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JACK SMITH

Is It Progress, or Just Schlimmbesserung ? : Many Purported Improvements Seem to Diminish the Quality of Modern Life

April 26, 1987|JACK SMITH

With their genius for compressing complex ideas into a single word, the Germans have given us Schlimmbesse --a so-called improvement that makes things worse.

"Some time ago," writes Jack Foster, of Foote, Cone & Belding, "Jean Craig and Adam Kaufman, of the advertising firm of Kresser / Craig, suggested deprovement as the English equivalent of Schlimmbesserung and asked their friends to submit examples. Mine were bottled lemon juice, the Diamond Lane, women's lib, electric guitars and MBAs."

American culture is full of deprovements. I think the word is useful, like disinformation , and should find its way into the dictionary.

I certainly don't endorse Foster's own list of deprovements, but they do illustrate that this is a pluralistic society, with many options and targets of dissent.

I have no particular quarrel, for example, with bottled lemon juice. Perhaps that is because I do not drink any of the exotic cocktails in which lemon juice is used; but it does sound handy for salad dressings.

On the Diamond Lane I agree. Some years ago, defending Los Angeles against the charge that we lacked a sense of humor, I wrote: "And what about our Diamond Lanes? I can't recall any public folly that has inspired more jokes, many of them very funny, than this wonderful notion that the way to ease traffic on the freeway during the rush hour is to close off one lane."

I believe that Caltrans came to its senses and eliminated some Diamond Lanes, but some remain, and it doesn't hurt us to remember that the bureaucracy can perpetrate such inanities at any time.

I certainly cannot agree that "women's lib" is a deprovement. Although I have felt the lash of the more militant feminists, I cannot imagine life in America today without the results of the movement. Only a generation ago women were expected to stay at home producing and nurturing babies and were allowed to blossom in mixed society only at cocktail parties, where they were required to remain silent and keep the cheese dip fresh.

It is already difficult to remember a time when all but a very few of our lawyers, judges, doctors, legislators, corporate executives and Marines were men. Believe me, the all-male world was very narrow, very unimaginative, very pompous, very reactionary and very dull, not to mention insufferably chauvinistic.

Today, women have the option of remaining childless, or deferring children, which tends to keep the population down and put off the day when civilization collapses of its own weight.

I think that, on the whole, life would be more pleasant without electric guitars.

I don't feel one way or the other

about MBAs.

My own list of deprovements would certainly include buses, which are a deprovement on streetcars. Streetcars were open and airy, and their bells added music to the urban scene. They made no clouds of noxious exhaust. Also, they cost only 7 cents.

Our telephone numbers have certainly been deproved since we all had easily remembered prefixes such as OXford, ANgelus, CRestview and GRanite.

Of course, just for old times' sake, you can still use lettered prefixes, if you remember what they were. I could dial my own home number with a CA for CApitol, instead of two 2s, but I'd just be fooling myself. Still, if it works, why can't my prefix still be CApitol?

A recent development in telephone service is the number that spells out a company's name or defines its service, especially in connection with the toll-free (800) number. Thus, you dial 1-(800)-GET-HELP, and you get some detoxifying service; or you dial 1-(800)-GO-RIGHT and you get moral advice. If they can make a connection using letters for the number, why can't we still have letters for the prefix?

That's just one of the many things the telephone companies (now that there are several of them) have yet to explain.

(I suggest to the phone companies that they use the number 1-(800)-IMPROVE for service calls.)

Another thing that has been deproved is milk delivery. It has, of course, vanished altogether. One of the constants of life used to be the daily milk delivery. You left the milkman a note or posted a sign saying how many quarts you wanted and whether you wanted any cream, and it was there on your doorstep, waiting for you when you got up.

Today there is no single item for which we have to make more trips from our house to the supermarket or to the dairy store than milk. I usually drink it with meals, and it is essential for breakfast, to pour on the shredded wheat. We are often out of it, and one of us has to run down the hill to the store to buy it.

That must be true all over the city. Think how many thousands of gallons of gasoline are burned every day just by people going to the store to buy milk, and how much smog that sends into the atmosphere.

A few hundred milkmen driving their trucks down the streets in various neighborhoods wouldn't begin to contribute so much to the exhaustion of our precious fuel and the contamination of the air.

Come to think of it, SChlimmbesserung would make a great telephone prefix.

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