Dec 27, 2008


The future of mankind, if we have a future, rests most securely in the arms of a particular kind of woman, a phenomenon of the postcolonial world, never seen before in history. Let’s call her Femina complexa. But you’d be wrong to think complexity is her most salient feature. “Complexo” in Latin means “encompass,” or “embrace,” and the woman whom I entrust with our future prosperity embraces the world.

I first met such women in my travels abroad: an opera-loving waif with a nose ring in Zurich, a bartender in Chiang Mai who asked me out for a drink, a Mongolian slogging through Europe with a suitcase twice her size. But then I noticed them at home as well, as drug reps in my uncle’s medical practice, from Chandigarh and Manila, as postdocs from Poland and South Korea, as homegrown prodigies with Facebook pages filled with snapshots from Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu.

These women are very much individuals, and that’s what makes them interesting. But they fall into a class nevertheless, and it was only after many years that I began to realize their numbers were greater than it seemed, and growing. It’s because they don’t fall into the usual categories that they’ve been ignored as a demographic. Though they are usually in their twenties and thirties and from middle or upper-class families, they come from all nations, all ethnicities, all religions. What unites them are subtler yet perhaps more consequential markers not found on pollsters’ questionnaires. Most notably, while they are all daughters and many are wives and mothers, they don’t define themselves by their social relationships but by what they do. It wasn’t so long ago that even in America women formally called themselves by their husband’s names, such as Mrs. Harry Smith. But Femina complexa cultivates her own identity, even when raised in such traditional societies as India and China. She embraces learning, she is enthusiastic, peripatetic, optimistic, energetic, opportunistic. Above all she is tolerant, often marrying outside her group. But she is a smiling revolutionary, not a rebel at the barricades.

And this is why she is the best chance for our future. The last three centuries were revolutionary ones, but our planet has become too small and our weapons too large for fanatics who want to set the calendar back to zero. What we need are legions like the Indian woman who can find a way to wear jeans, marry a German, get her MBA and still go home for Diwali.

Dec 4, 2008


In January 1815 General Andrew Jackson defeated the British at the Battle of New Orleans in what is known as the War of 1812. Unfortunately peace had been declared at a conference in Belgium more than two weeks earlier, but news of the treaty would not reach Louisiana until February. The speed of life then was four miles an hour, the speed of a man on foot. Occasionally it might rise to ten miles an hour, the speed of a man on horseback, or the speed of the newly invented steamboat traveling downstream. Localized innovations, such as Native American smoke signals to communicate between hilltops, or narrow spyglasses used by ship captains to peer a minute or two into the future, or the Mongolian pony express for military communications contributed only modest gains to the speed of their age and were of limited utility. This was before Morse’s telegraph. If you wanted news from the wider world you had to send someone there and wait for them to come back.

Now the world comes to us. Electromagnetic waves rush to our TV’s at the speed of light, 186,000 miles per second. Radio waves for our radios and microwaves for our mobile phones also travel at light speed. When we surf the web we are slowing down, but not much. When navigating by internet or simply using our computers, or plugging in appliances we are living at the speed of electricity, about one-third that of light.

And when we simply must go out we drive at sixty-five miles per hour, or take trains that can travel at speeds twice that, or fly at five hundred miles per hour.

When an elderly Victor Hugo took his first train ride he was shocked by the speed, though he wasn’t even traveling twenty miles per hour. He speculated on the adverse effects these dangerous new machines would have on the human body. But we can’t get enough of speed. In our leisure time we plummet on roller coasters, jump out of planes, race down mountains on skis or snowboards in winter and on bicycles after the snow melts. Beach resorts tell us we need time to regenerate and we hurry to clear our desks, hurry our kids through breakfast, and try to hurry through airport security, all for a few hours on a plastic lounge chair.

All this speed should get us where we want to go faster. But where do we want to go? So many of us don’t go anywhere. We literally spin our wheels on exercise bikes, we rush into marriages and rush out, we march across states like Sherman’s army for new lovers, new jobs, we shock ourselves and others for the mere stimulation, as if the electricity that permeates our civilization weren’t jolting enough. And we document for what we assume will be all eternity our trivialized lives with ever faster media. At one time our lives looked back at us at the speed it took an artist’s paint to dry. Then came the camera with its silver plate and dark room, then celluloid film and twenty-four hour processing, then one-hour prints, then digital cameras with their instantaneous images on LED screens, then exponential memory upgrades, so that we now need software to view the images for us because even living at the speed of light and electricity, of planes and automobiles and speedboats and skateboards, we still don’t have time to watch it all.

So where has it gotten us, all this speed? We can’t slow down for fear of falling off the world. But we’ll never catch up, no matter how fast we go. Because the more we come to expect from life, the more life expects from us.

If the War of 1812 were fought today General Jackson would learn of the Treaty of Ghent by telephone, and his troops could watch the live press conference via television or internet. A meaningless battle could have been averted. But the speed of life runs both ways, and the American negotiators, flush with intelligence from Jackson’s camp, might not have signed the treaty at all. Floods of information and disinformation might have caused an escalation of the war rather than it’s brisk termination.

Our heads are whirling with noise.

We should be dizzy from so much speed. And we are.