Johns Hopkins Magazine - September 1994 Issue


Life in the Swirl

By Terence Monmaney, MA '83
Staff writer,
The New Yorker

Invention delights me and has a way of putting my mind at ease about the future. A store crammed with top-of-the-line sporting goods is a buffet of ingenuity. Titanium-frame bicycles, graphite fly rods, Keylar tennis rackets, digital wristwatches with digital compasses, duffels of ballistic nylon, Velcro-fastening sandals, RollerBladesÄwho would have thought? Sometimes when I'm blue I get more solace out of GoreTex than Bach. So much cleverness applied to making gear that gets you out in the air and cheers you up: don't you find that encouraging?

I'm also encouraged by the gradual rise in longevity; the fall of the Berlin Wall and the outbreak of peace in the Middle East; the new creativity in American cooking and the demand for fresh foods it has engendered; the concerted social engineering that went into convincing Americans that drunk driving was evil; Seldane, a miracle drug for people (like me) with hay fever; the return of salmon and bass to once-blighted rivers; the conversion of abandoned railbeds to bike paths; C-Span; the persistence of the Generation Gap and the three-point play; the jazz revival; and the apparent rise in volunteerism.

One of the trends that educated persons are supposed to get depressed about is the proliferation of loud-mouth TV talk shows and gushy self-help books, which are thought to represent the End of Privacy or the End of Decency. They can be grotesque. But by making a show out of the once unmentionable, these spectacles have taken the sting of shame out of a lot of taboo subjects like incest, alcoholism, rape, abandonment, and disease. "You're as sick as your secrets," says one of the pop psychologists, and he's onto something. The current outburst of confessions that we are witnessing may be the necessary, if unseemly, beginning of a building up of understanding and tolerance.

Another supposedly depressing event is the Death of Print. However, after years of crabby doomsaying about how Americans don't read anymore, it seems that print is on the rebound. The big new book supermarket down the street from me is phenomenally successful. Three bright, wide-aisled, floors of computer-inventoried books, with a cafe and tables and chairs where people sit and... read. Quietly. The place is jammed. On weekends.

To feel gloomy, I don't have to contemplate the horror of ethnic cleansing or the resurgence of fascism in faraway lands. I live in New York City, off upper Broadway, and all I have to do to get in touch with the decline of the world is step out onto the street. The crack vials and rivulets of human piss on the sidewalks, the panhandlers and con artists and thieves, the homeless people, the visibly insane peopleÄan unending display of misery and despair.

I don't know what happened to make life so difficult for so many people in America's big cities, but the statistics suggest that the poor are indeed getting poorer. We appear to be creating a society in which the Haves and Have-Nots are more widely separated than ever before. In the future, the difference between these two groups will boil down to fluency with information and ease with technology. There will be those who are technically trained to manipulate information and intellectually trained to make sense of it, and there will be those whose work is taken over by a machine or reduced to something menial. Right now, it would be wiser to seek training as a programmer of automated cash machines than as a bank teller.

The management theorist Charles Handy has a formula to describe this cleaving of the workforce: half of the people will perform twice the work for three times the pay. Accordingly, the gulf that already exists between the lowest-paying and highest-paying jobs will widen considerably, leaving the underschooled to struggle in an economy with ever-higher living costs. But Handy's scenario is also ominous for the adept, even though it predicts they'll be getting a pay raise, because they'll gain this wealth by giving up more and more of that most precious commodityÄfree time.

Like today's computer companies and on-line services, the companies that sold toasters and electric typewriters back in the 1950s promised that those wonderful new appliances would liberate hours of time. And yet other chores almost always recaptured it. The extra hour or so that the microwave oven saves in the kitchen is typically spent not with the kids or on a walk or at a museum after all, but at work. If anything, nine-to-five has expanded to nine-to-six. The time crunch, abetted by rising costs and the paradox of technologyÄit saves labor, but not necessarily timeÄis the real bad news about the future.

The wind of history? We live in the midst of swirling, chaotic forces, and at any given moment you can sample the direction of change and find evidence of progress as well as regression, evolution as well as de-evolution. I'm not sure why the things that I find encouraging tend to be modest and concrete and immediate (and often technological), while the things that trouble me are big and abstract and somewhat distant (and often rooted in technology). I'm highly skeptical of my pessimistic side, but maybe that skepticism is just wishful thinking.

Before joining The New Yorker, Terence Monmaney, MA '83, was a staff writer at Science 86 and at Newsweek. He has written one documentary film about insane asylums, another about Marcel Proust.

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