Some of you may know about my on-again, off-again obsession with New York Times columnist David Brooks. You might even wonder why, other than his sheer laziness and obviousness. I’ll let you in on my eternal shame: I once shared a byline with him, in the now-defunct women’s magazine More. The piece was a feature about “Alpha Women.” Brooks wrote the intro; I did the write-ups of the women themselves. We never spoke to each other.
But I have another reason for the headline. It’s about Brooks’ periodic praise for American innovation, or what he sees as innovation. The narrative goes like this: The United States is a tougher place to live than Europe, where people enjoy things like universal healthcare, long vacations, and a decent safety net. But the United States gives us something that they can’t—the freedom to dream and innovate and be like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. All this cool stuff like iPhones and Amazon’s Echo comes from the U.S., not those sclerotic old soft countries across the pond.
Sigh. I’ve been trying to figure out what’s wrong with this way of looking at the world, and The Spartan Woman and I have been batting around ideas. Living in both the dynamic, young inventive USA and tired old Europe, I try to resist the kinds of comparisons a lot of people do. I hear it all the time; Sentences that begin with “We have xxx,” or “Ours are different” or “How come they….” You get the drift. Both regions are what they are.
Then again, let’s talk about innovation. In American terms, it’s almost always a synonym for “technology.” When Brooks and his brethren (they’re almost always guys) gloat about American inventiveness, they invariably bring up the iPhone, or Google, etc., and boast about how they dominate the world. Okay, fine. But are they everything? Is computer-related technology the only way people can innovate, or think of new or more useful ways to live?
I’d say no. Let’s talk about how people move around in their environment. The U.S., for all the buzz about autonomous cars, is way behind the rest of the world. Stubbornly and proudly dumb about it. Highways are jammed, in the older cities, public transport is falling apart; here in New York it’s a battle to keep the subways and trains in any kind of working order. New York is still struggling to start building a new rail tunnel to link it to the rest of the country as the one in use crumbles and soon will be dangerous to use. Smaller cities are car-only, with maybe a rudimentary bus system. (Those cities out west that are building and expanding light rail systems are a noble exception.) In a way, the autonomous car thing is a perfect metaphor for the U.S.—high tech will come to the rescue of a way of life that’s stubbornly holding on and killing the planet.
In Europe–and even in Italy, which isn’t usually thought of being ahead of anything modern–you can zip around on fast trains. It takes just an hour and a half to go from Florence to Milan; the Rome-Milan trip, which is about 500 km or about 300 miles, takes under 3 hours.
There are lots of other examples where “innovation” doesn’t necessarily mean computers or online anything. As an American, have you remodeled a kitchen recently? How long did it take, and how much did it cost? We put in a kitchen in our Italian mountain house, with sleek white and grey laminate cabinets and the usual appliances. It took a couple of visits to a store, a little plumbing and electrical work, and then the kitchen was done in a day. The innovation came in the form of design; the manufacturer has a bunch of modules, with some custom work. It sends a “geometra,” someone who measures everything, looks at where the outlets and gas lines are, etc. Two guys and a truck later, it was all there. (And it came to about $5,000.)
And then there’s the espresso machine. At least for me, it’s improved my life more than, say, digital internet (sorry FIOS, you’re not my first love). So, once again, my usual disclaimer: I’m not saying that one place is necessarily better than the other–well, okay, in nonmaterial quality of life, one is better, but you might not agree. It’s just that there are other ways of looking at what’s important, and how life should be lived. We as Americans should look around some more.
And, er, Davy’s wrong.
Photo of the semi-hidden visage of Brooks at the top: By PBS Newshour – Flickr, CC BY 2.0, 0