I was driving to work this morning along the same road that I’ve used for almost thirty years. About halfway between home and clinic, off to the side of the highway, is an old textile finishing plant. It’s long since closed down, and the graffiti-scarred structure is rusting and collapsing. A shiny new pharmacy was built in front of it so one has to know it’s there or be very observant, or it is easily passed by, forlorn and crumbling, hiding in plain sight.
One of my many jobs growing up was working in the local textile mill that was the mother’s milk of the small Georgia community I grew up in. The plant provided jobs, housing, a post office, a village doctor, decorations at holiday time, and a ready made social fabric in addition to the thousands of yards of cloth it produced. I enjoyed my time at the plant. I learned valuable lessons about people, hard work and the necessity of following rules during my time there.
The textile mill I worked in, similar to the finishing plant on my route to work, has crumbled, and it has actually been torn down.
I have good memories of my childhood, my teenage years, and my work experiences. I lived, learned and loved in a Norman Rockwell time and place. Cold, deep swimming pools of water doused the heat of scorching hot summers and the smell of wild onions and grass stains on blue jeans gave way to smoke from chimneys and the smell of turkey and dressing in November. The hill behind the pool became an Olympic sledding venue after the rare snows we had as kids. Life in the mill village was good. Really good.
The memories of those times are pleasant and often surface when the stress of modern life threatens to overwhelm us. The nostalgia is a balm, a healing salve on the claw marks and scratches and bites we get from sharp-edged technology, scathing commentary and biting sarcasm. The nostalgia is sweet, but like too much sugar ingested by a diabetic, it can quickly turn to a killing poison. The past is the past, and barring a miracle of time travel or a rip in the space-time continuum, it is never coming back.
Some of us, including our leaders at the highest levels, revel in the nostalgic vision of that idyllic time and place, with its neatly ordered rows of houses and humming factories and simple social order. They long for a return to a more structured, locally controlled, face-to-face existence. They see a return to that time and place as a return to a strong, powerful, safe, and protected country and lifestyle. They lack insight into how the world is evolving, not at the speed of sound or even light but at the speed of electrons and bits and bytes that travel the circumference of the globe at a mind-boggling pace. They lack the vision of a world that is rapidly morphing into a new era of robotic manufacturing, artificial intelligence, augmented reality and social interactions on a scale we’ve never experienced before.
This is not only short sighted but dangerous.
Too much nostalgia, pleasant as the sugar coated predecessor of the poison is, leads to sadness about what we have lost.
Too much division leads to anger and frustration about what we cannot do.
We must pivot.
Each of us. All of us.
We must anticipate the changes of the future, both short term and long term. Burying our head in the sand about advances in technology, cyber spying, interference in our longstanding institutions and processes will not make these changes go away.
We must plan for the near future, paying attention to those things we have a modicum of control over, while allowing ourselves to dream of the distant future, imagining things that are not even concepts or inventions yet. This will keep us strong and productive in the now, but not hamper our ability to create and brainstorm and reorganize our world.
We must allow ourselves to experience life as it evolves around us, with all its wonders of climate and energy and technology and transportation and entertainment and work.
We must innovate.
If we stand still, if we stop dreaming, if we give into the fallacy that the good old days can never be bested and so should be resurrected, then we shall surely watch ourselves drift slowly but inexorably into the sea of irrelevance.
The future is coming. Of that there is no doubt.
We must choose to move boldly and be part of it.