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    When flush toilets et al powered greater change than the Internet and the digital revolution

    An inscription on a rural tombstone of a man who lived from 1869 to 1952 reminds us that this was an era that wrought greater change—the practical use of electricity, automobiles, refrigeration, aircraft, radio, movies, television, and flush toilets—than the Internet and the digital revolution. And comparatively little seems to have changed in the 13 years since I wrote the following piece, published in the Montreal Gazette, June 5, 2000.

    Here’s to carpenter Sweet / Whose work was never / called for correction / The only one he ever did cheat /Was himself when he voted Protection.

    Epitaph on the tombstone of Orville D. Sweet, 1869-1952, in a rural cemetery near the village of West Brome, Quebec.

    We live in the era of the greatest and fastest change the world has ever seen. Everyone says so. We “will experience more change in the next five years than the world has seen in the last 50 years,” predicts James Meenan, CEO of AT&T Canada.

    There’s no doubt about the speed of change driven by information technology – “IT” in technobabble. It’s so fast that two-thirds of the personal computers sold in North America in 1999 will reportedly be obsolete in 18 months. One study estimates that by 2003 – three years from now – the world will be junking obsolete computers at a rate of 50 million a year. That’s change, all right.

    And IT is so pervasive that it may change not only the world, but the universe. American and British researchers are already working on establishing standards that will help extend the Internet to the moon, Mars and perhaps even beyond.

    But that tombstone at West Brome was a lesson for me that IT will be hard-pressed to bring as much change in the way we live as witnessed in the lifetime of carpenter Orville D. Sweet.

    I came across Sweet’s tombstone by happenstance. After boring members of the Yamaska Valley Canadian Club with a luncheon speech in West Brome, I walked into the hills that overlook the village and found a tiny cemetery beside a dirt road, surrounded only by farms and rolling pastures. There were no more than a score of tombstones, and every one was engraved in English, for this is the Eastern Townships, where the first settlers to follow the aboriginal people were nearly all English-speakers. That the English presence there has declined is itself a notable change, but one that occurred mostly after Sweet’s lifetime.

    Election of 1911

    In a lifetime that witnessed so much change, it is remarkable that the only remarkable event noted on Sweet’s tombstone was the great reciprocity election of 1911, when Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberals fought for a free-trade deal with the United States and Robert Borden’s Conservatives campaigned for trade protection. Sweet, apparently, voted for protection. Seven decades later, of course, it was Brian Mulroney’s Conservatives who brought in free trade with the Americans and John Turner’s Liberals who fought it, and that was another change.

    But these were just the superficial changes. When Sweet was born, most Canadians used only outdoor privies; before he died, nearly all Canadian homes had indoor plumbing and flush toilets. Will IT match that for profound change? And there was even greater change. Most Canadians lived on farms when he was born; fewer than 10 per cent did when he died (and fewer than 4 per cent do today). Sweet’s lifetime saw the first practical use of electricity, the invention of the telephone, electric light, refrigeration, the phonograph, automobile, aircraft, radio, films and television. When he was growing up, the fastest transportation was by railway; news was spread by Morse code; paid vacations were unheard of, and there was no retirement living—people worked until they dropped dead, and it generally didn’t take too long for that to happen.

    The eight decades that marked the life of Orville Sweet were surely the greatest period of change in human history. Changes now being wrought by technology are indisputably profound and wonderful, from miracle medicines to unprecedented globalization of business to space exploration. World demand for food during the next four decades is expected to equal all that has so far been produced throughout all human history. Only with the aid of biotechnology will we be able to meet that demand, food experts tell us. But even gene-splitting and Internet connections to Mars won’t change everyday life as much as did flush toilets, electricity and the mechanization of farming.

    Alleviating Poverty

    The biggest change new technology could offer would be to bring to the rest of the world the change that affluent societies experienced in Sweet’s lifetime; by connecting the 4 billion people who have never spoken on a telephone, let alone surfed the Web; by alleviating the poverty of the 2 billion people who each live on less than $3 a day; by transforming the lives of more than half the people of the world who are under-nourished, uneducated and ill- housed, who lack safe drinking water and even minimal health care. That would be real change.

    About Canada, my latest book, is crammed with more “Amazing stuff” about our great nation, says popular historian Christopher Moore. “I’m a fan,” he adds. For a free sampler copy, more information and accolades, or to order your copy, click here.

    TAGS Change, Internet, Information technology, Digital revolution, Electricity, Automobiles, Radio, Movies, Television, Flush toilets, Free trade, Wilfrid Laurier, Brian Mulroney, Global Poverty

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