NYT: Experience As It Once Was
Saved under Highlights, Social
Tags: Consumption, Efficiency, Health, Living Standards, Productivity, Slowing Down, Sustainable Development
Experience As It Once Was
WORLITZ, Germany — I was going 115 miles per hour on a German autobahn when it occurred to me that one reason the German economy is doing so well is that people can get from one place to another so fast. With most of the rest of Europe confined to a limit of about 80 miles per hour, Germany has a clear competitive advantage.
Forget the apprentice system, the culture of quality and all the other reasons advanced for German outperformance, this liberating zoom factor makes a difference. The other thing I was thinking — well, feeling, really — was that this was an actual experience, and a pleasurable one (and even legal!), in the place of that boxed-in, confined, camera-on-you sensation that comes with driving most motorways these days.
Another car passed me, a Mercedes. It must have been going 140 miles per hour. Perhaps, I thought, a Siemens executive late for a meeting in Munich. Speed is a master from Germany.
I pulled off the highway near Dessau into the strange, lingering quiet of the eastern part of Germany. Communism was a monster. But it was also a monster that, through the paralysis it imposed, stopped development in its tracks. This is not to forgive it — never. But in parts of eastern Germany, as in Havana, some of the madness of development is evident in a strange beauty preserved.
There is a certain silence, or slowness, or confusion that the god of efficiency and hyperconnectedness will not tolerate. It makes you want to weep at the double nature of everything in life: Does it take a monster to preserve such intimacy and innocence?
The question of genuine, undiluted experience has been on my mind. Germans have a good word for something authentic: “echt.” We have an echt deficit these days. Everything seems filtered, monitored, marshaled, ameliorated, graded and app-ready — made into a kind of branded facsimile of experience for easier absorption. The thrill of the unexpected is lost.
I don’t know that I want to go 115 miles per hour every day but I like the idea I can and nobody will fuss. I don’t want to live in the hush of eastern Germany but I recognize a simplicity lost and the possibility there of an undistracted existence.
The modern world’s tech-giddy control and facilitation makes us stupid. Awareness atrophies. Dumb gets dumber. Lists are everywhere — the five things you need to know about so-and-so; the eight essential qualities of such-and-such; the 11 delights of somewhere or other. We demand shortcuts, as if there are shortcuts to genuine experience. These lists are meaningless.
We over-regulate — because we can. There is no persuasive evidence that Germany is a more dangerous place to drive than other developed economies. It was a Dutch traffic engineer, Hans Monderman, who had the genial notion that all our traffic signs, barriers, road markings, separated sidewalks and so on might actually make us less safe. He designed urban spaces without them. He liked to test his (successful) theories by walking backward into traffic in these shared-space areas.
When you are not told what to do you begin to think what to do. You begin to see without distraction. Urban spaces these days can seem the antithesis of Monderman’s vision of freedom. The state’s cameras are trained on streets where people’s gazes are trained on hand-held screens that map their movements — offering facsimiles of the experience they might have if they ever looked up.
A long time ago I lived in Florence for a season, near the Piazza del Carmine. Every week or so I would wander into the church of Santa Maria del Carmine where I would gaze at Masaccio’s frescoed masterpieces, especially the riveting “Expulsion from the Garden of Eden.” You had to put coins in a slot and the chapel kept going dark and the works needed restoration — but still this was perfection. Now, of course, you book ahead and line up and are ushered through and the lights work and the frescoes are restored — but the experience has lost its essence.
I was headed now, on a whim, to Wörlitz, where in the 18th century a prince of Anhalt-Dessau made a park that was his vision of paradise. An Arcadian place of temples and grottoes and lovely lakes, a hymn to the Enlightenment, where a Toleranzblick, or “view of tolerance,” offers the sight of a round synagogue built in the guise of a Roman temple and, behind it, a Gothic church tower.
We know what happened to tolerance in this part of Germany between 1933 and 1989. Still the prince dreamed, which is important.
I crossed the Elbe at Coswig. The river, lined with whispering poplars, looked beautiful. I thought there was a bridge. There wasn’t. Instead a little ferry with room for a couple of cars plied the passage from bank to bank. An upright German, gruff, manned the thing. I was glad there was no bridge. I envied the skipper and his regular existence. The ferry moved very slowly through the swirling water: Experience as it once was.