Sunday, September 10, 2006

Of Luddites, Ephemerals and the Fifth Anniversary of 9/11

With apologies in advance to the author whose name I have long since forgotten and whose title I have not retained. If anyone recognizes the science fiction work I refer to from my description in the paragraph that follows, please let me know in a comment or email so I can give credit where it is due.

In any case, I read a science fiction story years ago whose concept has always stayed with me. The story involved a race of people from another world whose lifespan was measured in the thousands of years. (That was the order of magnitude, anyway; I can’t remember the precise number of thousands either.) The story is about one of these people and his fascination with and relationships with human beings from Earth. He faces contempt and is a source of amusement to his fellows in the story, because, as a rule, they have nothing to do with “ephemerals,” as they called earthlings and other short-lived species. In the course of those beings’ lifespans, the four to five score of the human existence was but the blink of an eye. When viewed over the course of their own incredibly long lives, human issues were insignificant or were misunderstood, because, from their viewpoint, human beings had no perspective.

I often think of that story when I am in the presence of ancient trees. Near downtown Orlando there is a small park (imaginatively named Big Tree Park), built solely around a magnificent live oak whose seed sprouted and began to grow in the year 1500, some thirteen years before Juan Ponce de Leon “discovered” Florida. When I speak to the Big Tree admiringly, I always refer to myself as an ephemeral, and when I think of how time flows for that tree and its brethren, I realize that the scale of time is completely different for them than it is for me—for us, as human beings.

What little perspective we are capable of is being rapidly eroded by technology. The news of the battles of Lexington and Concord in the American Revolution did not reach the capitals of the Southern colonies until weeks after they had occurred. By WWII, radio made Pearl Harbor the name on every American’s lips the next day. During 9/11, victims of the attacks were able to say goodbyes and share what was happening with their loved ones by cell phone. Now, only five years later, as Garry Trudeau has been so ably skewering in a series of strips this past week, today’s technology connecting soldiers deployed on active duty in Iraq with their loved ones virtually instantly creates crazy-making situations: May: “Where have you been, Ray? You had me worried sick! . . .You said you’d be back by 0600”. Ray: “May, at 0600, I was in the middle of a firefight.” May: “Would it have killed you to text message me?” Ray (with his head in his hand): “That was my thinking, yes.”

I have always been a selective and somewhat reluctant adopter of technology, a stance somewhat at odds with how I made my living for many years. For me, personal technology tools often have in common the effect, whether intended or not, of separating us from our experience of life in the present moment. What I have come to see lately is that this technology robs us of other things as well, one of the most important of these, in my view, is the luxury of perspective. Perspective lent by both physical and temporal distance, both of which have shrunk in our world almost to nonexistence.

Not sure how one could possibly put this genie back in the bottle. But I do think an awareness of this change, a discussion in the public arena of these unintended sociological ramifications of technology can have a lot of value. And that is what I am thinking about tonight on the fifth anniversary of 9/11.

It feels like such a different event from the perspective granted by five years, like such a different world from the pre-9/11 one. I remember well the frantic thoughts and fears of the immediate hours and days and weeks and months that followed in late 2001 and into 2002. My own life changed dramatically, partly due to other concurrent events, but partly too as a result of the 9/11 attack. Those changes ripple down through the years even to today, manifesting themselves in many big and little ways in my life.

I saw and, more importantly, heard a jetliner fly by earlier this evening. I was struck by the fact that it did not cause the same rush of adrenaline and anxiety that happened whenever I heard a plane pass over for years after 9/11.

Perspective grants us wisdom. The distance of time from events helps us assimilate the events in our bodies, our hearts and our minds in a way we are not biologically made to do during the instant. When I think that our technology is eroding our ability to act only after we have gained some perspective, I fear for us ephemerals.

May the spirits of all those who were lost in or damaged by the events of 9/11 and the turbulent and tragic events consequential to it be at peace and may we, as individuals and as a people, find our way as time grants us some perspective on those events.

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