Most all technological innovations are alleged to have radically altered civilization. The printing press, the steam engine, the television, the personal computer, the automobile -- the list is endless. Of course, whether one considers these changes for the better depends largely on one's Weltanschauung. The radio, for instance, can be seen as a delightful invention -- an accessible device for playing joyful music. Or, one might look upon it -- as I do -- as a plague of biblical proportions, as a vile disseminator of noise pollution and a destroyer of the social medium of live, do-it-yourself music-making. Usually, the truth lies somewhere in between.
Both cases can be made with regard to the efficacy of the air-conditioner, an appliance much prized here in the drought-stricken, unseasonably hot and muggy Mississippi Valley.
What can possibly be wrong with an air-conditioner, you ask? If you have to ask, you are doubtless unfamiliar with the vast literature of the anti-AC'ers, a small, but dedicated group who disdain air-conditioning for its devastating effects on the environment and on communal activities. "Saying goodbye to AC means saying hello to the world," writes Stan Cox, author of Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World. Others see the machine as a metaphor for the triumph of all things artificial. "Darkness and obscurity are banished by artificial lighting, and the seasons by air conditioning," cried Gilles Ivain in his "Formulary for a New Urbanism."
For such as these, Willis Carrier's invention was the coup de grâce for our Front Porch Republic. Before air-conditioning, the storyline goes, everyday life was more convivial and Americans were more neighborly. Homes were built with porches, where our ancestors rocked in the warm evenings and chatted happily with neighbors strolling casually down tree-canopied sidewalks. Before air-conditioning, people knew how to relax and took long summers off in the country or at the seaside. At least the wealthier people did.
Few would deny that with the advent of the air-conditioner we have become more indoor-oriented and more isolated from our neighbors. We know the names of all the characters on the evening television shows, but not the names of the family living across the street. The air-conditioner provides us an excuse to be idle. Before the air-conditioner, it was often too hot to remain indoors, so getting out and participating in one's community -- softball, PTA meetings, or just fishing with a friend -- was a necessity. Needless to say, without air-conditioning there would be no shopping malls. No summer school. No steel skyscrapers. No sorrow. No death.
The Air-Conditioned Nightmare Theory, however, has at least one major flaw. Because of their expense, air-conditioners were turned on mostly in summer, so nothing was to prevent Americans from returning to their old front porch-sitting ways the rest of the year. Nor would the possession of air-conditioning have prevented Americans from inviting friends over to sit in their artificially cooled living rooms to chat and play cards, if that's what they really wanted to do. No, it seems more likely that the oft-maligned television had more to do with the decline of socializing and civic associations than AC.
THAT'S A RELIEF, because I would hate to think ill of my air-conditioner. When I first moved in into our 120-year-old inner-city, two-story brick home with my lovely neo-bohemian wife, the joint lacked -- among other amenities -- air-conditioning. And Trina had no intention of turning our home into a giant Frigidaire. I can put up with a lot of the eccentricities of inner-city living -- the crime, the litter, the droopy drawers -- but I cannot abide St. Louis' hellishly humid summers -- not without central air. Even my wife's neo-bohemian friends visiting from mild San Francisco and Portland allowed how they could never live in the Midwest without air-conditioning. That clinched it. Last summer we purchased two Carriers, one for upstairs and one for the downstairs.
Besides making me a whole lot easier to live with, the air-conditioning comes with an additional benefit. Since the AC (and the fear of burglars) forces us to shut our windows, street noises are now at a minimum. Goodbye brawls and boom cars. Hello sweet, sweet sleep.
I've read enough Jane Jacobs to know her views on the importance of vibrant city streets. (And, trust me, there is no more vibrant residential street in America than ours.) I am even willing to grant she may be right about the importance of having busy, lively streets -- up until, say 10 p.m. After that, I'm just grateful to have my new energy efficient AC to block out all that wonderful street life.