I take a seat by the window of the train, my eyes fixated on a monochromatic landscape. The smoke stacks tell the story of a steel steal of all things natural, replacing tradition with movement and space with efficiency. It’s the color of a photograph, all value and no color.
I am sitting with a pencil, sketching on an iTablet. (Don’t worry, I’m not a convert just yet. My wife loaned me hers, because it’s less bulky than my notebook) I’m sketching what I remember of my father. I could capture it better on a photograph, but I’m less in the mood to capture and more in the mood to create. I have this lingering sense that capturing is part of the problem. We are all captive by the monochrome value of industry.
Besides, my whole purpose in sketching is to remember my father for who he was, so that I don’t forget him after viewing the casket. Still, I’m distracted. I look out the window. Steel tracks clawing into the tender earth, a tattoo of convenience, taken in a parlor when we were all too drunk on novelty to know the difference. It was a Faustian exchange promising instant connections and all the while losing the connection to all that was once sacred – the land, the dirt, community, family.
We will someday wake up with the hangover and convince ourselves that what we really need is a newer fix. We’ll grow nostalgic for the railroad, using it for children’s stories and decorating devices, while we push forward with newer devices to flatten the world. We already have horseless carriages, replacing the horse with raw power of a combustible engine.
I imagine that in another half century, we will find a way to fly. We will be Icarus, pushing toward the sun, going further from the ground, detached in a steel-winged cage, stripping away the boundaries of space and time. We’ll find ways, no doubt, to extend portability so that even the telegraph seems quaint and so that the phonograph feels static. Someday we’ll have the world at the palm of our hands without questioning whether one should compress the globe so easily. We will find Babel without a blink and we’ll marvel not at the power we possess but at the novelty we create.
It’s an age of Pi, permanently and randomly marching forward, each step dividing the finite infinitely. We had no need of seconds until we created the railroad. What will we divide next?
* * *
A man sits next to me and asks me what I do for a living. We begin talking about teaching and I share my vision for my classroom, complete with photographs and a dark room, an area for phonographs, a working telegraph and most of all pencils for every student.
“I want a twentieth century classroom,” I explain.
“You can’t wait three years for that?” he asks.
“I want a classroom that will be relevant in the industrial age.”
“Oh, like a flat classroom.”
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
“One that connects to the world. Columbus proved that the world is round and now we’re proving that the world is flat. It’s progress. We’re being united into a global village.”
I’m not about to argue with him on the Columbus point. Just about all of antiquity knew that the world was a sphere. But I’m struck by the word “progress.” It is progress, no doubt. Progress in terms of progressing, in terms of novelty and kitsch and pushing toward a climax without questioning the resolution. But it’s not progress I’m after right now. It’s permanence – the kind that doesn’t exist with the (temporary) nature of a telegraph and railroads and pencils.
I like the notion of a global village. I like the idea of my students communicating via telegraph and telephone with students across the globe. A part of me really hopes that technology can bridge the barriers of culture and politics and lead to peace. A flat world might just do the trick.
* * *
Two days later, I am standing on the flat Kansas earth, spade in my hand and tears on my face. It is, in a sense, a vacation, an escape, if you will, not away from reality, but back to reality. The cool fertile earth calls for a return from where we came. I am burying the dead, refusing to outsource the job to some stranger with no need of closure. Our economy is built on separation of labor, but in this moment, I won’t be ruled by economic norms.
The land propels me back into a narrative. I know the people, though I have changed by the flattening, monochromatic forces of industry. I know the story, from exposition to climax and I’m yearning for resolution. I grasp for the theme, having a hunch that it can’t be found in a telegraph or a photograph or any other type of graph.
Global village? On a train it sounds so eloquent, but now it’s just an oxymoron.
I want my students to use the technology, but I don’t want a flat classroom or a flat world or flat learning. Let them learn locally before they go global. Let them know their backyard before they tackle the world. Industry turned my world gray. The trains already etched their name into the ground. When I stand beside my little hometown, I’m not so sure I’m ready for it to be flattened as well.