“What have we gained and what have we lost?” is an apt analysis of the effects of the (literally) amazing technologies introduced in our day – and of the products of technological evolution and revolution throughout history. (A sonnet by the Welsh poet R.S. Thomas describes the labor-saving productivity of the newly-introduced tractor while lamenting how the roar of its motor shuts out the melody of the birds singing from the trees at the edge of the field, “bills wide in vain.”)
This gain-loss paradox occurred to me recently when a friend e-mailed regarding the new “Auto Awesome” photo enhancement app from Google. Auto Awesome apparently relieves the exhausted photographer of the task of rifling through all his photos, and digitally (instantly) produces a montage of pictures in which (for example) everyone is smiling.
Another friend commented that such a technology could well lead to a “brave new world in which everyone is smiling in every photo.” And, he added, “Jackson Browne could never have written the first verse to ‘Fountain of Sorrow’ in such a world.”
Here’s that verse:
Looking through some photographs I found inside a drawer,
I was taken by a photograph of you.
There were one or two I know that you would have liked a little more,
But they didn't show your spirit quite as true:
You were turning 'round to see who was behind youI almost wept at this reading. Okay, I did weep. For one thing, “Fountain of Sorrow” has long been a favorite song, by the organically poetic Jackson Browne; for another, my friend spoke the lamentable truth: A “trace of sorrow” in a photographic image would be so easily edited out by the digital wonders of “Auto Awesome.”
And I took your childish laughter by surprise;
And at the moment that my camera happened to find you,
There was just a trace of sorrow in your eyes.
What have we gained? And what have we lost?
II. Fountain of Light
Here’s a “gain:” E-mail. My friends Jeff and Warren and I—a friendship that reaches back fifty years—have an ongoing e-mail conversation. Sometimes we’ll go a week or two without picking up the thread, but no longer. The main reason I think e-mail is a gain is that I have come to believe that it actually allows for more depth and intimacy than a phone call. (Two exceptions: 1] Of course two lovers may find a ninety-minute phone call – spanning the miles that separate them – to be more intimate than e-mail. 2] E-mail has it’s dangers, especially when used to vent disagreements that are better talked out in person.)
In fact, it was in one of these e-conversations that Warren introduced us to Google’s Auto Awesome technology (see above), and Jeff replied with the reference to Jackson Browne. (My contribution was to steal their observations for this blog post.)
Our exchange caused me to visit again the whole of “Fountain of Sorrow,” a song I have never tired of. (The Canadians think that Leonard Cohen should win the Nobel Prize for poetry—and, what the heck, he’d have my vote; Jackson Browne is in the same league, that is, not a serious contender for a literary poetry prize, but a sublime creator of words and music with real meaning—real heart.)
But my favorite lines in “Fountain of Sorrow”—lines that I have felt deeply about since I heard them forty years ago—are not the profoundly revealing opening lines to which Jeff referred, but these, the very last lines of the song:
You could be laughing at me, you've got the right,These lines have always spoken to me of friendship, love, acceptance—even gospel. They are indicative of what I receive from those who love me. (Remember, friends, the people who really love you do so in spite of who you are as much as because of who you are.) They could laugh – they smile.
But you go on smiling so clear and so bright.
Oh, don’t get me wrong, Warren and Jeff laugh at me plenty—in e-mail and in person. But, boy, do they smile. It’s what makes our ongoing e-mail—for me—a “fountain of light.”
Here’s the song: Jackson Browne on “Austin City Limits.”