Johns Hopkins Magazine - September 1994 Issue


The Search for Intelligent Life in the Late 20th Century

By Christine Gorman, MA '84
Associate Editor,
TIME Magazine

My father grew up in a small town. I didn't. That simple fact may go a long way toward explaining why he looks at me so quizzically whenever I rave about the virtues of life in a close-knit community. I talk about the sense of belonging and the comforts of shared history. He remembers the ingrained attitudes, the way everybody knew everybody else's business and how difficult life could be for those who didn't quite fit in. Dad left the limitations of his boyhood home to embrace the world beyond his vision. And here I am, living and working in those wide-open spaces, thinking that something is missing and wondering how to go back.

My guess is that it has to do with how fragmented life has become. As a New Yorker, I am naturally suspicious of cars and find it quite ironic that the post-World War II push to connect isolated communities through a modern, updated highway system inadvertently led to greater isolation and splintered many of the bonds that tie people together. Just look at the numbers. Twenty-three people in a Volkswagen is absurd. A college prank. Twenty-three people at a quilting bee forms the basis of community. Cars may be the most democratic invention ever created, but their tendency to isolate and atomize often works against us.

The internal combustion machine has been around so long, however, that I've made my peace with it. It's the mail that's really starting to get on my nerves. As annoying as the bills, appeals, and assorted Chinese menus are, I can handle my regular mail at home. (I saw a personal letter once. It was at the Smithsonian.) But now my office mail comes in 47 different varieties. I walk through the door each morning and listen to half a dozen voice-mail messages, check the network mail on two different computer systems that are not compatible with each other. Then the e-mail from the greater universe of the Internet. Faxes. FedEx packages. Messenger delivery.

Granted, I work for a Communications Empire. And this is, after all, the Information Age. So, for me at least, information overload is an unavoidable workplace hazard. But I doubt that many people will escape its ravages before the end of the decade. Consider your plight, for example, eight years from now, when your genetic counselor informs you that you have a 20 percent to 50 percent increased risk of heart disease and a 25 percent higher chance of colon cancer while the partner you're considering building a house and family with possesses a genetic pattern that may or may not be linked to early Alzheimer's disease. Rather than helping you to reach a conclusion, this new information has only confounded your decision-making process. Surely, that's not the point?

Call me a cynic, but I think that the most important lesson to come out of the Information Age is the message that "More is Less." This rule of thumb is something that physicists have long been familiar with in any experiment that attempts to separate a meaningful signal from background noise. At some point, boosting the volume becomes counterproductive. Those of us who are starting to make the transition into the post-Information Age have come to realize that information is not the same thing as knowledge. Knowledge is not the same as wisdom.

You can't turn back the clock. And I don't really want to. But I do think that we have to become more judicious in our reliance on so-called labor-saving devices─whether they are computers, cars, or CNN. The convenience they provide often proves chaotic, tilting larger and larger chunks of our lives over the brink into entropy.

Last spring, after my television set broke down, I decided not to replace it. At first the sensory deprivation proved unsettling. Then I started finding greater blocks of uninterrupted time in which to pursue two intermittent dreams: ballroom dancing and painting. Along the way I've discovered something of the communities associated with them. I may be a little further out of the loop whenever the office gossip turns to what was on TV last night, but I am discovering some of the touchstones of my life.

Communities are about commitment, not necessarily convenience. Built as they are on blocks of solid time, they have become more difficult to sustain in our split-second society. But I believe that we have accelerated about as far away from them as we can tolerate. Which signals to me, at least, that more and more people are going to turn their collars up to the whirlwind of progress. Some of them may even try to repair the social fabric while they're at it. I don't know how rough or smooth the resulting cloth will be. How striking the colors or what variety of stories the tapestry will tell. I will hazard a guess, however, that there will be some parts that I recognize, some parts my dad will recognize, and some parts that will be totally novel to both of us.

TIME associate editor Christine Gorman is assigned to the magazine's Science section, where she has written such cover stories as "The Difference Between Men and Women" (January 20, 1992) and "AIDS: Losing the Battle" (August 3, 1992). While completing her master's in science writing at Hopkins, Gorman was a contributing writer to Johns Hopkins Magazine.

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