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Michael Hooker

ON the one hand, the future according to Michael Hooker is an intriguing place. ``You will walk into a McDonald's,'' says Dr. Hooker, the youthful chancellor of the University of Maryland's Baltimore County campus. ``You will say to a very friendly-looking machine, `I'd like a Big Mac, please, and I'd like it cooked to order. I'd like it medium rare, and hold the mayonnaise.' ``The machine will say to you in a very pleasing voice, `That will be $1.59. Would you like anything to drink?' And you say, `Oh, yes, I'd like a Diet Coke.' And the machine says, `That will be $2.35.'

``You deposit your money in any kind of denomination, or you can write it a check. Or probably you'll just speak in a credit card code . . . . And by the time it has finished recording the information, your cooked-to-order Big Mac, microwaved, will be delivered out the slot, and you'll say, `Thank you,' and the machine will say, `Thank you,' in a very pleasant voice, and you'll go away.

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``That's in 10 years. In 20 years, the machine will recognize your voice . . . .''

Slipping off his black loafers and lounging back in an upholstered chair in his 10th-floor office, Hooker expands on his vision, which before our talk is over will reach beyond high-tech to what he calls ``metaphysics.''

It will be, he says, a world of laser-guided cars that locate parking places by satellite positioning, of voice-activated home computers with access to ``every piece of unclassified information in the world.''

By the middle of the next century, it may even be a world in which biotechnology will have retarded aging, engineered away most genetically based diseases, and provided means for the human body to regenerate severed limbs and broken teeth. Pollution may well be solved, as one industry's pollutants become anothers feedstocks; agricultural sufficiency may well arise from new fast-growing, disease-resistant strains of plants; and energy sufficiency may well come about through biologically enhanced methods of fossil-fuel recovery and through biomass conversions of plant material into fuels.

On the other hand, it will be a world that sobers us with an entirely new order of problems, all centered upon one question: What will we do with our leisure time?

``Throughout human history,'' says Hooker, ``most of humanity's time has been occupied with survival.'' When the basic survival questions are answered -- when 21st-century technology has provided all the necessities of food and shelter -- what will people do all day?

Hooker is far more interested in that question than in the futurist particulars of technological progress. He can, of course, spin out any number of gee-whiz scenarios -- some of which, he freely admits, are more probable than others. But what most concerns him is the serious impact of these changes on the human heart and soul -- and the unwillingness, so far, of social and political thinkers to plan for such changes.

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``I foresee a kind of growing intellectual and cultural and ethical anomie,'' he says, drawing on his philosopher's training for a Greek word meaning rootlessness or lack of purpose. He defines it as ``a condition where people have nothing to live for, nothing to commit their lives to -- no sense of meaningful activity in their lives, because they have no sense of meaningfulness in their lives.''

Part of the problem, says Hooker, arises as two modern trends begin to come together. One is the shift, already well under way in America, toward a two-track service-sector economy consisting of highly paid managers and professionals and of low-skilled, low-wage employees. The other is the increasing use of robotics to replace these low-skilled workers with machines.

``I'm not worried that service workers won't be fed and clothed,'' says Hooker. ``They will be. But they won't be service workers anymore. They will be idle. What will they do with their lives? And what in the world could we be doing now to prepare for that day?''

The day, in fact, may not be far off.

Hooker already sees signs of this anomie in the segment of society which, as an educator, he knows best -- the youth culture. He sees it in the prevalence of drugs and in the increases in teen suicide. He also sees it in such physical symbols as the suburban shopping mall.

``I'm a kind of a student of the suburban shopping mall,'' he says. ``They fascinate me. When I go to a strange city on business, if I have an evening free and I have a rental car, sometimes I go to a suburban shopping mall just to absorb the flavor.''

What he finds in malls across the country, he says, is not difference but sameness. And what worries him -- especially among the youth who wander through the malls -- is ``an emptiness in their eyes -- an emptiness that reflects, I think, an emptiness in their lives.''

Hooker sees in the mall a symbol of a central shift in society. Filling young lives `WHEN I was a kid,'' he recalls, ``I worked. I came home; I worked after school. I worked weekends -- had a part-time job, and if I wasn't at my part-time job I was mowing the lawn or taking out the garbage or doing something around the house. I was occupied.

``Kids today don't have that necessity of occupation. So an emptiness creeps in. That doesn't mean that my life was more meaningful than their lives. It's just that I had activity to fill it, so I didn't have time to dwell on the meaninglessness of my life, if you will.''

What worries him today is that young people do not have the mental means to come to terms with either the meaningfulness or the meaninglessness of their lives.

``Dwelling on the meaninglessness of your life,'' he says with the philosopher's conviction of the value of thought, ``is a meaningful activity. What I'm concerned about is the people who don't dwell on the meaninglessness of their lives, or the meaningfulness of it -- who just pursue mindless entertainment. The shopping mall is a contemporary opium. Half of the kids that are there are stoned anyway, but the other half are stoned by the mall. The mall provides a kind of transfixing environment which takes their mind off of whatever their issues are. They walk around -- you look in their eyes, and there's nobody home.''

Is there an answer? Hooker, no pessimist, is convinced that there is -- and that it lies not simply in more and better technology but in what he calls ``metaphysics.''

In a paper delivered at the University of New Hampshire last fall for a conference on universities in the 21st century, Hooker raised the issue of the university's role in preparing students for a changing world.

``The real challenge,'' he told his colleagues, ``is to provide a metaphysics that adequately subtends our changing conception of the universe and our place in it, and our conception of the nature of life and the nature of persons. While these matters are inextricably linked to religion, they will be inescapable for universities in the next century.''

Expanding on that point, Hooker emphasizes that ``we need to think about metaphysics. We need to confront questions on a broad scale that we have never confronted before -- such as `What makes life worth living? What makes it meaningful? What is its human purpose?' And these are, of course, religious questions.'' A sense of values RELIGIOUS, but not necessarily fundamentalist. Hooker, who grew up with what he calls the ``Bible thumping'' fundamentalism of rural Virginia, still loves to listen to fundamentalist preachers on the radio -- because, he says, ``it tells me so much'' about what people are thinking. And he lauds what he calls ``the return to a recognition of a sense of values'' in much of the preaching.

But he notes that the new popularity of fundamentalism can be explained in part by the fact that ``it frames issues in black and white'' and thereby ``removes the necessity for thinking, for reasoning -- and people will do anything to avoid the pain of having to think for themselves.''

Running like an obbligato throughout the interview, in fact, is Hooker's insistence on ``the necessity for thinking.'' There are, he notes, ``few blacks and whites in the world. One of the problems that we have in society, [when] dealing with ethical issues in areas like euthanasia, medical ethics, abortion, et cetera, is that people are not capable of dealing with the complexity of real-world issues. They want things to be black and white. People don't like ambiguity.''

The result, says Hooker, is a widespread failure of truth-telling in public life -- since many issues are inherently ambiguous. Politicians ``need to acknowledge that questions are not as simple as they are framed to be in the media and in the press.''

And that leads Hooker to one of the major items on the 21st century's agenda: the reform of journalism, which he says has ``an incredibily powerful influence over people.'' While he points the most accusatory finger at television news -- which he calls ``pernicious'' because it ``frames everything in terms of the good guys and the bad guys'' -- he is also exercised over print journalism. Grappling with uncertainty `AS an educator, as a public person, I have a responsibility to try to get the media to be more responsible . . . in acknowledging that issues are not framed in black and white -- that everything is vastly more complicated than we want to believe that it is.''

What he is calling for, in fact, is nothing less than a wholesale reform of journalism.

``If people at the everyday, man-on-the-street level are going to come to understand and appreciate and grapple with the uncertainty and the ambiguity of the questions of life,'' he says, ``it is going to come about in part because journalists began to acknowledge what they all know; namely, that the world is not as simple as we tend to portray it to be.''

How can a university respond to that need to ``grapple with the uncertainty''?

Despite Hooker's fascination with technology and the sciences, his ideal curriculum leans strongly in another direction.

``I'd educate everybody in the humanities -- literature, philosophy, poetry,'' he says. Why? Because ``they tell the truth.''

The history of literature, he explains, is ``the history of pointing out that the world is not as simple as it seems, that life is filled with ambiguity and uncertainty, that we deceive ourselves right and left. Literature tells the truth. And if it doesn't tell the truth it's not literature, [it's] propaganda or something else.''

Does that lead him to worry about literacy? Yes, but not -- fittingly -- in a merely black-and-white way.

``You don't have to be literate to be capable of thinking,'' he says. ``Back in the mountains where I grew up in the southwestern part of Virginia, I knew a lot of people who couldn't read and write but were very smart, and could teach me a great deal.''

``We could have a society of illiterate people who think,'' he says. ``The reason for literacy is that it adds meaningfulness to people's lives.''

How? Here, even the philosopher is at a loss for words. ``Reading,'' he says, ``is an encounter with the word.'' And ``the word,'' he explains, ``is a reified entity which has significance in and of itself, quite apart from what it signifies.''

Then, with an almost embarrassed wave of the hand, Hooker apologizes for slipping into the jargon of philosophy:

``There's no way to express that, other than [in] the airy-fairy terms that I just did. But part of what makes us human is that we have words available to us.''

Next: Barbara Tuchman, historian. Oct. 7

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