Being proud people of this precious planet, we presently find ourselves poised perilously on a precipice of purported ponderous significance: we're embarking on a voyage to the 21st century. What this means, of course, is that we're about to switch the calendar and mark time in the year 2000.
The bottom line is no one knows exactly what to expect. The only sure things in life are death, taxes, that slow drivers will always be ahead of you in the fast lane and that Bill Gates will get even more disgustingly rich. Life has changed dramatically in recent years. Today seems more like tomorrow than ever before in history.
As a race, humans are more educated and technologically advanced than ever before, yet we still don't control the future. As our number explodes past six billion, you'd think we'd be more poignantly aware of our innate humanness. Yet the very opposite seems true. Most of us seem unable to function without an arsenal of machinery. The tools of our trades seem to have made many of us, well, tools. Increased technology, much of it under the guise of bringing us closer, has actually widened the divide. We sit in our cubicles at work and email our cohorts across the hall or while away the hours in front of a computer ensconced in our home offices. We have more work- and timesaving devices than ever before, yet most of us work harder and have less time. We commute to our jobs toting cell phones, laptops and pagers, and even guided by highly advanced global positioning systems. "Carpe Diem" has been replaced by "You've got Mail." People are more closely linked to satellites than to their neighbors. Voice mail, email, answering machines -- all these things are supposedly to keep us more connected than ever, yet the gap widens. Seems today more people are concerned about tomorrow than today.
The revolution of the World Wide Web -- considered by many to be the greatest advancement of technology ever -- seems actually to reinforce our separateness. Politically speaking, this is perhaps the great age of separatism. We have the ability to call upon more facts, more data, more information -- both useful and trivial -- than ever before. In this heralded "Information Age," the inundation and accessibility of facts seems to be the actual enemy of thought. Indeed, why think when you can hit the "Forward Email button" and send someone else's mundane thoughts or jokes to a long list of supposed friends on a daily basis? Sure, you may feel you keep in touch with more people than ever before. But do you feel closer to them?
With the profusion of information out there, have you ever felt you've been able to glean a concise understanding of a topic, such as you did when you were a child and opened up the Encyclopedia Britannica? Faster and more are the hallmarks of technology, but information overload renders much of our efforts meaningless. A simple search on Hot Bot for "millennium" yields 122,850 web sites. A search for "mayonnaise" offers up 15,460. I don't know about you, but I have some misgivings about living in a world where I can never hope to master the subject of mayonnaise. And most of the world isn't even wired yet. By the time this article reaches you, I suspect both these numbers will have grown considerably as mankind plunges forward in its quest for knowledge.
We have at our fingertips the ability to know so much, yet so much is clouded in the profusion. How many of us know our neighbors? How many of us have a local hangout where we regularly gather with people we enjoy? Human interaction, grace and manners seem rare commodities. We wander the streets separated by Walkmans or cell phones. We rush off to appointments because they're inscribed in our Palm Pilots. We sit in front of computer and television screens, barraged by information and demands on our time. Our attention spans grow shorter.
When was the last time you actually felt the sensation of putting pen to paper and writing a letter? When was the last time you went out without planning an evening far in advance, just to hang out and talk with old friends or perhaps to meet new ones? The last lingering lunch, or coffee and chatting? The last time you reveled in doing something precisely because you weren't supposed to be doing it?
Lest I sound like a technophobe writing from his cabin in the Montana wilderness, I hasten to tell you that I live in Southern California and actually own several computers. I use email on a daily basis for both work and pleasure. I'm proud, however, that I do not own a cellular phone. Yes, there are indeed times when I'm virtually unreachable, something that has almost become an unpardonable sin in our "connected" society. This does not mean I get to revel in life without being barraged by the cacophony of cellular phones. Everyone I know -- and most I encounter -- dutifully tote around their phones. If my friends and associates were important heads of state making monumental decisions on a moment's notice, I might understand better.
I, for one, miss the casual hellos and good mornings, the pleasure of opening an envelope full of pensive musings from a valued friend, the spontaneous sharing of good times, the meandering conversations of great interest and little importance. The nights that run so much later than they should when fun triumphs over responsibility...the times when you do what you really shouldn't. Sometimes the fruit tastes better precisely because it's forbidden.
As someone who lived abroad, irresponsible and carefree, for years, I constantly compare life in America to life in Europe. European cultures and histories -- if not the pocketbooks and economies -- are much richer than ours. Yet in virtually every European city or even small town, on any night of any season, you'll encounter people just hanging out, enjoying a drink with a leisurely lunch, meeting friends for the evening. People walk places; they take time to look around and enjoy their leisure. No one gets upset when the waiter takes more than a few minutes to get to them. Drinks and laughs are time-tested pursuits, people would not have continued with them for so long without reason. Instead of trying to conquer time or kill time, they strive to enjoy it, which, in the end, seems a pretty worthwhile goal.
The old dictum goes: "No one ever died wishing they'd spent more time at the office." I read a recent study of aged people that said the one common denominator that the oldest ones shared wasn't a healthy diet, it wasn't a regular exercise routine, it wasn't even the best medical care. It was simply enjoying spending time socializing with other people. Those who lived the longest were the ones who got together regularly with friends or family.
What will life be like in the tomorrowland of the new Millennium? I hope we're all not too busy to find out. Personally I think it'll probably be much like today, only more so. But I don't have time to pursue the topic any further. My phone's ringing. There's a fax coming in. And I have to email this column to my editor.