When he gets it right, Bill Maher can be great. I could not help but cheer when he shredded the generation of young left-wingers who cry for safe spaces and who have “gotten too used to getting shit for free”. But when he’s off-base, he is way off.
During his closing segment on last week’s episode of Real Time, Maher railed against Apple’s latest iPhone release, suggesting that a true innovation would have been to not release a new model at all. “The only people who need you to get a new phone every year are the shareholders”, Maher said.
Maher asked: “Do your friends really need clearer pictures of their lunch?”
While superficially funny, that argument is the same old song that’s been peddled for generations by the complacent and the foolish.
Why would anyone need a telephone, when they can send letters or walk across town?
Why would anyone need an automobile when they have perfectly serviceable horses and buggies? And if they must have a car, why do they need a Chevy Suburban when there are lovely Model-Ts to be had?
Why would anyone want an iPhone when they already have a Nokia flip-phone?
Why would anyone want a MacBook when they have Commodore 64?
Perhaps it is no surprise that Maher, the tribune of coastal liberal smugness, would be the latest in a long line of those who say that “We have enough”. But progress has no stated direction. It relies on innovative thinking. And it is capitalism that has created the conditions under which that innovation can be unleashed and nurtured. Saying “We have enough” ignores every lesson of history. What Maher’s argument amounts to is a kind of neo-Luddism: He personally thinks everyone should stop because, as far as he is concerned, everyone should be satisfied with what they have. It is a sentiment that persisted down the generations, and has been proven false time and again.
Two hundred years ago, the vast majority of Americans were farmers striving to stay above the subsistence level. Today, a small fraction of the population provides a vast abundance for Americans and for hungry people around the world.
One hundred years ago, a tiny fraction of Americans could afford cars or electricity. Today, most households have more than one (nigh infinitely superior) car, and cheap and easy access to electricity and the panoply of appliances it powers.
Fifty years ago, color television was a rarity, and owning a television of any kind was a luxury out of reach of low-income households. Today, flat-screens carrying hundreds of channels of quality content are the norm even for households in the lowest income quartile.
Twenty years ago, landline phones were the norm and computers were hugely expensive and incredibly limited. Cell phones and laptops were the province of the professional class. Today, virtually every child owns a supercomputer, with lightning-fast access to a global internet, that fits in their pocket.
Looking backward, it is hard to see these titanic advances as anything other than the natural course of development. Yet if we look at what people believed along that stretch of history, we can see that none of these technological and social leaps were preordained. In fact, they were frequently fought against by those in power.
Most people, even very intelligent ones, cannot see what future progress may bring, or what worth it may hold. They perceive things as they are as the apex of progress. They question whether anything else is really needed.
Thomas Jefferson envisioned an America of yeoman farmers and fought against the tide of industrial development. Apple’s critics were sure that smartphones would never catch on since no one but high-octane professionals could find use for such devices.
We can always do better. And we will, despite people like Bill Maher insisting they know what’s best for us.
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