Trivialities and Transcendence

So, OK, I got a dynalanche, having written Virginia about something I actually have some experience in. Well, then she pointed to this review, where she writes: “Brooks is impressed by our energy and achievements, but worried about our souls: ‘The quest may be epic, but the goal is trivial.'”
Those of you who have read GENERATIONS will recall that Strauss and Howe contrast the styles of the Silent Generation (born between the mid-’20s and early ’40s) with that of the Boomers (birth years early ’40s to early ’60s) as those of an “adaptive” vs an “idealist” generation. Adaptives are process-oriented and promote incrementalist approaches; Idealists are principle-oriented and demand breakthroughs.
(For those unfamiliar with these concepts, a primer is here).
I believe that the US is experiencing, just as Strauss and Howe predicted, a shift in problem-resolution style from small bites to big gulps, as it were. The trick is to realize that the pursuit of enough trivial goals can add up to an epic quest — or, rather, that even an epic quest can be broken down into a large number of relatively trivial goals (I just warmed the hearts of any project managers who might be reading this).
To cite a dark and dramatic example, a quote from one of my favorite movies: “One man desperate for fuel is pathetic. Five million men desperate for fuel can destroy a city.” Or, in a much more positive (and civic) vein, the slogan of this organization, which holds the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, my household included, in its metaphorical hands: “One boring improvement after another.” Improved spelling on their webpage may yet be among them. ;)
See also the cogent point, quoted by Virginia, of Matt of Overtaken by Events: “No longer will the supervisor have to walk to the register, find out the problem and make another trip to resolve it. This may only save a few minutes at a time, but when you’re talking about 100 million customers per week the productivity gains could be enormous.”
In sufficient quantity, the trivial becomes transcendent. Epic struggles: the containment of Islamist (and perhaps environmentalist) terror; the creation of strong nanotechnology, and institutions capable of managing its risks; the acquisition of routine transportation to space; even ultimate victory in Strauss and Howe’s “crisis of 2020” — will be the result of millions of Americans performing seemingly humble tasks, pursuing apparently small goals, making “boring” improvements — at an ever-accelerating pace.

UPDATE: Virginia kindly acknowledges this post, berating herself a bit; but I think we have made the same point in different words — after all, she did write that “America’s economic greatness — and, ultimately, its cultural and military power and its historical legacy — comes from the pursuit of excellence in tasks that seem ‘a certain formula for brain death'”; that “‘[t]rivial’ goals in fact make human life better over time”; and that “[e]very great achievement requires mundane, incremental progress.”

9 thoughts on “Trivialities and Transcendence”

  1. Consider also the enormous aggregate benefits to be gained via improved productivity in primary education. That seems like one of our biggest social leverage points.

  2. Jonathan: “benefits to be gained via improved productivity in primary education”

    Uhm… Nuturing the next generation? Raising a bunch of heroic/civics?



    Mass-customization in which every kid to taught a curriculum specific to that kid’s particular needs…

    It’ll be different, somehow, when the current bunch comes to maturity.

  3. Ever hear the saying “God (or the devil) is in the details”? All those mundane yet hughly important details.

  4. I’m pretty sure that great epic improvements are better than boring incremental ones.

    The problem is that most people committed to only epic improvements make none at all.

  5. All of you are younger and this may not seem so miraculous but I remember working at Kelly Girls as an undergraduate typing 5 carbons of some guy’s dissertation; the joy of electric typewriters (my husband’s dissertation); then the miracle of self-correcting IBMs and xeroxing (my dissertation)and then computers and laser printers and spell check (by which time I was running my own typing service). Sure, this is mundane and didn’t save the world – each step did, however, save time, energy, ulcers, eyes, and probably (well the stats probably won’t bear this out) marriages and friendships.

  6. I learned to type on a Selectric. The move to word processing was more of a quantum leap — but I agree with your basic point. Someone had a post a while ago about the spectacular increases in productivity in the 19th century with the introduction of first-generation office supplies, like hanging files in drawers, file-card indexes, cheap paper, cheap ink, etc. Ultra-mundane stuff to our way of thinking, but it was, cumulatively, a transformation of the way businesses operated, and just as much as the railroad and the telegraph, made large businesses possible.

Comments are closed.