Weekly Wire
NewCityNet World Unraveler

By Ben Winters

APRIL 3, 2000: 

The Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls and the Search for Home by Pico Iyer (Knopf), $25, 303 pages

The faster the flight of technological progress, the harder it is to track its consequences. The telephone reshaped civilization, as did the assembly line and the television; but decades after these things were invented, the extent and character of that reshaping is still an open question.

Fast forward to the digital nineties and the post-digital aughties, to the zooming, dissipated, cyber-driven society of the Year 2K, when change is moment-to-moment, and impossible to get a handle on. Civilization evolves at the furious pace of the "reply" button, and on the list of necessary human skills, hunting/gathering recedes into the primitive distance, replaced by... what? The size of your zip drive? The ability to read off a screen? To get to a connecting flight?

If nothing else, a new society calls for a new kind of travelogue, something less like "A Year in Provence" and more like what Pico Iyer is "The Global Soul." Iyer (himself a post-national poster boy, with Indian parentage, British upbringing and homes in L.A. and Japan), takes us from dizzying Hong Kong to vibrant Toronto to the massive, gleaming fiefdom of LAX. Everywhere, he is reflecting, attempting with a literary and brightly ironic style to diagnose humanity amongst the rush of culture and information:

"More and more of us may find ourselves in the emotional or metaphysical equivalent of that state we know from railway stations," he muses. "When we're sitting in a carriage waiting to pull out and can't tell... whether we're moving forward or the train next to ours is moving out."

At the Olympics in Atlanta ("the Games... provide as compact and protected a model of our dreams of unity as exists"), as elsewhere in the book, he celebrates diversity without idealizing, without overlooking the consequences. People still carry the ancient prejudices and ideologies of "nation-states," even in "an age that has largely left them behind." In Davos, Switzerland, at the meeting of the World Economic Fund, Iyer makes the necessary concession, noting that now "the rich have the sense that they can go anywhere tomorrow, while 95 percent of the new beings on the planet are among the poor; I worry about the effects of e-mail and transprovincialism, while two-thirds of the people in the world have never used a telephone."

Surely any metaphysical unease, any queasiness felt in pits of stomachs by international businessmen (or men of letters) on transatlantic hops is less pressing an issue than the refugees and the poor, all the luckless millions for whom "globalization" just means that foreign elites have as good a shot at exploiting them as the locals.

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