Suddenly, the Rest Of the World Doesn't Seem So Far Away

THE earth may still be opaque with rock and distance, but more and more you can look right around it to the other side. Thoughts are untouched by time and matter, and they travel sometimes on the back of speeding satellite transmissions, sometimes the old-fashioned paper way, and sometimes, somehow, just on their own. The vehicle that carries the thought grows steadily smaller and faster, until it must, we think, finally disappear. And why not? So often, the message itself is that the distance from here to there never was what it seemed to be.

However they arrive, bits and pieces of the thoughts of others do bring a new closeness, a new neighborliness. Through these windows we see places that were once far and strange and find that they are now as wondrously near as a voice, real words in real time or in the slightly delayed conversations of the mails.

As with most neighbors, often there is a request for something you have to give.

Take, for example, the postcard that arrived in our office recently from Romania. It had been a small joke in my family to call cold, dark, drizzly days ``Romanian summer afternoons.'' Now suddenly there was this postcard. And, inescapably, on the other end, a person. Someone much too hungry for progress to be concerned with logos and stationery and trying to look professional. The card was a hand-made job, quite unlike anything we had ever seen before. The computer printed message - ``I should be pleased to receive a demo disk and also some more information about you'' - spoke of new freedoms. The cardboard-and-paste postcard betrayed new urgencies.

Suddenly, one could believe that June afternoons in Romania aren't so unlike ours after all, filled with warmth and light.

It used to be that the world's crises could be handled at a safe mental distance, preferably with friends over coffee on Sunday evenings. Now these problems push their way into our days, demanding a level of involvement once reserved for the local school board.

We can tell at work when a call is from South Africa by the echo on the line. Boycotts are great, in theory. but they quickly move from grand moral gestures to daunting choices when a voice from ``there'' must be responded to. Now. Does the destiny of a nation and people, the moral crisis of a world, turn on the voice at the end of the line asking whether 550K is enough available memory for a computer job? If not, then where? If so, then how?

Just the opposite dilemma occurs with China; no individual voice has yet been able to call on us for assistance. We never actually talk to anyone or even work directly with a single company. It's just China, or if we need to be more specific, Beijing. When ``Beijing'' wanted to do business with us, we were told by an American business agent. He said to make the quote for many more software packages than we thought reasonable; it was the only way to get the order through the bureaucracy. A quarter million dollars could be approved overnight, but a few thousand could languish unimportantly away.

Overnight stretched into a few months, and then, of course, there was Tiananmen Square. But we'd heard anyway that the machinery to go with the software had never been moved from the dock and had been ruined by water.

Sometimes it is not enough to exchange notes across distances.

We were not disappointed when the gentleman from Switzerland, our biggest customer, arrived. But he didn't know what to make of some of our American ways. So out went the pop bottles from the office kitchen, the programmers put on their best Dockers, and the cartoons on the white board were erased. We brought in donuts and listened carefully to his polite but firm requests. They didn't sound much different in person, but we were glad to know each other better, like longtime pen pals who finally meet.

Still, as in most neighborhoods, there are times when a friendly visit may be most unwelcome.

In fact, our ready access to the whole world can be a mixed blessing. It's one thing to dial a wrong number and get the local shoe store, but quite another to get a sleepy Austrian voice that speaks no English. Especially when it is supposed to be a fax machine. And might be the office janitor not realizing that the machine will answer if left alone.

So we ask as politely as possible ``Sind sie such-and-such a company?'' But it's around midnight there, and sleep, we find out, is as cherished in Europe as it is in Michigan. The ``nein'' is terse; the click literally heard round the world.

It is an amazing thing to watch a planet grow smaller every day. To wonder at a bedraggled postcard that made it in such a short time from repression to freedom to my desk. To have the world's voices and ideas and lives within such everyday reach of my voice and ideas and life. To share tangibly in the struggles and rejoice in the progress.

It is like exploring a new, vast neighborhood only to find it isn't at all that different from the one down the block, with its share of hard-working folk and dreamers, curmudgeons and unruly children. Yet we hope the novelty doesn't wear off too soon.

We can't wait to hear from Moscow.

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