Yes, again. Now Ben does a little dance of excitement while sitting in his seat, at which point I remember to make him buckle up, and he promptly has questions about the buckle. What is this material? Plastic. How is it made? Uh, got me. Can mankind fly? Yup. How does that happen? Well, another engine and the shape of the wings do the trick, I manage to say, but just then a plane flies over, and when I point it out he undoes his seatbelt and leans dangerously out the window (after I first show him the button that lowers it), and stares at it, open-mouthed.

The more questions he asks, the dumber I feel. Try this same experiment when you’re next standing around bored, waiting for something. Pretend Old Ben is right beside you, questions at the ready. How much could you explain about, well, almost all the things we so casually accept as commonplace. Ben certainly wouldn’t agree with such complacency. 2010 contains a paradise of marvels in Benjamin Franklin’s eyes.

And it should be a paradise in our minds too. What a world we live in! We’ve come from living in caves to dwelling in a metropolis, from crawling out of the sea to the moon, from delivering messages on horseback to texting, from papyrus to the most incredible invention of all: the internet. We are living in an age when all the information on the planet is available to everyone instantly, and all people who want to be connected can find each other in seconds, hearing each other’s voices, sharing photos, playing games across continents. The new events of the world, from tornados to war, to murder, to dramatic rescues, to silly antics of children and pets, are informed by videos shot by casual spectators, their iPods/cell phones pulled from pockets like guns from holsters.

We take it all for granted, a major mistake. Suppose that somehow all the problems in the world—all of them—were solved by midnight tonight. How long do you think it would be before there would be new (and serious) problems everywhere? The answer—obviously—is immediately. Six billion human beings running around doing things are going to generate problems with every movement. And those problems are what we tend to concentrate on, forgetting all else. Every time I hear someone say something like we shouldn’t spend money on going to outer space (or building a cathedral, financing the arts, etc.) as long as there is poverty on this planet, I shake my head. With that ethic we’d still be living in those caves.

Surely it’s appropriate to stop every once in awhile and appreciate what we have: the greatest civilization ever, possibly the greatest in the history of the universe! And minute by minute, like billions of ants, we’re working to create new marvels, better machines and buildings, trading zillions of goods (the apples I buy at Kroger come from New Zealand!), generating wonderful new ideas, curing diseases (transplanting hearts!), thinking up ways to protect our planet, inventing shortcuts to ease the burdens of all. If Benjamin Franklin were riding shotgun in the car with you and you saw the world through his eyes, wouldn’t it be exciting? Exciting for both of you?

Consider what William James said in a 1907 letter to his brother Henry:
“The courage, the heaven-scaling audacity of it all, and the lightness withal, as if there was nothing that was not easy and the great pluses and bounds of progress, so many in directions all simultaneous that the coordination is indefinitely future, give a kind of drumming background of life that I have never felt before.”

More than a hundred years later it’s only gotten better.
Related Posts:
"Rock Around the Sun," December 31, 2010
"Electricity and Cave Man Living," February 4, 2011
"Life's Little (But Important) Rules," April 23, 2010
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013

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