The French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr is famous for one sentence:
“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
At first glance it reads like nothing more than an aphorism for hardcore cynics, best intoned by someone with eyelids perpetually at half-mast, taking a long drag of a cigarette before assuring you that change is impossible and nothing matters. You might as well give up now.
But, like the concept of change itself, Karr’s sentence is more complicated than it appears.
Karr wrote his legendary sentence in 1849, within a century of the American Revolution and several French Revolutions—the last of which, in 1848, ended the monarchy for good.
What’s more, a revolution of a different sort was in full swing: the telegraph, photography, and passenger trains were all invented during the four decades between Karr’s birth and the day he published his sentence. Newspapers all over the western world, from The Madisonian in D.C. to The Royal Cornwall Gazette in England, had taken to calling it the “age of innovation.”
And they were right, to the degree that all this innovation really freaked some people out—change will do that. But there were also many cracks in this picture of ceaseless progress.
These cracks were easiest to see in the realm of politics. The French used to announce the death of an old king and the crowning of a new in one breath: “The king is dead. Long live the king!” The old phrase gained an unfortunate new significance when France’s first president, Napoleon Bonaparte, declared himself Emperor just a year after being elected.
Comparatively speaking, democracy was going well in the United States—at least for some.
In many ways there wasn’t much difference between being an Englishwoman in the 16th century and an American woman in the 19th: neither could vote, own property, or take legal action if their husbands assaulted them. For African Americans, things were worse. Slavery still flourished in the United States, as well as the British colonies, of which there were many. West Africa, India, Australia, the Caribbean—all had been declared outposts, satellites orbiting London.
So it was that during the celebrated age of innovation, people in many parts of the world were imbued with the sense that “life is empty, uneventful, on the margins of human history,” in the words of Stanford professor Saikat Majumdar. To this day, according to Majumdar, most literature from the former colonies is about the experience of being from a place where nothing much happens: the banality of here; the thrilling promise of there.
People in the colonies didn’t experience the dizzying technological growth of the West, but they made it possible. Slavery made the West rich, giving free men the time and resources with which to invent. It sounds cruel, and it is, but—like an elected leader wanting more power—it’s not unprecedented. Slaves built the Egyptian pyramids, the Aztec temples, the Roman aqueducts. Slaves labored in Greece so their owners could have the time, ironically, to invent democracy.
In 2016, we've progressed to the point that slavery is illegal everywhere.
Unfortunately, the thrill of progress has a way of blinding us to problems that continue to exist. Today's inventions are produced in factories far from the consumer's eye, where conditions are often poor and pay is frequently bad. In a Shenzhen factory where Apple and Nintendo products are made, eighteen employees attempted suicide in 2010 alone.
On the iPhones they made, these workers could have read articles that wouldn’t have been so out of place in 19th-century newspapers. Websites all over the world, from The Wall Street Journal to the Coca-Cola company blog, are declaring, “Disruption is the new normal.” The language is different, but the message is the same: we’re living in an age of innovation.
And it’s true. The iPhone itself would have boggled the mind of the 19th-century newspaper reader. They would have never seen a phone, much less a phone that also connects to the Internet and fits in your pocket.
But once they got over the shock of the new, and got used to navigating such a small screen with just their thumbs, they might begin to feel a creeping sense of familiarity. Scrolling through apps, they would see “disruptors” like WhatsApp, Instagram, and Uber—services that provide new ways to communicate, record moments, and travel, respectively.
Technologies change, but our desires have remained more or less the same. We want to not be lonely. We want to not forget or be forgotten. We want to go new places and see new things—to leave here behind and see fulfilled the thrilling promise of there. We both desire change and fear it: in this, we are unchanging.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Karr is famous for one sentence because that sentence encompassed so much: the constancy of human desire, our recurrent setbacks (long live the king!), and our ageless habit of treating some people very badly in the name of progress. It’s a sentence shot through with cynicism, which makes it annoying, but also necessary.
It’s a sentence that reminds us to look critically at our past and our present, and be honest with ourselves about what we see.
Mary Mann has written for The New York Times, The Believer, Smithsonian and the LA Review of Books. Her book, Yawn: Adventures in Boredom (FSG Originals), will be published in May of 2017.