Wednesday, May 5, 2010


In my senior year in college, my final assignment in American Political Thought class was to write a Utopia – “America As It Could and Should Be.” So I sketched a (to me at least) charming vision of an America that combined the best (or what I then imagined to be the best) of the fashionable ideas of the early 1970s with particular personal hankerings of my own. The America that I imagined was a society in which citizens were represented according to 3 identities – regional (one’s local community), tribal (one’s ethnic community), and "guild" (one’s work community). Remember that this was the decade of such best-sellers as The Greening of America and The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics!
Shades of Rousseau, my utopian America was also a society high on symbolic participation – public neighborhood banquets on Sundays, civic parades, etc. It also had a King (reflecting my pseud0-medieval views on the perennial value of sacral kingship), whose job was to preside over the “dignified” dimension of public life. It also had an established Church, and (in an obvious nod to my own ethnic heritage) Columbus Day was its principal national holiday. Reflecting the emerging environmental consciousness of the time, it also embodied a serious ambivalence about technology. Airplanes were used to connect coastal cities with the rest of the outside world, and high speed railroads linked communities throughout the country. Cars, however, were completely prohibited.

My ambivalent feelings about technology reflected in that undergraduate paper have persisted. I still despise cars and prefer trains. (My fondness for air conditioning, however, would obviously disqualify me from any “green” pretensions in the area of energy!) Meanwhile, a whole new technological frontier has been passed that was simply beyond my undergraduate imagination in the 1970s. I used a personal computer for the first time in 1994, the internet in 1995, bought my first cell phone in 2001, and upgraded to a blackberry in 2009. Those dates do not suggest someone eager to embrace every new “cool” technology as soon as it became available, but they do suggest a willingness eventually to learn to play according to modern life’s latest rules.

Like many in my generation, I remember fondly an earlier, simpler age when we all watched the same network news, before cable TV had fragmented (and polarized) our society into separate niche markets. On the other hand, 90% of my TV watching today is on cable.

All these feelings have been stirred up in me again this week by an unexpected, belated birthday gift – a Kindle. A lifelong reader and unrepentant book-lover, I may be both an obvious candidate for a Kindle and at the same time the sort of person who on his own would have been in no real rush to acquire one. If nothing else, my age and my vocation ought to make me resistant to any ostensible “coolness” factor involved in possessing such novelties. And yet, once one starts using such toys, it becomes clear that they possess a certan addictive charm.


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