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A Look Back, a Look Forward, and a Bow

SEVEN years ago, when this ``Perspectives'' column began, the Reagan years were in full swing. Defense spending was up. Gasoline prices, once extravagant, were down at last. America, we heard, was ``back.'' Overseas, a pre-Gorbachev Soviet Union was in a state of bristling stagnation. Eastern Europe was a gray blur - while Western Europe, rich with potential but riven with turf wars, was in a kind of holding pattern. And while specialists were warning us about the growing vibrancy of Japan and the Far East, the public was yet to be convinced. A dangerous world, yes, but oddly stable: Absent a nuclear holocaust, 1993 promised to look a lot like 1983, only brighter. Now, as this column comes to a close and I depart for a leave of absence, the world is a remarkably different place. America being ``back,'' it now appears, also meant America being greedy and selfish. Funds saved from defense cuts will disappear into the vortex of the savings and loan industry bailout. The Soviets and Eastern Europeans are in a nearly uncontrollable whirl of activity. Western Europe suddenly seems on the brink of economic union.

And Japan is now looking over its own shoulder as other Asian nations come roaring up from behind. Less dangerous, true, but also less predictable: Few dare extrapolate the geopolitical outlines of 2000 from the data available in 1990.

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Despite the uncertainty, two major issues seem sure to shape the next decade:

Technology. Some of the obvious technologies - in transportation, medicine, agriculture, and energy - won't be the ones that matter. They'll simply make it easier to do what we already do. What matters will be the communication technologies. They will transform lifestyles the way the automobile did earlier in this century, in a change that broke up cities, dissolved small towns, and led to new forms of employment, romance, homemaking, and leisure.

In the automobile age, the operative adverb was ``where'': Location was crucial to human endeavor. In the age of immediate communication - with every individual having a personal, lifetime phone number and a wallet-sized portable phone, with books giving way to book-shaped, leather-bound screens tied by radio to vast data-bases, and with much of the work once done at the office or the factory able to be done in our computerized homes - the operative adverb will be ``what.'' What you know how to do will matter greatly. Where you choose to do it will be relatively insignificant.

Values. As issues of conscience and morality become big media stories, the 1990s will become the Age of Ethics. The reason has less to do with noble aspirations than sheer survival. These new technologies will so leverage our decisionmaking that individuals void of ethical constraints, pressing buttons on new-age phones, will be able to wreak unprecedented damage. We've already seen Chernobyl, the Soviet nuclear reactor where two smart, competent, and apparently amoral engineers performed an unauthorized experiment one night four years ago that spread radioactive fallout costing dozens of lives and billions of dollars. Point to remember: Compared with tomorrow's sophisticated technologies, Chernobyl was a technological dinosaur.

Put these two trends together and the question of the decade emerges: Where will we get designers and engineers who are ethically sound enough to run such new technologies? Back in the 1960s, we began to imagine that everyone's ethics was his or her own business - that you alone could decide what you thought was right. By the year 2000 that luxury of relativistic thinking will be in collapse. It will be increasingly obvious that ethics is central to our very survival.

As I leave to write a book and establish a think tank on global ethics, I'll be watching these trends with great interest. So will you, the readers. I owe you a great debt of gratitude for your attentiveness - your letters, comments, and insights - these last seven years. I only wish there were space enough in a newspaper column to make a formal bow.

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