Johns Hopkins Magazine - September 1994 Issue


You Don't Need a Weatherman

By "Guido Veloce"

I'm fascinated by how we talk about where we are and where we are going, as contributors have done so eloquently on the preceding pages. It's hard for me to do it without meteorology. "Straws in the wind" is just the beginning. I fall back on "which way the wind is blowing," "stormy weather ahead," "bright skies," "clouds with silver linings," "clouds on the horizon," "storm clouds," "brighter days," and the "end of the rainbow," not to mention "in the stars," "currents," "tides," "drifting," and "waves of the future." (There was, of course, the "hard rain's gonna' fall" era, but that went out with bell bottoms.)

Personally, I feel that new times call for new metaphors. The problem is, I can't think of any good ones. What seems characteristic of most assessments of where we are headed, including my own, is a sense of uneven development, of going forward and backward, of both loss and gain. That's hard to capture in compelling images. "Zig-zagging," "lurching," and "weaving" lack punch and elegance, even if they are familiar concepts to many of us.

Our 19th-century forebears seldom had this problem. They had little doubt about the direction of the future or how to describe it. It was straight upward, if they believed in progress, technology, and the march of democracy. Or it was straight downward, in the minds of those who foresaw God's wrath descending on a sinful nation.

There are, of course, 20th-century variations on those themes. On the one side we still have prophets of progress who--to revert to meteorology again--see a glorious new day dawning thanks to technology and science. On the other side, there are nay-sayers who forecast an eco-apocalypse of decay and death from our own excesses. Most of us nonetheless strike a balance somewhere in the middle, thanks to a fair amount of ambivalence and uncertainty about current trends (and in a few cases, Prozac). There is little of the passionate 19th-century conviction that history has a clear, uncomplicated direction, whether up or down. I hear few calls for robust, stern enlistees in the march of progress. Instead, I hear words of good counsel like "flexibility," "retraining," and "retooling." It's adaptation, not Armageddon, that we seem to be facing. Now is less a time for prophets thundering absolutes than for accountants making balance sheets and projections.

That is not necessarily bad. Ages of heroism, dominated by men and women who believe in destiny, make for great symbols and metaphors, but lousy living. When it comes to Napoleon's Russian campaign, for example, most of us would prefer the book to the experience. (Had he been given a third chance, Napoleon himself probably would have settled for less destiny and more job security.)

For what it's worth, I'm glad that the present moment seems to inspire ambivalence more than high-flying rhetoric and visions of a glorious future. The latter have led humankind over any number of precipices in the past. Tensions and cross-currents seem to me to be much more characteristic of this particular point in time--trends that may go this way or that, or ones that pull in opposite directions.

Consider, for instance, one of those cross-currents--the variety of ways in which we are simultaneously divided from and connected to each other. The computer hacker, cruising cyberspace in the dead of night, is cut off from those around him--human and machine in an electronic universe. The hacker is also a member of a new, worldwide community, linked through the ether--chatting, trading stories, playing games, and falling in love.

Think also, to pick another example, of the giant media conglomerates that began to emerge in the 1980s and that continue to form. They trade in every kind of amusement: television, book publishing, cable, film, compact discs, theme parks, professional sports teams, and more. Some of what they do brings us together across local, even national, boundaries. They provide a common set of experiences and images, not just through the most popular movies and television shows and the promotions that follow in their wake, but also in extraordinary moments as when a vast and diverse audience watches from a helicopter's perspective, transfixed by a vehicle bearing two ex-athletes on a Los Angeles freeway. Yet these same image-empires also separate us into ever smaller communities of taste. Not satisfied with 20 channels and hundreds of movies to rent? More are on the way. We're brought together. We're divided.

The tension between what is local and particular, on the one hand, and what transcends geographic lines came home last year in a single, wrenching image. It was a wire service photograph of a small Bosnian girl, bound for a refugee camp. She was clutching a Mickey Mouse doll. There she was, victim of a bloody war about particular religious, political, and ethnic differences that have survived centuries, as well as decades of active suppression. Yet who of us--since we all have our own identities and loyalties--is willing to say that religious and ethnic commitments are necessarily bad? There she also was, connected to the wider world by the photograph itself and by a symbol of American popular culture that transcends time and space. Yet who of us is willing to say that connectedness is necessarily good, if it doesn't do anything more than turn the world into a kind of cultural shopping mall, where all the shops look the same? The photograph was as complex and conflicted as it was heart-breaking.

It was, in sum, a great deal like the present moment: more easily reduced to questions than to metaphor. Are we entering a time of intense loyalties to particular groups--to religion, race, ethnicity, or nationality? Or are we truly moving toward an interconnected world? Or both?

Maybe the right imagery is from science after all, but physics rather than meteorology. Perhaps we're in a time of centrifugal and centripetal forces. Then again, maybe it's a gusty wind that's blowing.

"Guido Veloce" is a professor at Johns Hopkins.

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