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Jewish World Review Sept. 20, 2000 / 19 Elul, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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Consumer Reports


What I saw in Seattle: Report from the future

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- SEATTLE | "I have seen the future,'' a noted American journalist once wrote, "and it works.''

His name was Lincoln Steffens, and he was writing about his trip to the new, bolshevik Russia.

That future is now the past, and we all know how it turned out: monstrous.

I have seen the future here in Seattle, and it works, though I have no idea how. But I can report that it is very different, very much the same and very American.

The future doesn't have just a split personality, but a shattered personality, and sometimes what feels like no personality at all. For there are not just two Seattles, but many and none.

Here the future morphs together, or separates into a split screen on your computer, then breaks down into an endless series of windows, and occasionally goes blank. A screensaver then appears, returning you to the primeval rain forest, or rather a manicured version thereof. For here all time is virtual, and real time itself is fabricated and sold.

Seattle is the next stage of Homo faber, Man the Toolmaker. Except that the tools always make the man, for we begin to think like our instruments, or rather not think at all.

This latest future is a combination of the familiar company town, like Boeing or Microsoft, and entrepreneurial, cutthroat capitalism, like Boeing or Microsoft.

This future is a combination of sentimental populism and libertarian individualism. It is outwardly calm, cooperative, communal. Inwardly there is ... not even a quiet desperation, which would have some character. Instead one finds only a fog-gray absence of emotion.

Toto, I don't think we're in the South any more, where the past is never even past. Here the future isn't even the future anymore, but a kind of ever-extrapolated present: more cell phones, infinitely expanded bandwidths more communication with less to communicate.

The future is both the World Trade Organization and the riots that came with its meeting here. For here the past has to be imported -- like both the globalizing bureaucrats and the rioters who greeted them.

In this future, the anarchists are organized and the bureaucrats disorganized. One thinks of the Islamic fundamentalists who overthrew the shah with their tape cassettes of the Ayatollah's sermons, only to be overthrown in their turn by the next wave of Westernization.

Here rock music is put in a museum that looks like an explosion inside a guitar factory. (Someone described the Experience Music Project here in Seattle as the wreck of the Partridge Family bus.) Day after day the docile visitors queue up to be tagged, charged and closely guarded at this shrine to youthful rebellion.

Like the guitars at the museum, this state's radical political tradition is kept behind glass. It is taken out now and then, dusted off and shown to visitors for their amusement. The time has come and gone when it could be said that "America consists of 47 states and the Soviet of Washington.''

This once and future Seattle manufactures millionaires, loves its billionaires, celebrates its Medicis in plaid shirts and yet seems untouched by any of them or by anything.

It's not that this future hasn't yet jelled; it may not be jellable. It is forever splitting its screens until nothing singular remains, including our selves. Nothing may be less integrated than an integrated circuit.

This future is connected, but it is not one.

This is a future of civil streets. The crowds in downtown Seattle are not crowds -- not in the frenzied Eastern sense. People stop to talk about the weather. Young people with rings in every orifice pause on the sidewalk outside a store to to tell you which hat in the window would look best on you.

The pathfinders of this future do not tyrannize, but condescend. They never demagogue, only offer. They do not impose except technologically, and therefore completely.

Seattle is the latest incarnation of deus ex machina the god from the machine. This machine is not nearly as transforming as those of the past -- like the printing press, radio, movies or television. But the computer may be the most isolating while it connects.

This future plans, schedules and sizes its leisure. It reduces us to the products we buy and calls that empowerment. It fills our time by emptying it. It allows us to express ourselves as never before by becoming disembodied voices.

The global village that Marshall McLuhan foresaw as the televised future has become another past. It has given way to the global disconnect. Here in the future, we float in and out of connections the way we change chat rooms. We can no longer light out for the territories because the frontier has been abolished by the Internet.

Here in the future, there is no longer a here and there, but an everywhere and nowhere simultaneously.

Like the latest innovations in wireless technology, the future is untethered. It has no sense of place except the sentimental visions it fabricates and transmits, like a computerized greeting card. For all its windows, it is a windowless room.

Here in e-attle, reality is virtual. There is something flat even about its anger, which seems only two-dimensional, like that of an irate e-mail.

The newcomer feels like the savage in "Brave New World,'' charmed but resistant, mystified even as he becomes what mystifies him. I have just written that sentence on my iBook, and will not feel that I have said it until a printing press has reproduced it for you this morning. So does one technology feel real, another artificial. Maybe it's a generational difference.

Every future has its barbarous language. This future is impactful.

Impactful . I, too, winced when I first heard that neologism, that pseudo-logism, for the first time. It fell naturally from the lips of a local communications tycoon. But even the concept of tycoon is hopelessly antiquated here in the future, where tycoons don't spit and chew and destroy and dominate, but just permeate.

The alphas of this future speak of asynchronous communication and the GPS that gives us communality, which is not community at all -- any more than their communication is language. They speak without a trace of accent. Perhaps because, like their latest world-girdling wireless systems, they are not location-sensitive.

But there is still something of the inescapable past in these futurists. One can't help being reminded of how an advanced thinker in the spring of 1914 might have described the wonderful, peaceful, interconnected world of the future ahead -- just before the blood-red curtain descended. On a whole century.

It would take a de Tocqueville to describe how strange and how familiar and how American this future is. And what appeals and bothers about it.

It's not the transition from inky to electronic wretch that bothers, though it does, so much as the fear of losing the wretchedness. Wretchedness may not be much, but it's something. It's mortal, real-time, temporal as life itself. It's feeling. It requires the grace of others and of the Other.

Will the future, far from offering such things, even understand them? Or if it does, will it only build a museum for them?

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