The view from out there

David McCullough is the author of such works as Truman and The Great Bridge . We asked him to apply a historian's perspective to understanding the ways in which the world is changing today.

Inc.: Where are we now in history?

McCullough: In a transition -- a revolution, if you will -- as important and as far-reaching as the Industrial Revolution. The changes are even greater than we know.

The big difference, it seems to me, is the acceleration of everything. It's not just that information is traveling at the speed of light but that time is being souped up. So our perception of how long things take has to go through a kind of readjustment. Somebody will come up with a new expression, I'm sure. It's not culture shock. It's tempo shock.

Inc.: What are examples of that?

McCullough: The fluctuations in the stock market. And that all information is available everywhere, immediately. What concerns me most is the barrage of rhetoric and advertising stating that information is the all-and-all. The speed with which information can be transmitted and the ubiquitous nature of information today are immensely important -- and exciting -- but information isn't learning. Information doesn't tell us right from wrong. Information isn't wisdom.

If information were learning, you could be educated by memorizing the world almanac. If you did that, you wouldn't be educated. You'd be weird. So all of this constant political chatter today about having computers in every schoolroom and so forth -- that isn't the answer to education. The computer is a tool. It's helpful. But it isn't learning.

I have to be square with you on this. I am low-tech. I don't use a computer. And I don't really see that the human race has improved in the quality of its prose or poetry since the days of the quill pen. So we must not succumb to the hubris of thinking that because we have this miraculous electronic paraphernalia, we are somehow rising nearer to the gods.

Inc.: Was there another time in history when we had a false sense that technology was going to bring us closer to the gods?

McCullough: Sure. The great sea change in life on earth brought about by science and technology took place in the last half of the 19th century and the first quarter of 20th century. Technology and science were changing life all around us, and they are, but they were changing then even more so and in ways that touched the lives of everyone directly, with the advent of the telephone, the elevator, the electric light, photography, the motion picture, the internal-combustion engine, the automobile, the airplane, and so forth.

Most of the advances since then have been, at the fundamental level, improvements on what was developed then. The very crude, jerky black-and-white motion picture developed by Edison was nonetheless the motion picture. The airplane that took off at Kitty Hawk is nothing like the airplane of today. But the airplane of today is still an airplane.

There is an inclination in most people -- and perhaps largely because of the way we've been taught history -- to believe that something is developed or invented, and immediately everything changes. It doesn't happen that way. The Wright Brothers flew their first plane in 1903. It wasn't until 1908 that people were willing to admit that airplanes flew. It takes a while for people not only to realize that these changes are taking place but also to get used to the changes.

Inc.: Are there changes taking place today that we aren't even fully aware of?

McCullough: I'm sure there are. There has to be a lag of maybe 25 or 30 years before you can look back and see what was important. In 1936, for example, most people would have said that the Berlin Olympics and Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times and the abdication of the king for Mrs. Simpson were the important events. In fact, the most important events of that year were probably Niels Bohr's work leading to the announcement that the uranium atom, if split, would produce untold power, and the beginning of the development of rockets at PeenemÃ"nde. Same year. Those were two events that would transform the world, but very few people knew about them. So there's almost certainly something going on. Something we don't know about that will bring immense change maybe has already been introduced.

By and large, what's good about today is that people have more choice in almost everything. I read the other day that in the 1950s, 25% of all the American automobiles on the road were Chevrolets. Think of all the choices in automobiles we have today. Think of the choices that kids have in vocations today. And the freedom of choice is much greater.

Inc.: So there are some good things.

McCullough: Oh, I'm excited. I wouldn't want to live in any other time. It's so interesting. And I can't help but think about what dentistry used to be like.

But there are big warning signs. Be careful we're not being sold a bill of goods about the crucial importance of information as a substitute for learning. Be careful that we don't begin to give less weight to fundamental human needs and virtues. And this pathetic, infantile preoccupation with celebrity is a very disconcerting development. Too much of our commerce is geared toward pandering to an adolescent outlook on life. Bigger is not better. Faster is not necessarily better. Haste can make more than just waste. It can make for an empty head. -- Interviewed by Roger Fillion

For more insight on the current state of small business, see The View From Out There.

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