When Centuries Collide

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In Shanghai, just behind an area where elderly couples gather each day at dawn to go through the ghostly motions of tai chi, cranes are busy erecting the world's tallest building, to go with the tallest television tower in Asia and the largest department store on the continent. In downtown Toronto, on a jam-packed sidewalk, a blue-robed Chinese monk is knocking clappers ceremoniously together. Amid all the minglings of our mishmashed global order, the most confusing ones often arise not when cultures clash but when centuries collide, with their different senses of time. The modern Everyplace is the wall of a luxury hotel, where clocks show seven different time zones all at once.
Throughout the century now ending, the trade balance of tenses has been a simple one: America has exported tomorrow around the world--not just in the form of the latest machines, youthful trends and state-of-the-art Star Wars visions, but also in a born-again optimism native to the young Republic of Hope. The more traditional cultures of the world, in turn, have brought into America pieces from the past--Ayurvedic medicine, say, or tai chi--and, more deeply, a sense of community and continuity that has breathed new life into the old-fashioned American values of family loyalty and hard work. In cultures, as in households, the old pass on their wisdom and the young bring their reviving innocence.The problem comes, however, when past and future converge on the present moment and fight it out for supremacy. The old habitually say that everything was better when they were young--let's go back. The young are by nature sure that everything will be better when they come of age--let's go forward. In the former Yugoslavia, in Somalia, in the Middle East, America has come in saying, Make a fresh start! And those caught in their ancestral rivalries reply, How can we make a pact with the future until we have made a peace with the past? During the war in Vietnam, an American culture of the individual, which thinks in terms of months, came up against an older Asian culture that sees identity in terms of a collective and thinks in terms of centuries.

Pundits tell us that the central division in our transnational world is between the slow cultures of the plow and the fast ones of the microchip, the gap between them accelerating at an unprecedented rate. But what is more of a vexation in our modern times--a temporal Tower of Babel, you could call it--is that everything's mixed up: fast and slow are present in every country, and often in every household. Ancient civilizations, as in India and China, are eager to invite the future to stay, so long as it doesn't interfere with the way things have always been; software technicians in Silicon Valley--many of Indian or Chinese descent--try to bring neighborhood to a virtual, borderless world, even as their Hindu parents are cursing Sikhs, or their Chinese uncles are debating about Mao Zedong. As James Gleick explains in his sobering, brilliant new book Faster, a man with a watch knows what time it is, but a man with two watches is never sure.

The single biggest strangeness of the century we're leaving is that it has been shaped, to a startling extent, by a technology that encourages us to believe progress is good in itself, and by a global power, the world's youngest, that is more interested in where it's going than where it has been. In a recent commentary for the New York Times, U.S. President Bill Clinton wrote that his Alliance for Progress is pledged to elevate hope over fear and tomorrow over yesterday. Rousing words, but who's to say that tomorrow is better than yesterday, those in Sri Lanka or Peru might ask. And why should we put hope (based on what might happen) over fear (based on what palpably has happened)? It isn't self-evident that mankind is really progressing, at a level deeper than technology, any more than it is that any of us is wiser than our parents.

As the clock ticks down toward the millennium, we find ourselves, more than ever, doing the splits--with one foot racing toward the future and the other firmly rooted in the past. (Paradoxically, that millennium clock is moving more and more of us to dwell on the past, our anchor.) Fast cultures fret over Y2K and slower ones, some even having their own calendars (in Nepal or Ethiopia, say), hardly acknowledge that a new millennium is coming at all. The jangledness of inhabiting several time-frames at once is the hallmark of our jet-lagged age. The clappers bang together on the sidewalk in Toronto, but they mark a clock without a face.