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February 5, 2001Thomas L. FriedmanMicro-Gems, Digitalis, Global Voyageurs

Once upon a time, before we were wired together by the Internet, the place to be at the New York Times was out in the bureaus, perhaps on foreign assignment, well away from the gulag in Manhattan. Not immersed in headquarters intrigue, Times journalists, often out of the South, grew into demi-intellectuals who occasionally focused on big topics. Hence, a Reston, a Salisbury, and so on.

The Times no longer breeds persons of such reach, and we no longer read it for politics or economics. Its greatness now lies at the margins--cultural writing, knowledgeable columns on antiques, very credible investigations of scientific matters, gossip, a "circuits" section on computerdom that touches a lot of bases. But one had better chat with an international venture capitalist, as we did last Thursday, to find out that the entry of the two Chinas into the World Trade Organization will totally rewrite the geopolitics of Asia. Or, on occasion, one must study Times guest writers who may have macropower thoughts, such as Virginia Postrel, whom we cite on Global Province this week.

Thomas L. Friedman of the Times perfectly illustrates this dilemma. Author of a meandering bestseller The Lexus and the Olive Tree, he has turned a column into a book that sort of tells us the obvious--globalization is shaping every hamlet in the world. This has been true, of course, since the 1970s, well before the Cold War ended.

Friedman is simply not a global thinker, although the Times has given him a global portfolio. But he has little heartfelt insights, micro-gems, that can lead us to other places. In a bright and self-revealing column, "Cyber-Serfdom" (New York Times, January 30, 2000, p. A27), he tells us how we have been digitized, as he reflects on the proceedings of the Davos World Economic Forum. "[W]e now live in an age of what a Microsoft researcher, Linda Stone, called continuous partial attention. ... You are now involved in a continuous flow of interactions in which you only partially concentrate on each."

While Friedman cannot paint a full-colored landscape for us, he can more than foreshadow a virtual prison of the mind, filled with information (not knowledge) workers victimized by telephones and email. Moreover, if most of our journalists are also becoming virtual prisoners, we can no longer rely on them to see the world. Just as the world becomes more globalized, our reporters become ever more localized in virtual space. And so the tectonic shifts about this planet go largely unnoticed by them.

A West Coast journalist for a different newspaper who writes about work, careers, and all that stuff says all the digital devices have perfectly enabled the workaholic. "Your work can follow you into the bathroom, " he says. And that's just what's happened, with a tremendous increase in human stress. Digital personal assistants put us one step further along the road to digitalis.

It may be, however, that these cyberworkers, who can't escape work and are addicted to it, account for the increased productivity that ostensibly has characterized our last decade. We suspect all the new machinery has not made them more efficient, but it has made them work longer--in their cars, at home, at the restaurant, doing the jobs of two or three middle managers who were at their sides in the prior economy. It may be that those images we see of hardchargers in the movies, simultaneously conducting business and life's personal commerce, are very close to reality.

The wonderful R. Buckminster Fuller, in his trim little volume Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, claimed that we need intellectual pirates to keep the earth going, not cogmasters who specialize in recreating yesterdays. That seems about right. Happily, very happily, we are creating nanotechnologists in all our institutions who get the details, but it would seem we simply need a few more global voyageurs. Of course, you don't train them; they just appear. And they will.

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