February 5, 2001—Thomas
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
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.
Back to Top of
Return to the Index of
Letters from the Global Province