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BOOK REVIEW: 'Extraordinary Ordinary Things: How Did We Ever Live without Them?' A New Look at Progress
In the early 1970s I was working in a company in Los Angeles that had acquired one of the first fax machines. One day we had some important visitors and I was chosen to show them around. When we passed the fax machine, I asked, “Do you know what that is?” None of them did, so I explained.
“You can put a page of text into this machine here, dial up our office in New York, and three minutes later an exact duplicate of the text will print out at the other end.”
You can see that this story dates back to the Dark Ages, because then it actually did take three minutes to transmit a single page. The visitors’ jaws dropped. “Transmit a page of text 4,000 miles across the continent in three minutes! That’s amazing!”
“I don’t know why you are so impressed by this machine,” I replied. “You all have a much more sophisticated machine in every one of your homes. It not only receives text, it receives pictures, in color, that move, and with sound. It’s called a television. In reality, the technology of this fax machine is like a Lego set compared to a real building.”
This is typical of how most of us view the world. We are surrounded by all kinds of things that are literally amazing, but we just don’t think about them because they are simply part of the scenery, e.g. the ballpoint pen, the bicycle, the postage stamp, the rubber band, and the safety razor. The purpose of this book is to put a number of these “extraordinary ordinary things” into proper perspective.
In some cases we will be talking about things that have not only made our lives easier and more convenient, but things that have literally changed how we live, think, and behave. For example, because of the freedom it provided for easy, inexpensive transportation, in 1896 women’s rights campaigner (suffragette) Susan B. Anthony remarked, “The bicycle has done more for the emancipation of women than anything else in the world."
Not everyone will agree with every selection. This is neither surprising nor the purpose of the book. My sole desire in producing it is to make people more aware of extraordinary ordinary things to which we generally pay no attention, but without which life in the 21st century would be unthinkable. Like everyone else, I fall into this category. While doing research for the book, I was often surprised, and even amazed, by some of the things I discovered.
People are fond of saying that there has been more scientific and technological progress in the past century than in all of previous human history. This is a debatable notion because it depends on what we mean by “progress.”
For example, the telephone was invented in 1876, which totally transformed the way people had access to the world. At one time, we had been restricted to conversing only with persons fairly close to us; we now had the possibility of conversing with persons hundreds and even thousands of kilometers away. The world had significantly shrunk.
Without trying to judge whether or not more “progress” has been made over the past century or so, there is no doubt that changes since the dawn of the 20th century to the present day have been staggering.
Many of us will remember many of these changes, or at least we will remember our parents or grandparents talking about them. In this sense, they are contemporary and perhaps could be considered “modern.” However, many things we might consider to be modern were in fact invented long before most people felt their impact.
About the Author
Philip Yaffe was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1942 and grew up in Los Angeles, where he graduated from the University of California with a degree in mathematics and physics. In his senior year, he was also editor-in-chief of the Daily Bruin, UCLA’s daily student newspaper.
He has more than 40 years of experience in journalism and international marketing communication. At various points in his career, he has been a teacher of journalism, a reporter/feature writer with The Wall Street Journal, an account executive with a major international press relations agency, European marketing communication director with two major international companies, and a founding partner of a specialized marketing communication agency in Brussels, Belgium, where he has lived since 1974.//