European Diary

Stairway to Heaven

There is, or at least there used to be before the days of Nestlé in every pot and a Nissan in every garage, the idea of a stairway to Heaven.  Jacob’s ladder, which the biblical patriarch famously dreamed about during the flight from his brother Esau, is a locus classicus, of course, but the idea is nearly as old as Heaven itself.  When monotheism was not yet a twinkle in Moses’ eye, Gilgamesh was out to scale the skies in search of eternal youth.

All profane utopias have been modeled on that sacred original, and the Western obsession with progress is no exception.  As science and technology—rather than, say, literature or religion—become principal matrices for civilized thought everywhere, that mythic stairway takes on the configurations of an electrically powered escalator or elevator, whisking entire peoples skyward with an efficiency of which old Jacob could only dream.

Efficiency is a key notion here, because science and technology are not merely in pursuit of the result, but in a race to beat the clock of entropy, decay, and mortality.  Time is the magic ingredient in physical laws, and the step taken by the home-appliances manufacturer from a washing machine to a faster washing machine is, in rational terms, a step on Gilgamesh’s climb to eternity.  Another key notion is easiness.  If modern engineers were to design a stairway to Heaven according...

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