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Jewish World Review Dec. 23, 1999 /14 Teves 5760

Mort Zuckerman

Mort Zuckerman
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The times of our lives -- A few years into the 20th century a couple of bicycle makers named Wright got a heavier-than-air machine 15 feet in the air for a whopping 59 seconds. Few newspapers bothered to report the news. That seems surprising to us today. Surely it was obvious that aviation was going to shrink the world, if not the galaxy? But wait. It would have taken a Leonardo da Vinci to imagine how even a few of the innovations of the early 20th century would work out by the millennium–which makes these profound changes so beguiling.

Edison's incandescent light and Bell's telephone arrived by 1900, Marconi's radio telegraph fired up a year later. But who could conceive how these inventions might begin to lay the foundation of our modern world? A Nebraska farmer in 1900 might, if he were lucky, learn news of the outside world from an out-of-date newspaper. Today's farmer, by contrast, thinks nothing of punching up satellite weather pictures on his cable television or of getting a download from the Web to check on the wheat crop in Russia.

The faces of change. We have gotten used to having more for less. More than a third of Americans began the century working on farms to feed some 76 million people. Now just over 2 percent grow the food to feed 270 million people–and there's still plenty left over. The number of hours Americans worked annually has dropped from about 2,700 at the beginning of the century to about 1,800 today; average life expectancy has gone from about 45 years to 80. The children who died of whooping cough, scarlet fever, or diphtheria can now expect to grow up as parents of their own families. Or think of the millions laid off in the Great Depression, simply because we did not understand how capitalism works.

That's not surprising. We changed so rapidly–from a rural agricultural society, to an industrial economy, to a service economy. Today, we inhabit an information-based economy that spans the globe. Change, as is its wont, took many forms: Henry Ford's vision of automobiles for the masses, Ike's interstate highway system, mass transit, the suburbs.

Who could have guessed how radio and television would transform politics? We grumble about the tube, but we ought to remember that it was television's gift to enable all of us to share a common experience without being there, a vital element in the movement–in Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s apt phrase–from exclusion to inclusion. It was that movement that paved the way for the expansion of the democratic franchise to women, young people, and blacks.

The movement occurred in phases. As the century developed, the middle class exploded, blurring the nation's 19th-century class distinction be- tween blue- and white-collar workers, between men and women. In the second half of the century, blacks entered the middle class at the fastest pace of any group in our country's history. All this despite fighting two world wars, Korea, Vietnam, and the Cold War.

Amazingly, we have come to the end of the century in a vastly more positive mood than anyone could have thought just 20 years ago. The nation is confident that it can handle the staggering acceleration of change that is propelling us into the next century. In just the past four decades, we have amassed more scientific knowledge than was generated in the previous 5,000 years. Indeed, 90 percent of all the scientists who ever lived are alive today, and they are using more powerful instruments than ever existed before.

What does all it all mean for the future? Scientific information is now increasing twofold about every five years. Information doubles every 21/2 years. New knowledge makes most technology obsolete in just five to seven years. Even computers are out of date in less than two years. Recently, IBM announced that it is going to build a supercomputer working 500 times faster than the fastest computer today. "Blue Gene" it is called, and its target speed is a thousand trillion calculations each second!

The potential benefits defy imagining. Today, the Human Genome Project promises to map every gene, but before too long, we may be able to prescribe gene therapies for individual disorders. We should be able to measure the human impact on climate, learn more about how the brain works, and postpone human aging. Looking to our past, we may be able to reconstruct the genetic history of the human race, unravel the mystery of the birth of our universe, and, perhaps, learn once and for all whether other universes really exist. We may even find out that the big bang is only one of many, raising the possibility of life elsewhere in space.

One thing we know for sure. Whatever we discover will be transmitted around the world, not in 80 days, but in seconds, giving us little time to adjust psychologically to the new knowledge. It took five months for the news of the discovery of the New World by Columbus to reach Spain. It took just 1.3 seconds for Neil Armstrong's historic step on the moon to reach millions of viewers through television.

Magic? But we must be humble about prognostications. Many gray eminences have failed to anticipate developments within their fields of expertise. In 1932, Albert Einstein concluded that there was not the slightest indication that nuclear energy would ever be obtainable. A decade and change later, Tom Watson, the chief of IBM, surveyed the potential world market for computers, pondered, and concluded that there was a demand "for about five."

Nor can we expect just more of the same. For as one wit said of Thomas Edison, if he had just extrapolated, we would have had better oil lamps. There is another thing that we know. America will lead the world in its openness and receptivity to new discoveries, information, and innovation. Undoubtedly, we will play a leading role in all the key sciences; we now lead the world in virtually all of them. The progress of America these past 100 years was founded on an uncanny ability to turn knowledge of the physical world into economic and military advantage. We created a vast network of research institutions, private and public universities, specialized institutes of technology, corporate laboratories, and private and public foundations. Then we integrated the new knowledge yielded by these creations into our daily life, especially our economic life.

It didn't happen by magic. To fill one end of the pipeline of human skills flowing into our country and into higher education that was providing business with the engineers, scientists, and managers it needed, our forebears invented that unique American institution–a free, universal, public high school. The results have been astounding. Just think. At the beginning of the 20th century, only 6.4 percent of young Americans graduated from high school. By the middle of the century, that figure had reached 59 percent. Today, it is 83 percent. Then look at our colleges. After the GI Bill of Rights was passed in 1944, college education surged. (Contrast this to the veterans of the American Revolution, rewarded with land grants.) By the end of the century, over 27 percent of the population, ages 25 to 29, had completed four or more years of college–up from 1 percent at the beginning of the century and 16.4 percent in 1970. Since 1970, black students with four years of college have doubled to approximately 15 percent. Education became not just for the privileged elite but for ever broader segments of our population. Today, a far higher percentage of Americans attend college than in any other nation in the world.

This says a lot about the American philosophy of pragmatism, whose intellectual seeds first took root 100 years ago. Few outside academia noticed the ferment created by turn-of-the-century philosophers like William James, Lester Ward, and John Dewey. They assaulted the ideology of social Darwinism with the revolutionary thought that the uncivilized masses could learn and that the most mediocre, properly taught, could double or triple their achievements; that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness required government to free the people to do the best they could by providing opportunities for education, welfare, and health.

Essentially, the expanding opportunities made possible by education were the keys to the upward mobility that liberated so many from the artificial barriers of wealth and class. Education has proved a surer base for the creation of the middle class than organization. Human skills make up about 75 percent of the energy behind our economic growth. Jobs based on muscle power that could support the accouterments of middle-class life have shrunk dramatically in the past several decades.

In fact, by the end of the century, Americans had concluded that not just an education, but a higher education, was the right of every American for without it, an individual is cheated out of his or her maximum growth potential.

The people given their chance have more than met expectations. It is because of our embrace of science, and learning, and technology that we have surpassed the rest of the world in equipping ourselves and our businesses with the new information technologies at a rate, as a percentage of GDP, twice that of Europe and Japan. Today, roughly 50 percent of all business fixed investment in the United States is in information technologies. We lead the world in building the new infrastructure of the information world. An estimated two thirds of the world's top technology producers–the Microsofts, the Intels, Ciscos, IBMs, Dells, AOLs–are U.S. companies. Of the 48 information technology companies that Morgan Stanley Dean Witter believes will enjoy a sustainable competitive advantage over the next number of years, 31 are American. Only six are European.

New frontiers. The United States is at a point reminiscent of its entry into the 20th century. In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner pronounced the end of the American frontier. The West had been won; there were no new lands to conquer. Turner thought this might mean the end of American adventure and individualism. But he was wrong. The newly settled continent, linked by rail, lay open as a vast, tariff-free marketplace conducive to the sale of mass-produced products at prices more and more Americans could afford. Unimpeded access to those burgeoning marketplaces was the critical condition for the flowering of American enterprise.

Today, of course, the new frontier is the global economy. And the evidence is clear that the United States is as well placed to exploit that as it was the new continental marketplace of a century ago. We have demonstrated a unique ability to move financial capital, human capital, and management capital in massive amounts to the cutting edges of technology and economics. Our democratized capital markets allocate money to the future, not the past, to the new, not the old. New technologies make it increasingly feasible to set up small businesses, even at home, enhancing a deeply rooted American tradition, for, in this country, there are more small business owners than there are union members. We established 1.8 million new businesses in the 1990s, exceeding the 1.5 million of the 1980s. We are natural managers and organizers of our lives and our own careers.

America's culture is a perfect fit for this new world. The legacy of our individualism, entrepreneurialism, and pragmatism has outlived the passing of the frontier and continues to inspire millions. American culture nourishes its heretics, mavericks, and oddballs, celebrates its young, welcomes the newly arrived, and is dramatically open to the energy and talent rising from the bottom. No other country has the capacity to organize and respond to a huge market, vast and diverse populations, and rapidly changing economic condition. No other country has met the requirements of an emerging industrial system in an information era that needs people to be mobile and flexible, both physically and psychologically. No other country shares the American belief in science and in statistics as the basis for decision making and classification. We have a giant information-processing system that improves our capacity to enhance, absorb, and manage the ongoing revolutions in today's technology, information, and logistics that are too dynamic, rapidly changing, and complex to be processed in any top-down system, no matter how talented the bureaucracy, government, or corporate oligopoly. No other country so highly values the organizer, the discoverer of new opportunities, and the risk taker. No other country has a population so prone to self-help, self-improvement, even self-renovation, and certainly self-education. We encourage innovations through pat- ent protection and a tax system that enables the successful innovator and investor to keep a large share of the value he has created. We tend to choose people for jobs by competence and relative merit, demote and promote primarily on the basis of performance. We value the new against the old, youth against experience, change and risk against safety, and making money over inheriting it.

That is why we entered the century dynamic and future-oriented, and end it in the same way. We are thus perpetually a modern and not a traditional society, based on the concept type known as the self-made man–a social type who has flourished more in this society than in any other before or since. It reflects in that we ask a person not who he is but what he does. Collectively it has made up the American dream–the opportunity to achieve, to ascend the ladder, to transcend our origins, however humble. We began the century living the dream of our ancestors, and end it even more so.

As the poet Ovid once said, "Let others praise ancient times. I am glad to be alive in these."

JWR contributor Mort Zuckerman is editor-in-chief and publisher of U.S. News and World Report. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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©1999, Mortimer Zuckerman