August 2008 - Rick Petry

What the Dickens?

By Rick Petry

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”-Charles Dickens, “A Tale of Two Cities”

When Charles Dickens wrote his classic novel, he was referring to the paradox of opportunity and gloom that existed in London and Paris during the French Revolution. He may as well have been referring to our current times. In an era where the Internet’s blanket has the potential of creating a different kind of global warming-the sort borne of human interaction and feeling-we nonetheless live in an era where a country and its citizens can make truly dreadful decisions fed by a steady diet of fact-deficient, but emotionally charged sound bites.

Meanwhile, the institutions that society used to rely on to take care of them-cradle-to-grave employment with its sturdy medical and retirement benefits, have long ago abandoned our household ships and launched us into seas where your ballast is determined by individual pluckiness and a willingness to take responsibility for what used to be the purview of a doctor, a broker and a boss-man. And I’m okay with that. When people talk about universal healthcare, I refer them to the security line at the airport for a glimpse of what a government-run medical system would look like.

Similarly, the institutions that used to control publishing and the dissemination of popular culture, while still formidable, have been forced to cede ground to the individual voice amid the blogosphere, YouTube and today’s social networking juggernaut. Out of this digital tempest, the occasional unknown emerges, blooming into full celebrity status. And make no mistake: fame is what we are after; that and one other thing. What other instinct would compel someone to blow up their marriage on a lie detector game show for a few shekels and a windfall of infamy? As Ted Koppel noted during his recent Discovery Channel series on China, “The People’s Republic of Capitalism,” citizens during the 1970s were focused on duty to country. Now when asked of their ambitions, the response is, “I want to get rich.” In an epoch of both high and low economic opportunity and culture, coin has replaced faith as the primary insulation.

Watching Koppel’s docudrama, I’m struck by how the mechanized movements of a Chongqing factory worker represents human endeavor reduced to a commodity. It mirrors the robotic camera movements that capture a home-shopping pitch blasted to the masses to sell the stuff that worker assembles. In the West, we reside largely on the other side of the cameras, focused on an information economy powered by intellectual capital that cannot be commoditized so easily. Which brings us back to Mr. Dickens.

It seems that expression, “like the dickens” didn’t originate with Chuck at all. “Dickens” refers to “the devil,” as in, “it hurts like the devil” or a heckuva lot-like the way we frequently make assumptions. Such intellectual laziness may be our undoing or, contained within it, a lesson to pave our way to salvation.

In this complex-yet-shrinking world, dichotomies flourish like blue-red cells cloning in a Petri dish, but in the end it is our individuality that enables us to express our higher self-a legacy you can’t take to the bank, yet one with the potential for greater interest than any other note payable to humankind.

Rick Petry is the interim president and CEO of the Electronic Retailing Association. Petry can be reached at (503) 740-9065, or via e-mail at [email protected].


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