The cotton gin was a wonderful device for its time. It mechanized an approximation of human movements, dozens or hundreds of steel fingers ripping away at the cotton the way the cotton seeds had used to rip at the fingers of workers. So close to the actual, its method was only obvious to one man (or a few, maybe; I haven’t done the research and ideas tend to appear in isolated in space but clustered in time), but once he had developed the machine it was easy to replicate, unhindered by a requirement for a particular type of power or any other obvious limitation. Human-powered crank, windmill, watermill, or electricity, it did its job just as it was supposed to, ripping and shredding and providing a small relief from human toil.
When I was younger, in college when all these different ideas buzzed through the air, I championed efficiency, which is the primary mark of why the gin was so successful. Nobody would have much cared if the contraption had only save human tears; the important thing was that it saved human hours. And I, with the few hours of computer science I had taken and my love of video gaming latching me on to the internet revolution, agreed wholeheartedly that efficiency stood chief among our modern virtues: If a social or technological improvement costs someone their job, so be it! That’s the price we pay for our advancement. But, of course, thoughts of this kind can only last until the actual price is met, in this instance until I had or was trying to hold or was even trying to get a job. But, to be fair to myself, the fallacy of my enthusiasm existed and was seen before the final moment.
We have not, at this point in our history, found a more efficient means of facilitating the dreams of the ambitious intelligent youth aside from collecting them together in one place by means of separating them from their home. The metaphor is simple: the ambitious are the seeds and the rest are the cotton, and society separates us with the strong steel fingers of immobile college campuses. As early as seventeen, we’ve already left our parents and our friends in pursuit of success, left behind the plant that fostered us because there is no other choice aside from stagnation and, ultimately, the despair of not fulfilling our potential.
So knit-pick my metaphor: why are the young ambitious the seeds? Why not the cotton? This is a first draft, so there’s no real structural argument to make aside from my instincts, but I’ll tell you this: you only have to be young and ambitious for a moment past college (perhaps for a moment into your junior year, perhaps not even that long), struggling to make a mark and a difference in the world you see, to realize that the world doesn’t care about your struggle. Only the plant that left you cares, and you’ve left them as far behind as you could—in a different town, city, state, country—the only remaining vestige sometimes is a trickling pipeline of money here and there, but their support isn’t a job, isn’t what you need to get by, and no other community has any incentive to build much concern for you. In fact, more often than not they’ll cast you aside, confused at what you want to accomplish by being something other than white and fluffy and immediately employable.
The rest who stayed home are therefore the cotton because as the young ambitious youth is casting about trying to find a place to take root, the others are immediately recognized for their worth and immediately sold for wages. But there’s the argument that the seed will grow cotton itself and will therefore be worth more one day than the others, but what good is that to the seed, especially before it’s even found a niche in which to grow? And what if it never finds a niche? Not all seeds ultimately grow into plants. What good are promises for future prosperity then, to an unfulfilled seed who ended up on only rocky soil and then washed away, never to recover?
My argument here is not that seeds are better than cotton but that the gin-aspect of our society that rips the cotton and the seeds apart is damaging, specifically to the seed. To be young and ambitious is to be alone, forcefully and willfully—that’s the most hideous part—alone while the youth tries his hardest to succeed even when there’s no guarantee of success (especially in the places our American culture puts the young and ambitious: New York, D.C., and Los Angeles, other major cities notwithstanding). My argument is therefore to suggest that we find a way to allow the young and ambitious to stay within the comfort of home and tribe and therefore to have some measure of happiness, for I can guarantee you this from my vantage point: the sadness comprises every reason to quit; it does not contribute (as our cultural assumption would suggest) a single reason to continue.