Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The greatest expression


I think we can all generally agree that modern life, or maybe we should call it post-modern life, in much of the world, gives us access to all sorts of amazing inventions. It’s to the point we are hardly amazed anymore. I have images in my mind's eye, probably put there by television, of early aviators barnstorming from town to town. They’d land in a field somewhere and all the town's folk would rush around to gawk at the amazing technology. Some brave soul or two would go for a ride. People were awed and afraid of that areo-plane back then. More recently, perhaps, was sending men to the moon. I’m barely old enough to remember the later Apollo moon-shots. But those captivated much of the world. They were amazing.

Sometimes some new gadget excites me, but I’m not amazed. As in, this is revolutionary. 3-D printing seems really cool. But I don’t know of examples where the city elders and towns folk are gathering around the new 3-D printer in the community to gaze at its wonder. People line up for new Apple products but that isn’t because of amazing technology. More like amazing marketing.

I work at a university and the young students coming in today have never been amazed. They carry their own computers and portable communication devices and have grown up in a world of hyper-connected technology, video everywhere, and so on. I was in a conversation recently about this and about the lack of amazement we have with what ought to be pretty amazing technology. We concluded that we have become so accustomed to radical technology advances over the past 20 years or so that we have come to expect that as normal. And the only true innovations or discoveries that would fill us with awe would be things like time travel or teleportation or confirmation of extraterrestrials. We’ve become a bit jaded.

Yet, with all this amazing technology, I still hear people say that some such gizmo is “the greatest thing since sliced bread.”

Sliced bread? Sure, it’s just an expression, and I use it from time to time in conversation. But given how fast and far technology has advanced, ought not we innovate common expressions?

Sure, sliced bread is convenient, but how did it become the benchmark after which all else is compared? What must life have been like before sliced bread? And did sliced bread usher in some golden age of modern convenience?  Thanks to another innovation, crowd sourced knowledge; I found out that sliced bread, as we moderns know it, came into being in 1928. You can read about it yourself here at Wikipedia. You can also learn there was a ban on sliced bread during World War II! That’s how great it was.

The last, greatest thing
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “John, it’s just an expression and its actually meant to be used somewhat ironically or as hyperbole. Don’t be such a literalist.” Ok, fine. But given the advances since 1928 I wonder if the ironic affect is lost on us now. And maybe we need something other than sliced bread to demark the modern era from our pre-modern simplicity.
And consider this: I was at a local upscale grocery store the other day. I don’t want to say which one for obvious reasons but it rhymes with Mole Moods. In the bakery section I noticed that the really good breads were all un-sliced, full loaves. Multi-grains and olive and nuts and figs. Yummy! And then it occurred to me: Of course! The greatest thing since sliced bread is unsliced bread.

And there is another expression I wonder about. I was in a meeting not to long ago and someone chimed in “hey, now let’s not re-invent the wheel.” Yes, we all nodded. We don’t want to do that. And it got me thinking about wheels and what must have been going on for someone to first say that. Was there a problem with wheel inventions? This must have been before patent laws existed so probably numerous inventors were claiming their new wheel as the wheel.

“Hey, Bob, check out what I just invented!”
“Uh, Chuck, It’s a wheel.”
“Yeah, yeah, but this one is better.”
“It’s still just a wheel.”
“Bob, you just don’t get it do you.”
*sigh* “Whatever.”

I can see where this would become a problem with all these alleged wheel inventions. Everyone was working on inventing wheels and ignoring other important problems. It must have reached some crises and then the king or pharaoh or whoever must have issued some decree that there be no more wheel inventions. The current design works good enough.

“And, from this day forward, there shall be no more wheel inventions. We are good with what we have.” And all the subjects in the land went back to there mud huts to contemplate something other than wheel inventions. And before long we wound up with sliced bread.

But this got me thinking. I wonder who really holds that first, true wheel patent. So I went to the US Government Patent and Trademark Office website and did a search on patents with titles containing “wheel” to find out. Well guess what? As of October 29, there are 20,873 patents with the word wheel in the title. Since 1976! Lots of wheels! Sure, there are steering wheels and inline skate wheels and mechanical devices with wheels in them. Not just that original chariot wheel or cart wheel or whatever. But still, that’s lots and lots of wheels!

So it would seem that wheel re-invention is happening a lot. And maybe it’s not such a bad thing after all. Now I know what you must be thinking, “John, fer cryin’ out loud, it’s just an expression intended to communicate the concern for repeating or duplicating work already done. Don’t be such a literalist.”

Ok, fine! Still, I think there is room to clean up some dated and misleading expressions. You know, maybe instead of wheels we should try not to “reinvent the bread slicing machine.” Or maybe we should measure future innovations against something more transformative and say that something is “the greatest invention since the wheel.” That might be more accurate, if not easier to say.

In the end, I guess I would just like a new comparative common phrase. One that is really clever and meaningful and right for our post-modern sensibility. Then I could say that this new expression “is the greatest expression since the one that was about sliced bread.”

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