Jewish World Review March 1, 2001 / 7 Adar, 5761
The things we've won, and those
we've thrown away
THE enduring story of our era on this Earth, it is
becoming increasingly apparent, will have little to
do with the traditional stuff of headlines: politics,
warfare, economic tumult.
All of those will continue to occur -- and all will
be duly recorded.
But future civilizations, when they look back upon our days on the planet, will
likely be struck not by transitory events, but by what, in a greater sense, we
have won and lost.
What we have won -- have seemingly triumphed over -- are time and
What we have lost -- what we have voluntarily thrown away -- are the same
things: time and distance.
It has happened so quickly. Time -- for so long mankind's most daunting
opponent -- has been vanquished. What once required weeks, months, years
-- difficult research, the establishment of contact with people far away, the
mechanics of communication and human interaction -- has been reduced to
the tapping of a key, the uplinking of an invisible signal. Patience has been
rendered all but outmoded; what we desire we can have right now. Routinely.
Distance, too, has been defeated. The very word lacks its previous meaning.
Distant from . . . what? "Place" has been revised so thoroughly that the very
concept is confusing. Everywhere is here -- or at least a digitalized facsimile
of everywhere is here. You can't get there from here? Sure you can -- faster
than ever by conventional transportation, instantly, by dataport. "Foreign"?
The notion of foreign is foreign. World without borders -- that's where we
So that is what we have won -- time and distance.
But in achieving the victory, and in giving up those same commodities -- by
willingly bidding farewell to time and distance -- we have changed ourselves
in ways we may come to regret.
Time seems less precious, now that it has been compressed beyond
recognition. But is it? The tasks we have engineered to become instantaneous
-- the tasks that once took hours, but now can be accomplished in the flicker
of an eyelash -- would, or so you might think, free up so much more time to
do the things we really savor, to be with the people who mean the most to us.
Yet is that what has happened? Has that been our reward?
The opposite would appear to be true. We are spending our newfound time
-- the excess hours -- by . . .
By doing what? More of the same, or so it seems, although even more
frantically. The financial traders who now stay up most of the night and who
set their alarms early, so as not to get behind; the executives whose days
never end because they are too aware that their competitors are toiling past
midnight and before the sun comes up; the families that go on vacations, only
to notice that all the adults and all the children are plugging their laptop
computers into electrical outlets and telephone jacks, not quite knowing what
to do with the empty hours, not wanting to abandon what they left behind....
Which brings us to the other commodity we have won and tossed away:
If ever there were a foe that seemed more insurmountable than time, it was
distance. Previous civilizations dreamed of how ideal their worlds might
become if only they could eliminate distance, could make the endless span
between places disappear.
Today we have all but done that -- we have made the unreachable easy.
Anywhere can be ours -- a trip across the country and back can be done
within a single day, if we feel like boarding a pair of flights; a journey to
another continent can be taken with less planning than our
great-great-grandparents put into seeking out another county within their own
state. Our warplanes can take off from an airbase somewhere in the
American Midwest, drop bombs or fire missiles over targets across the
Atlantic Ocean, and come back for a landing in the United States without
ever having touched down anywhere else. The combat pilots can have dinner
at the same McDonald's where they had a burger before they departed on
the mission. Really. It happens.
Distance isn't distant. Yet the important things, the essential things, can
somehow seem so far away -- the people and moments that matter most can
feel more unreachable than they ever were. We can be anywhere by
sundown. But when we get there, we don't always know where we are -- or
where we should be. Something still feels far away, even when nothing is.
Time and distance. We've beaten them both. Haven't
JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.
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