In his very funny 1979 essay Ferrari Refutes The Decline Of The West the American writer PJ O’Rourke describes taking a road trip across America in a Ferrari 308 GTS. Sample line: we went “so fast we filled the appointment logs of optometrists’ offices in 30 cities just from people getting their eyes checked for seeing streaks because they watched us go by”. You get the picture. The man likes putting his foot down in shiny, red, Italian sportscars.
It’s played for laughs, but near the end he writes the car “reaffirmed my belief” in western civilisation, by which he means “the mastery of man over nature”. This was during the Cold War, and he’s comparing the so-called free world with the communist countries. “We can smash the atom. We can cure polio. We can fly to the moon if we like,” he writes. By "we", he means the west. “There is nothing we can’t do.”
He’s only ever half serious (anther very good essay is called How To Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink), but he was channelling an idea that you heard a lot in those days: things are getting better. In my 80s childhood people said – and seemed to sort-of believe – that by 2013 we’d all be living in pods with their own nuclear generator, being served G&Ts by silver robots and holidaying on the moon.
Instead we have Windows 8. Windows 8 is not as good as Windows 7. Windows 8 is rubbish. What other product requires you to manually install updates, search the internet for fixes and weep gently for the best part of an hour before it works? And I mean “works” in the loosest sense. Because it doesn’t really. Windows 8 is a hip-shaking, boogie-woogie piano-playing lemon. Rather than better stuff and easier lives, in 2013 we’ve got operating systems that don’t operate and high blood-pressure for our age. Progress stalled somewhere between 1979 and here. Windows 8 proves the decline of the west.
This might be a depressing thought, but after some reflection, I say: so what? As a concept, progress is overrated. People are plunged into misery because they haven’t got a 100K job by the age of 21, a mortgage and a Porsche at 30, and kids and their own business by 40. Families can make this worse. Relatives ostentatiously despair because youngsters haven’t done things by the same age they had done those things. We live in a world of work fixated with the idea of the career ladder, a concept designed to make people accept a boring job on the grounds that one day they’ll have a better one.
Careers aren’t like that any more, and neither is history. Some things are better than they used to be, some are worse. Sometimes you take a step back to move forward. Sometimes you don’t need to go forward at all, because forward isn’t where you want to be. The constant need for “moving on” makes us unhappy. You might call it progress anxiety. Relax. Shrug. Tell your relatives to take a hike. And maybe go for a long drive.