Remote Possibilities

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Remote Possibilities

Steven Lagerfeld

Editor Steven Lagerfeld introduces the Spring 2012 issue, "The Age of Connection."

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Is it possible anymore to speak of a person being in a “remote location”? A writer I know told me recently of editing an essay on her iPhone while camping in Alaska, and it’s almost commonplace to note that African farmers now check commodity prices on their mobile phones. We’re all familiar with the many everyday efficiencies and pleasures—and anxieties and irritations—that come from being constantly and ever more intricately connected, but what has been the result in the larger sense? Have we been brought any closer together as individuals, groups, or nations?

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, we shape our technologies and then they shape us. But it’s not at all clear how much they shape us, or how quickly. In his essay for this issue’s cover story, “The Age of Connection,” Ethan Zuckerman, a noted observer of the Internet, points out that the new technologies haven’t yet done much to nudge people from their comfortable information pathways. Yes, social media allow people to share great quantities of material, but unless they have unusually curious and wide-ranging friends, little of what is sent their way is likely to broaden their horizons. There still is not much of an audience for news from abroad—for instance, virtually no one in the United States paid attention to the early online posts about the Tunisian street vendor whose fiery protest suicide precipitated the Arab Spring.

Tom Vanderbilt's essay on the impact of the telephone suggests another answer to the “how much, how fast” question: not as much or as fast as you might imagine. Yet Christine Rosen, in comparing the world of the handwritten letter with that of the e-mail, finds that, for better or worse, much has already changed.

“Already” is the operative term, because it suggests more to come. We are only at the beginning of what will be a long process. If we are wise, we will watch as our technologies shape us, and then reshape them according to the lessons we have learned.

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