176 years ago, Dickens’ apocalyptic expression of the children of humanity, Ignorance and Want, warned us of what was to come if we, as a society, did not change our ways. Only 70 years later, Henry Ford kickstarted his assembly line amidst the thundering steel and roaring fire of a mechanical revolution – captains of industry were being churned out as instinctively as the model T in this tropical climate of roasting consumerism and red-hot enterprise. Yet, amidst the chaos of production and credit, standing stalwart over grimy workers crammed in sardine-can houses, surrounded by the choking black cough of filthy factory lungs, were the people who wanted faster horses.
Though it is uncertain whether Mr Ford ever truly uttered the phrase “If I had asked the people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”, its sentiments are clear; humanity is too focused on what it has to be able to see what it could create. We are creatures of leisure and comfort, too fearful to be curious, cordoning off the rabbit hole with no notion of what Wonderland could await us if we allowed ourselves to fall a little. However, such creatures can only thrive in an atmosphere of abundance, thus in our unbalanced environment, speciation is occurring at a rapid pace, dividing humanity ever more definitely into the categories of those who have (money, possessions, freedom, opportunity) and those who have-not. Those who have are so preoccupied with having that they fail to contemplate the possibility of a world beyond the horizon. Meanwhile the have-nots scramble aboard desperate ramshackle ships and chart a course for the edge of the world – because whatever lies beyond the horizon, even death, must be more hopeful than this vacuum of hopelessly having-not.
While the scales continue to tip in favour of the few, the world keeps screaming forwards; faster than model T’s used to drop off the assembly line, faster than the rocket that launched Apollo 11, faster than Concorde, faster than a Google search. Our altitude soars higher and higher, yet the familiar refrain ‘don’t look down!’ finds no place in the priority of human breath – we are always looking down, looking back at our old prophets and with a self-indulgent air of knowing, exclaiming “oh, look at how Dickens criticised his society, things were terrible back then!”. We cluck and coo over the injustices of ‘Dickens’ society’, oblivious to the fact it is our own. Nothing has changed but aesthetics; the “careless people” of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby are alive and equally careless today. Burgess’ envisioning of forced morality undermining morality itself blares from our media platforms, and the eerie eye of Big Brother leers out, not just from Orwell’s 1984, but from every CCTV camera, laptop, phone and tablet on the planet. Just as these simultaneous ghosts of historical past, fictional present and dystopian future will never cease to haunt us, so do Ford’s ‘people’ live and breathe in the modern age, still wanting ‘faster horses’, bigger houses, smaller tech, longer lives, shorter waiting-lists, more innovation, less change.
Change is inevitable. Humans, as we know them – if we really know them at all – are a result of evolution, of adaptation. If there hadn’t been a mutation of genes, a creation of something new and unique, mankind would still be an infant cell splashing about in a paddling pool of chemicals. Yet, the hypocrisy in looking back and appreciating how far we’ve come, only to cling so desperately to where we are, is almost laughable. Survival of the fittest has been replaced by maintenance of the well-off. Fear of loss and mistrust of hope has led mankind to shrink from change. It is natural to fear loss. However, over the course of our short existence the concepts of change and loss have become superficially, and incorrectly, entwined. We may indeed find it natural to fear change, but according to Einstein, it is insane to keep repeating ourselves and expect different results. As a race we have so much history to look back on and use to evaluate the benefits of change and the dangers of resisting it! But of course, it is only too true that, in the words of philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, “We learn from history that we do not learn from history”. Perhaps we are so afraid of change and what we may lose that we dare not venture outside of the established cycle of increase, excess, and destruction.
All this is not to say that there are not great innovators today, providing new features, apps and gadgets with every latest release or update – but these are not people of change. They build upon the same ideas, adding features but never creating something wholly new. The true prophets of change are easily identifiable – they are mocked at first, and they are feared. Eventually, after a notable period of anger, resentment, and protest, the disapprovers settle back in their armchairs, somewhat dumbfounded, as they fail to distinguish the change from the norm, for they are already one and the same. Life goes on as usual, change is accepted, and we get to be so very grateful later, laughing at the prudes of olden times even as we laugh at the prophets of our time, obliviously.
Technology is more advanced, more powerful, more integrated, and more terrifying than ever before. In embracing change we don’t need to run and welcome every new update, app or gadget with open arms without considering the wider implications. No leap forwards has ever been made without taking a few steps in the wrong direction, and no Wonderland ever stumbled upon without falling. ‘New’ does not always mean ‘better’, and at this juncture it is important to remember that Henry Ford did not, in fact, create the automobile. That was the achievement of Karl Benz. Henry Ford created an automobile that was financially accessible to nearly every American in the country. Henry Ford created a society of automobile drivers. He created a generation of people who could, independently, travel further than they had ever been able to travel before. And generations later, we still expect to have the freedom to go where we want, when we want, without the necessity for a horse.
Whether or not Henry Ford did indeed utter the words that find themselves at the heart of this blog, they should be seen as a call to action. Those words are the hands holding up a mirror to our faces, showing us with cruel honesty who we are, and it’s certainly not ‘the fairest of them all’. His words show us what we are, while Ford himself, the man who changed the world forever, gives us a glimpse of what we could be… If we embrace change. It is time to stop complaining about the way the world is, and where it’s headed, from the uneasy comfort of big houses surrounded by bigger troubles. Instead, it is time to throw comfort to the wind, to set out on a journey to make a difference, and to believe that in leaving the security of the stagnant behind, we can reach a better place. It was certainly Henry Ford who said: If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right. I think we can. And I’m right. Now, it’s your turn.