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Third, as the machine defers to the modem, we become more efficient, more flexible and more vulnerable all at once. The nation's wiring stretches everywhere, and the jobs chase the circuits. Just as big manufacturers have declared that it is every bit as reasonable to build cars in Marysville, Ohio, as in Detroit, it's O.K. to manage a portfolio out of your ranch in Gunnison, Colo. Every Chamber of Commerce is wooing a software company, beguiled by the vision of a growth industry with no need for loading docks or pollution controls. And yet each new story about Internet predators and database snoopers makes us wonder at what point information becomes a weapon as well as a tool, and at what point the invasion we most fear will be the invasion of our privacy. A divorce lawyer in Missouri says a leading cause of divorce in his area is E-mail.
Finally, the most visible change of all is the prosperity that is seeping even into places where hope and confidence have rarely abided in this generation. The joke in West Virginia is that the state flower is the satellite dish, a dark gray Primestar pansy pulling reruns of Julia Child down into Quiet Dell. In Hutchinson, Kans., where land values are soaring, the homeowners who worry about "drive-bys" aren't talking about shootings; they are frightened of tax assessments performed without actual inspections. The most common road sign coast to coast seems to be NOW HIRING.
Judging by the numbers alone, the economy is buoyant enough to make the country light-headed, and it is easy to find giddy new millionaires--800,000 newly minted in 1996--paying cash for $3 million homes on the waterfront in Tahoe, Nev., and then knocking them down to build bigger ones. The mayor of Belpre, Ohio, refers to his town as "the Beverly Hills of Appalachia" and boasts that there are so many good new jobs in the plastics industry inflating his tax base that his city just annexed 500 acres, becoming, instantly, 40% bigger. It's getting hard to find a town where you can't buy a latte.
These happy economies are born of a brutal efficiency. American business has downsized, outsourced, re-engineered and simply worked harder, reaping huge productivity gains that economists just 10 years ago thought impossible. Even mercy can be cutthroat: in Bedford, Ind., where rival hospitals would rather fight than merge, the police department at times has to step in to ensure that one institution does not drive off with a patient who's supposed to go to the other. A West Virginia coal mine that was producing 3 million tons a year shuts down, costing hundreds of the best union jobs in the county because it lost a bidding war to a nonunion company by cents on the ton. "The fact is, people here are going to have to change or die," says David Rubenstein, a local businessman who witnessed the competition, "and they don't want to change."