Duck Soup
Will Not Be Televised


Over the last thousand years, Western civilization has conquered the world -- a fact never more palpable than during the recent 24-hour New Year's extravaganza. Though some celebrants danced, sang or chanted their way through the portal to tomorrowland in native dress -- carrying traditional symbols and resurrecting relics of their varied pasts -- all were acknowledging obeisance to European/American modernity, to the primacy of science, rationalism and progress.

As Frank Zappa once quipped, "The revolution will not be televised," and while TV cameras followed the countdown around the globe from Kiribati to American Samoa, there was no possibility of meaningful revolution in sight. Even China, the strongest claimant to an alternative way forward -- a 4000-year success story only slightly detoured in 1949 -- has opened the flood-gates. While the Great Wall is unlikely to meet the same fate as the flimsier edifice in Berlin any time soon, it is rapidly becoming irrelevant. The physical isolation provided by the Pacific, the Himalayas, southern jungles and Mongolian steppes is meaningless in cyberspace. One pixel at a time -- one Fax, one phone call, one hyperlink, one e-mail -- the Chinese are being drawn into our web.

As I have observed in a past column, biologically speaking, this state of affairs should be at least disquieting. Evolutionary success is a multiple choice test. Species with few options disappear. Those which wander too far down narrow adaptive alleys get mugged. They are history's losing gamblers who bet the family jewels on one Lotto draw.

For better or worse we are all placing the same bet these days. This is true culturally as well as organochemically. Marginal societies and their languages with all of their disparately nuanced world views are evaporating like puddles on hot asphalt. The agent of consolidation for our culture -- electronic communication -- may offer some way out of the box (when a way out becomes urgent) but it looks pretty dicey.

Most hopeful is the decentralization which permits like-minded people to join hands around the globe. Grassroots political action is becoming international with non-governmental organizations cooperating north to south, and east to west. Rainforest activists in Washington, D.C., can work with preservationist rubber tappers in Brazil and traditional farmers in Indonesia to pressure forest enemies both large and small. American labor unions can stand shoulder to virtual shoulder with counterparts on every continent. Organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are able to identify and widely publicize government and corporate misdeeds.

Overshadowing such safeguards of individual freedom and increased accountability is the tendency of our system toward concentration of wealth and power. If anything, those corporate giants who develop, build, sell and control communications networks benefit even more from interconnectivity than the general public.

The lingering lesson of the Y2K bug is how quickly a monopolistic blind alley can become our whole civilization's Main Street -- and how potentially threatening such choices may be.

Further, the lingering lesson of the Y2K bug is how quickly a monopolistic blind alley can become our whole civilization's Main Street -- and how potentially threatening such choices may be. If something as obvious as the approach of a calendar change can be blithely ignored until a trillion-dollar repair becomes critical, what about the non-obvious problems? And what if money won't solve such bugaboos in the future? What if human ingenuity is too slow to respond?

In Isaac Azimov's memorable Foundation trilogy, the thoughtful planners of a universal empire set up two foundations of civilization, at opposite ends of the cosmos. The idea was that absent alternatives, one culture might become destructive of its initial lofty aims and that a counterbalance would eventually prove crucial (the old "absolute power/absolute corruption" tango). Unbeknownst to the rulers of the visibly dominant government, the "opposite end" of the infinite universe was plunk in their own midst. A nice trick for the novelist, but much trickier in practice.

In our center we find only urban slums -- home today to nearly half of the world's people -- and, who knows, perhaps the seedbed of change? Ancient Egypt, Alexander's Macedonia and Rome did not consider the necessity of alternatives, assuming themselves to be divinely ordained. And while they ruled their "known" worlds, they never dominated our entire race. Our position is quite different. We assume that change is inevitable, that this too shall pass. In the meantime we have conquered all.

Keep your fingers crossed.

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