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Jewish World Review March 1, 2001 / 7 Adar, 5761

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Consumer Reports


The things we've won, and those we've thrown away


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- 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 distance.

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 live.

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: distance.

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 we?



JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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