The Acceleration of Tranquility

by Mark Helprin

     History is in motion, and those moving with it are so caught up that they cannot always see its broad outlines. Like soldiers in battle, they are concerned with objectives rather than principles. Who are these soldiers? They are you. And what are the principles? If you search the past, hindsight makes them easy to see, but in the brightness of the present they are almost invisible. Still, it is possible to catch a fleeting glimpse of them, even if only as alterations in contrast.

     In that spirit, consider the two paradigms that follow, not as you would two spirited debaters but rather two paintings hanging at opposite ends of a gallery. You are in the middle, bathed in natural light, forced by history to judge their color and attraction.

I. August 2016, California

     You are a director of a firm that supplies algorithms for the detection and restoration of damaged molecular memories in organic computation. Previously you specialized in the repair of cosmic ray degradation of atomic lattices in gallium arsenide nanorobotics, but the greater promise of organic replication and the lure of photon interlinking led you in a new direction.

You raised $2 billion, most of which was devoted to the purchase of computers and laser armature looms for the growth and manipulation of organic components. Though your entire company is housed in a single 40,000-square-foot facility and has only 90 employees, it records assets of $9 billion and annual revenue of $32 billion.

     All transactions are accomplished through data links — licensing, sales, billing, remittances, collections, investments. A customer can make a purchase, receive your product, and pay you as fast as he can speak orders to his computer. As your product begins immediately to work for him, the money you've earned begins immediately to work for you, in, perhaps, Czech dormitory bonds that compound interest hourly.

     You go to your headquarters mainly for picnics, and otherwise work at home, as does your wife, who is a partner in a law firm in Chicago, where she has never been. In her study and in yours are giant screens that produce three-dimensional images so vivid that they appear to be real. Your best friend has grown rich writing the software that serves as your secretary. The preparation of documents is done by voice in another program, and the secretary concentrates on planning, accounting, arranging your schedule, and screening what used to be called calls but what are now called apparitions.

     You instruct the secretary to allow your wife's apparition to override all others. She is at a beach in Indonesia, where you will shortly join her. Recently, you and she have quarreled. In virtual sex, in which you both wear corneal lenses that create a perfect illusion of whomever you might want, she discovered that you were entertaining not a commercial prostitutional apparition but an old girlfriend. Hence her early departure for Indonesia.

     But this is August, the season of vacations, and you and she are bound to make up. You are to take a one and one-half hour, suborbital flight to Indonesia, where you will spend several days at the beach in a primitive resort with no screens. Still, you have a backup of email despite a recent tightening of your rejection protocols and a new investment in automated reply software, the chief disadvantage of which is that, when in conversation with other automated reply software, it tends to get overly enthusiastic. You were dismayed lately when you discovered that it and another ARS were building a golf course in Zimbabwe, but there is software for controlling it, and software for controlling the software that controls this, and so on and so forth.

     Though seventy-five messages remain, you must catch your plane, so you instruct your screen to send them to your notebook. You'll take levels one and two coded personal apparitions as well, in the air and even on the winding track that leads to the Indonesian resort.

     As you wait in San Francisco International Airport (having floated there in the Willie Brown Memorial Blimp), you read in your notebook. There are no bookstores, and there are no books, but in the slim leather-bound portfolio is an uplink that gives you access to everything ever published or logged, and in any format. You can call for a dual-language text of Marcus Aurelius, or the latest paper in Malay on particle acceleration. Your reading can be interrupted by the appearance of a friend in your portfolio, a look at the actual weather in Djakarta, a film clip of Lyndon Johnson's inaugural, or, for that matter, anything, summoned by voice, available instantaneously, and billed to your central account.

     "Go to my files," you might say as you sit in the airport, "and get me everything I've said in the last five years about Descartes. I made a remark with a metaphor about the law, coordinates, and virtual prisons. When you get it, put it on the screen in blue. Take a letter to Schultz and file a copy at home and with the office."

     But as you issue, you must also receive, and it never stops. Though the screen of your portfolio is electronically textured to feel like paper, and is as buff or white as flax or cotton, you miss the days of faxes, when you could hold the paper in your hands and when things were a little slower, but you can't go back to them, you can't fall behind, you can't pass up an opportunity, and if you don't respond quickly at all times somebody else will beat you to it, even if you have no idea what it is.

     The world flows at increasingly faster and faster speeds. You must match them. When you were a child, it was not quite that way. But your father and grandfather did not have the power to make things transparent, to be, instantaneously, here or there without constraint. They, unlike you, were the prisoners of mundane tasks. They wrote with pens, they did addition, they waited endlessly for things that come to you instantly, they had far less than do you, and they bowed to necessity, as you do not. You love the pace, the giddy, continual acceleration. Though what is new may not be beautiful, it is marvelously compelling, and your life is lived with the kind of excitement that your forebears knew only in battle and with the ease of which they could only dream.

II. August 1906, Lake Como, Italy

     You are an English politician, a member of Parliament suffering patiently between cabinet posts, on holiday in Italy. In the two days it has taken to reach your destination, you have fallen completely out of touch, although you did manage to pick up a day-old Paris newspaper in Turin. The Times will be arriving a week late, as will occasional letters from your colleagues and your business agent. Your answers to most of their queries will arrive in London only slightly before you yourself return at the end of the month.

     The letters you receive are in ecru and blue envelopes, with crests, stamps reminiscent of the Italian miniaturists, and, sometimes, varicolored wax seals over ribbon. Even before you read them, the sight of the penmanship gives away their authors and may be the cause for comfort, dread, amusement, curiosity, or disgust. And, as you read, following the idiosyncratic, expressive, and imprecise swells and dips like a sailor in a small boat on an agitated sea, the hand of your correspondent reinforces his thoughts, as do the caesuras rhythmically arrayed in conjunction with the need to dip the pen.

     Some of your younger colleagues use fountain pens, and this you can detect in lines that do not thin before a pause only to fatten with a new load of ink. Now and then, a letter will arrive, typewritten. This you associate with the telegraph office, official documents, and things that lean in the direction of function far enough to exclude almost completely the presence of grace — not grace in the religious sense, but in the sense of that which is beautiful and balanced.

     You will receive an average of one letter every two days, fifteen or sixteen in all, and will write slightly more than that. You are a very busy man for someone on holiday, and wish that you were not. Half the letters will be related to governance, the other half to family and friendship. An important letter, written by the prime minister eight days before its reception, will elicit from you a one-page response composed over a period of an hour and three-quarters and copied twice before it assumes final form, for revision and so you may have a record. You will mail it the next morning when you pass the post office during your walk. The prime minister will receive his answer, if he is in London, two weeks after his query. He will consider you prompt.

     During your holiday you will climb hills, visit chapels, attend half a dozen formal dinners, and read many books, several thousand pages all told. If upon reading a classical history you come across a Greek phrase with an unfamiliar word you will have to wait until the library opens, walk there by the lakeside, and consult a Greek lexicon: one and one-half hours. Sitting in your small garden with its view of lake and mountains, you will make notes as you read, and some of these will be incorporated in your letters. Most will languish until your return to London. By the time you look at them in a new season, only a few will seem worthy, and the rest you will gratefully discard.

     During August you will hear music seventeen times. Five times it will have been produced by actual musicians, twelve times by a needle tracing the grooves in a cylinder and echoing songs in extremely melancholy imperfection through a flowerlike horn. You will attend the theater once, in Italian, but you will spend many hours reading Henry V and The Tempest (which you read each summer), and several plays by George Bernard Shaw. In your mind's eye you will see the richest scenes and excitements known to man, and your dreams will echo what you've read, in colors like those of gemstones, but diamond-clear, and with accompaniment in sound as if from a symphony orchestra.

     Your shoes are entirely of leather, your clothes cotton, silk, linen, and wool. You and your wife hired a rowboat and went to a distant outcropping of granite and pine. No one could be seen, so you stripped down to the cotton and swam in the cold fresh water. Her frock clung to her in a way that awoke in you extremely strong sexual desire (for someone your age), and though you made no mention of it in the bright sunlight on the ledge above the lake, later that night your memory of her rising from sparkling water into sparkling sunlight made you lively in a way that was much appreciated.

     Indeed, your memory has been trained with lifelong diligence. You know tens of thousands of words in your own language, in Latin, Greek, French, and German. You are haunted by declensions, conjugations, rules, exceptions, and passages that linger many years after the fact. Calculations, too, built your character in that you were forced to work elaborate equations in painstaking and edifying sequences. As in other things, in mathematics you were made to study not only concept but craft. And, yes, in your letter to the prime minister, you repeated — with honorable alteration — a remark you made some time ago regarding Descartes. At first you could not remember it, but then you did, because you had to.

     Necessity you find to be your greatest ally, an anchor of stability, a pier off of which, sometimes, you may dive. Discipline and memory are strengths that in their exercise open up worlds. The lack of certain things when you want them makes your desire keener and you better rewarded when eventually you get them.

     You cannot imagine a life without deprivations, and without the compensatory power of the imagination, moving like a linnet with apparent industry and certain grace, to strengthen the spirit in the face of want. Your son went out to India, and you have neither seen him nor heard his voice for two years. Thus, you have learned once more the perfection of letters, and when you see him again, worlds will have turned, and for the best. It was like that when you were courting your wife. Sometimes you did not see her for weeks or months. It sharpened your desire and deepened your love.

     You have learned to enjoy the attribute of patience in itself, for it slows time, honors tranquility, and lets you savor a world in which you are clearly aware that your passage is but a brief candle.

     I must confess that I am deeply predisposed in favor of the second paradigm, and in my view the vast difference between the two is attributable not to some inexplicable superiority of morals, custom, or culture, but rather to facts and physics, two things that, in judging our happiness, we tend to ignore in favor of an evaporative tangle of abstractions.

     Unlike machines, we are confined to an exceedingly narrow range of operations. Though we may marvel at the apparent physical diversity of the human race, it is, given its billions of representatives, astonishingly homogeneous. Of these billions, only a handful rise above seven feet. Not a one is or has been over nine feet. And the exceedingly low standard deviation in form is immense compared to that which applies to function. There is no escape from the fact that after a set exposure to radiation; absent a given number of minutes of oxygen; at, above, or below a particular temperature; or subject to a specific G-force, we will expire. No one will ever run the mile in two minutes, crawl through a Cheerio, or memorize the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

     Because of our physical constraints we require a specific environment and a harmony in elements that relate to us and of which we are often unaware. The Parthenon is a very pleasing building, and Mozart's Fifth Piano Concerto a very pleasing work, because each makes use of proportions, relations, and variations that go beyond subjective preference, education, and culture into the realm of universal appeal conditioned by universal human requirements and constraints.

     A life lived with these understood, even if vaguely, will have the grace that a life lived unaware of them will not. When expanding one's powers, as we are in the midst of now doing by many orders of magnitude in the mastery of information, we must always be aware of our natural limitations, mortal requirements, and humane preferences.

     For example, the Englishman at Lake Como, unlike his modern counterpart, is graciously limited in time and space. Because the prime minister is in London or at Biarritz, the prime minister cannot sit down with him and discuss. In fact, during his fictional stay, only one of his colleagues visited, and spent several hours on the terrace with him in the bright but cool sunshine. All others were kept away by the constraints of time and distance.

     The man of '16, on the other hand, is no longer separated from anyone. Any of his acquaintances may step into his study at will — possibly twenty, thirty, forty, or fifty a day. If not constantly interrupted, he is at least continually subject to interruption, and thus the threshold of what is urgent drops commensurately. No matter how urgent or pressing a matter, the prime minister cannot sit down with the tranquil politician. No matter how petty a matter, a coworker can appear to the man of '16 ... in a trice. Screening devices or not, the modern paradigm is one of time filled to the brim. Potential has always been the overlord of will, and the man of the first paradigm finds himself distracted and drawn in different directions a hundred times a day, whereas the British statesman is prodded from without only once or twice.

     Were we gods, we might be able to live well without rest and contemplation, but we are not and we cannot. Whereas our physical capacities are limited, those of the machine are virtually unlimited. As the capabilities of the machine are extended, we can use it — we imagine — to supplement our own in ways that will not strain our humanity. Had we no appetite or sin, this might be true, but our desires tend to lead us to excess, and as the digital revolution has quickly progressed, we have not had time to develop the protocols, manners, discipline, and ethics adequate for protecting us from our newly augmented powers.

     The history of this century has been, as much as anything else, the process of encoding information: at first analog, in photographic emulsions, physical and magnetic patterns in needle grooves or on tapes, waves in packets blurted into the atmosphere, or in the action of X-rays recording paths of varying difficulty through tissues of various densities on plates of constant sensitivity. With binary coding, electrons as messengers, and the hard-fought mathematical adaptation necessary for control, we can now do almost everything with information. We may, for example, look through billions of pages in an instant, or process and match data fast enough so that a cruise missile can make a "mental" picture of the terrain it overflies at least as impressive as that of an eagle.

     And because potential has always been the overlord of will, and as the means of conveyance hunger for denser floods of data, words have been gradually displaced by images. The capacious, swelling streams of information have brought little change in quality and vast overflows of quantity. In this they are comparable to the ornamental explosions of the baroque, when a corresponding richness of resource found its outlet mainly in decorating the leaner body of a previous age.

     All the king's horses and all the king's men of multimedia cannot improve upon a single line of Yeats. One does not need transistors, clean alternating current, spring-loaded keys, and ten-million-hour "programs" for writing a note or a love letter — and yet this is how we are beginning to write notes and love letters, going even to the extreme of doing so on complicated electronic pads that tediously strain to imitate a sheet of paper and fail for want of simplicity.

     If by now you think that I am decrying the digital revolution, that I am a sort of Luddite Percy Dovetonsils who would recommend for you and your children the cold water, wood fires, and Latin declensions of my brick-and-iron childhood, you had better think again. For I understand and have always understood that the heart of Western civilization is not the abdication of powers but rather meeting the challenge of their use. And, of course, it would take a person of less than doltish imagination not to be attracted by the wonders and aware of the benefits of all this.

     The British statesman of the second paradigm might well have lost a son or daughter to a disease that could have been detected early and with precision by computerized tomography or any of the other digitally dependent diagnostic techniques of modern medicine. The Titanic, six years in the future, might not have gone down — with him aboard, perhaps — had real-time thermal maps of the North Atlantic been available to its captain. And so on: you know the litany if you have read an IBM annual report.

The impossibility of abdication is also due to the necessity of racing with the genie after it has exited the bottle. Although antediluvian nuclear protestors have not, apparently, even a clue, they are on the wrong track. Nuclear weapons are now small enough, reliable enough, simulable enough, and widespread enough to be a rather mundane constant in calculations of the military balance. The guaranteed action and volatility is in command, control, communications, intelligence, and guidance. Digitally dependent advances will enable submunitions scattered in great numbers over a future battlefield to hide, wait, seek, fight, and maneuver. For example, rather than a platoon of tank-killing infantry, a flight of submunitions will someday be dropped or fly with little detection very far behind enemy lines, where it will hide in the treetops or the brush and await patiently for as long as required the approach of an appropriate enemy target, such as a tank, which it will then dutifully pursue, engage, and destroy, its reflexes as fast as light.

     With the passage of each day, a first nuclear strike becomes more and more feasible. The possibility of real-time terminal guidance as a gift from satellites to maneuverable reentry vehicles makes any kind of mobile deterrent just a temporary expedient. Even submarines, nuclear stability's ace in the hole, will no longer be secure bastions for nuclear weapons, as thermal and radar imaging from satellites picks up surface perturbations upwelling from their undersea tracks, and as the panoply of antisubmarine warfare is refined, empowered, sensitized, and mounted on ballistic missiles that will be able to reach any area of ocean within minutes.

     It is possible that in some war of the not-so-distant future a combatant will electronically seize control of enemy command structures and direct his opponent's arsenal onto his opponent. Eventually, all battles will be entirely computational. The "arms competition" of this sort has already begun. To step out of it at this point would be to lose it, and, with it, everything else.

The attraction is strong, the need is real, the marvels truly marvelous, and there is no going back. The speed with which all is taking place is almost a self-organizing principle. Like many changes in history, it seems to have its own internal logic, and it mainly pulls us after it. Why then do we need an ethos, a set of principles, and an etiquette specifically fashioned for the rest of this revolution that will (I predict) follow with stunning force the mere prologue through which we are now living?

     Of course, one always needs ethics, principles, and etiquette, but now more than ever do we need them as we leave the age of brick and iron. For the age of brick and iron, shock as it might have been to Wordsworth, was friendlier to mankind than is the digital age, more appropriate to the natural pace set by the beating of the human heart, more apprehensible in texture to the hand, better suited in color to the eye, and, in view of human frailty, more forgiving in its inertial stillness.

     Put quite simply, the life of the British statesman was superior because he was allowed rest and reflection, his contemplation could seek its own level, and his tranquility was unaccelerated. While he was in his time a member of a privileged class unburdened by many practical necessities, today most Americans have similar resources and freedoms, and yet they, like their contemporaries in even the most exalted positions, have chosen a different standard, closer to that of the first paradigm.

     The life of the exemplary statesman, then dependent upon a large staff of underpaid servants, and children working in mines and mills (if not in Lancashire, then certainly in India), is now available to almost anyone. Even if in one's working hours one does not sit in the cabinet room at No.10 Downing Street, one can have a quiet refuge, dignified dress, paper, a fountain pen, books, postage, Mozart with astonishing fidelity and ease, an excellent diet, much time to one's self, the opportunity to travel, a few nice pieces of furniture and decoration, medical care far beyond what the British statesman might have dreamed of, and, yes, a single-malt scotch in a crystal glass, for less than the average middle-class income. If you think not, then add up the prices and see how it is that people with a strong sense of what they want, need, and do not require can live like kings of a sort if they exhibit the appropriate discipline and self-restraint.

     Requisite, I believe, for correcting the first paradigm until it approximates the second, and bringing to the second (without jeopardizing it) the excitements and benefits of the first, are the discipline, values, and clarity of vision that tend to flourish as we grapple with necessity and to disappear when by our ingenuity we float free of it.

     The law itself can be mobilized to protect the privacy and dignity of the individual according to the original constitutional standard of the founders and what they might expect. Even now, that standard has been violated enough to make inroads on enlightened democracy, which depends first and foremost upon the sanctity of individual rights. As if they could foresee the unforeseeable, the founders laid down principles that have served to prevent the transformation of individual to manipulable quantity, of citizen to subject. It does not matter what convenience is sacrificed in pursuit of this. Convenience is, finally, nothing, and even destructive. The standard must be restored, for it is slipping too fast. Bluntly, there are practices and procedures that legislation must end, and databases now extant that it must destroy, in a deliberate and protective step back. Revolutions and revolutionaries tear down walls. Though some walls are an affront to human dignity, others protect it. I do not want my life history in the hands of either Craig Livingstone or Walt Disney, thank you very much.

     Quite apart from the reach of the law is the voluntary reformation of educational practices. Is the reader aware of the immense proportion of this country's academic energies devoted to the study of off-the-shelf software? Terrified lest their children be computer illiterate, lemming parents have pushed the schools into a computer frenzy in which students spend years learning to use Windows and WordPerfect. This is much like Sesame Street, which, instead of waiting until a child is five and teaching him to count in an afternoon, devotes thousands of hours drumming it into him during his underdeveloped infancy. But while numbers will remain the same, fifth-graders will, when they get to graduate school, have no contact with Windows 95. The "teaching" of computer in the schools may be likened to a business academy in the 1920s founded for the purpose of teaching the telephone: "When you hear the bell, pick up the receiver, place it thusly near your face, and say 'Hello?'"

     Basic computer literacy is a self-taught subject requiring no more than a week. Ordinary literacy, however, requires twenty years or more, and that is only a beginning. And yet the schools are making of these two — unrelated — things a vast and embarrassing spoonerism. In the schools computers should be tools for the study of other subjects, not a subject in themselves. The masters of the digital world will be, not today's students who will have spent their high school years learning Lotus 1-2-3, but those who will guide the future of computation at the molecular and atomic levels where they will find it when they are adults, having devoted hard study to physics, chemistry, and mathematics.

     In the same vein, but with almost biblical implications, is the necessity of making certain distinctions. Most multimedia is appalling for several reasons. It endeavors to do the integrative work that used to be the province of the intellect, and that, if it is not in fact accomplished by the intellect, is of absolutely no value. It fails to distinguish between entertainment and education, style and substance, image and fact. It integrates promiscuously, blurring in the addled minds that it addles the differences between things that are different. It removes as far as it possibly can the element of labor from learning, which is comparable, in my view, to making a world without gravity, drinking a milk shake without milk, or living in an iron lung.

     Whenever man opens a new window of power he imagines that he can do without the careful separations, distinctions, and determinations mandated by the facts of his existence and his mortal limitations. And whenever he does this he suffers a terrible degradation that casts him back even as he imagines himself hurtling forward.

     Put simply, I want the O.E.D. on my computer, I want everything in the Library of Congress, I want great search engines, fuzzy logic, and programs that do statistical analysis, but I do not want multiple-choice television programs, and neither should you, for the good of us all. I'm not sure if I want email, but I'm certain that I do not want my contact with my fellow man to proceed mainly through his imagination — no matter how precise — in the fluorescence behind a glass plate. An example I might cite is that if you sail you really need wind and water: the idea and depiction of them are not sufficient. So with human presence: reality and actuality have their attractions and advantages.

     In regard to this — the question of man and his image — whereas the Englishman has the exquisite memory of his wife emerging in wet cotton from the cold water of the lake into the Alpine sunshine, and whereas his relations with her must be based on subtlety and restraint, the man of '16 on his way to Indonesia will be able to graft by virtual reality any image he pleases onto the tactile base of his wife's body. This and its variants have been in the dreams of mankind at least since Leda, and Pygmalion, and sex is undoubtedly responsible for much of the momentum of virtual reality.

     Many varieties of sensual manipulation will come to pass, and will be promoted as ways to refresh and save marriage, but they will, if they are embraced, entirely destroy marriage. The saving graces and fragile institutions of our humanity depend upon our humanity itself, which in turn depends absolutely upon the rejection and discipline of many of our appetites. We have many a resolution that separates us from the other animals, many a custom, practice, and taboo, and if we do away with these in the pursuit of power or the imitation of time-and-space-flouting divinity, we will become a portion for foxes.

     The revolution that you have made is indeed wonderful, powerful, and great, and it has hardly begun. But you have not brought to it the discipline, the anticipation, or the clarity of vision that it, like any vast augmentation in the potential of humankind, demands. You have been too enthusiastic in your welcome of it, and not wary enough. Some of you have become arrogant and careless, and, quite frankly, too many of you at the forefront of this revolution lack any guiding principles whatsoever or even the urge to seek them out. In this, of course, you are not alone. Nor are you the first. But you must. You must fit this revolution to the needs and limitations of man, with his delicacy, dignity, and mortality always in mind. Having accelerated tranquility, you must now find a way to slow it down.

[Forbes Magazine, December 1996]