Metaphor for the Power of Imagination

May 10, 1994|By ROBERT BURRUSS

KENSINGTON — A fellow named Dave Foreman, who was and may still be the head of the radical environmental organization Earth First!, used to call humanity a cancer of the earth.

The cancer metaphor is apt, but there are other metaphors that fit the apparently uncontrolled growth of our species. For instance, the metaphor of humanity as the eyes and hands of the earth also appeals to many of us mortal members of our potentially immortal species.

In a new song by The Who, part of the lyric includes the electronically synthesized voice of the increasingly disembodied mind of Stephen Hawking saying, ''For millions of years, human beings lived like the animals, and then something happened that released the power of our imaginations.''

Indeed, we human beings are the only species in nearly 4 billion years of biological evolution to have moved matter away from the earth, and we are the first to build planetary-scale networks of speed-of-light communication.

A cancer, maybe. Planetary-scale organism seems, however, a more attractive metaphor.

Through no plan of man or God we are growing, expanding, reaching hesitantly but increasingly outward, and in ways that broaden the collective view of the dynamics of the earth below and the size of the universe above. Our uncontrolled growth is one means by which unlike the other faunal children of Mother Earth, life from earth has the potential to outlive the earth and then even the sun.

NTC A major cellular-telephone company has been running a series of ads in which various users of cellular phone services are amazed by the geographic reach of their telephones. In one ad, a phone call is received in a car traveling through the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel; in another, a boss calls an employee to tell him about a meeting in an hour, only to discover that the employee is a thousand miles away on a beach in Florida; and in another, a father calls his son Our uncontrolled growth is one means by which, unlike the other faunal children of Mother Earth, human life has the potential to outlive even the sun.

''across 65 miles of open water.''

Cellular telephone systems are growing without limit in geographic reach and in the volume and quality of information being transmitted. Several years ago, while returning to Maryland from a job in Virginia, my partner and I were under Memorial Bridge behind the Lincoln Memorial when the car phone rang. The incoming call was from a friend who was on business -- in New Zealand.

Extrapolating the idea of increasing geographic reach of cellular

phones, it seems plausible that someday pocket phones will be able to make direct calls from the South Pole to the moon -- at under a dollar a minute! Before then, however, perhaps within the next two decades, cellular phone systems will carry information of increasing quality, and every point on the planet will be within easy audio reach.

In the place of AT&T's faxes from the beach, a palm-sized minicam/telephone will convey visual information to individuals and groups anywhere on earth. MCI, Cellular One, AT&T and their counterparts in Asia, Africa, Europe and South America might well merge into a single Planetary Telephone and Billion Channel Television Company.

Low-cost, high-quality audio and visual ''com links'' will be available to at least a quarter of humanity. The audio portion might even be received by mastoidal speaker implants which will be controlled by subtle myoelectric currents of the scalp or jaw muscles, while the video portion of the signal will be accessed

through a ''heads-up'' display on ordinary eyeglasses.

The future of radio looks like this: People in Rome, Bombay, Buenos Aires, Beijing, Moscow and the middle of the ocean will be able to send and receive information. The ''information highway'' will have been pre-empted by the aptly named cellular communications between us individual cells of the planet-covering human organism.

We should anticipate, within the lives of most people now living, a time when a war in Europe or Africa will be covered by thousands of on-the-scene cameras and points of views, while tens of thousands of video views of earthquakes in California or Japan will be accessible in real time to everyone on the planet.

Views of natural and man-made disasters, as well as the lift- offs of rockets from South Asia, Florida and Brazil will be avail- able, with commentary and even background music, from thou- sands of on-site observers, as viewers spin their channels among the various vantages.

In this environment of total news, the whole world will be instantly accessible to everyone. Views from the space shuttles and from weather satellites will be available, along with gang shootings on the far side of town or the far side of the earth, while the Ken and Barbie talking heads of local news will go the way of the Victorian corset.

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