Man of the Year, Man of Our Time

So Time magazine decided to name me Man of the Year and my first thought was: Who could blame ‘em? Though why I had to share it with every schlub and schlock, every schlep and schlump, was beyond my capacity to figure. Still, in my case they were on to something. A nice guy, sense of humor, writing his little heart out to entertain and edify the populace, was certainly worthy of notice. But upon reexamining their award I saw they were not impressed by such prosaic achievements as might have been managed as well a millennium ago.

No, they say, what makes the modern individual so outstanding is the fact that he or she is the maestro of the mouse, able to delete tall buildings in a single bound. The long reach of technology has turned Man into Superman, even if he still picks his nose and dies at age 75. You can get a good recipe for chop suey from a lady in China or flirt with an undercover cop in Poughkeepsie pretending to be an underage girl, all in the space of a few minutes, all in the privacy of your own little demesne. Then you can blog about how empty your life is since you got divorced from the only person who remembers your name.

And they are at least partially right, in that our generation went overnight from not having the Internet to taking it for granted. We never paused in gratitude to absorb the magnitude of the gift. In truth, the Internet should be viewed as a major fulfillment of the Messianic prophecies in the Bible. For thousands of years, religious people promised the world that eventually all nations would be in steady contact with each other, and were derided for smoking funny stuff to cause pipe dreams. This at a time when international communication, especially across seas, took months per letter. Now that their vision has been realized, everyone yawns and moves on.

By right, our generation should compose new psalms. Instead of duplicating David’s work by penning paeans about the waterfall and the water buffalo and the watermelon and the water lily, we should sing of the air conditioner and the airplane and the airwaves. And if the Time gang intended to inspire mankind to awe over the possibilities the Creator built into Nature for us to discover and develop, then more power to them.

Still, there is a kink not yet fully smoothed. The technology, and the new reach it affords, is clearly meant to expand the soul of man. To make of man a creature who can communicate with everyone everywhere, who will thus gain an understanding of humanity in all its quirky guises. Who will use the hand that touches a person across the globe to deliver comfort. The voice that echoes in every corner of the planet should bear hope and good tidings. The confidence shared by a lonely Bulgarian should make me a kinder American.

While some of this is happening, there is also a great vulnerability to being lessened, etiolated, enervated. People are behaving in silly ways because they can make comments without eye or voice contact. Exhibit A, Mark Foley. There are propositions made in haste and repeated, not repented, in leisure. There are insults and recriminations hurled. The written word is far more subject to misrepresentation than the spoken. Try and apologize over the Internet, for example. It is completely impossible, because to make a plea for forgiveness one must look a certain way and sound a certain way. If all the Internet does is catapult us retrograde into the 19th Century, substituting the letter for the phone call as the currency of intimate communication, it is a net loss.

The cell phone, or speaking Internet connectors like Skype, may be more important in the battle to maintain individuality in the global moment. I had a few Internet interlocutors who would not take my phone call for reasons of reticence or security; it was painful, but early on I had to resolve not to be drawn into the substance of their lives. Relationships consigned to the peripheral are by definition excluded from the inner essence of the persona.

So I will accept Time’s award, but with caveats. I will attend to my responsibility as a modern techno maestro with an eye to substance. You want to send me an e-mail about your innermost thoughts? Bad idea. E-mail me a joke you heard and call with your innermost thoughts. Then I can listen to your voice and respond to the vibrations of the life that is you. After all, you are Person of the Year, too.