The Pleasures of Age: Ambition fades

Being an only child, I was never really ambitious; but I did suffer from the idea that I probably should be, which may be more invidious than raw ambition itself. Ambition at least has the energy of desire behind it; but that other sense, of someone over my shoulder prodding me to get competitive before it was too late, gave me nothing but agony. I was grateful when I learned, finally, to joke with this fellow and take him less seriously.

Ambition, the desire for measurable achievement, has had a spotted reputation, praised as the grand motivator of all progress and mourned as a dehumanizing obsession. Today we have created a relentlessly competitive society, all striving to be Numbah One; competition and ambition dominate our culture, and sports are a national passion. “Journalism’s fairyland,” mocked the city editor of my first newspaper employer, describing the sports department, where I worked; but he was wrong: organized, competitive sports are part of the social DNA. As I write, the whole world is focused on an orgy of sport in China, as the world’s finest athletes and its sovereign powers make common cause. In a sense, sports are pure, organized ambition:  the desire to play and the desire to win.

Mercifully, the latter desire subsides in the elderly, who have had a lifetime to learn how to be happy wherever they are, or at least to put up with it, and who are in any case running out of time. There isn’t time for ambition; the best we can do is come up with a bucket list. Ambition takes a back seat to the pleasures of the here and now. Smelling the roses is not an option, it’s the whole game plan. George Santayana interrupted his own final lecture at Harvard when he glanced outside and saw a forsythia flowering amid the snow. He packed up his books, bowed to the astonished students, and left with the remark “I shan’t be able to continue – I have just discovered that I have an appointment with April.”

The last time I felt ambitious was in the early 1990s, when I helped Dave Bunnell start BioWorld, the first all-electronic, computer-accessed publication to become a member of the American Newspaper Publishers Assn. (Or so we grandly promoted ourselves; we joined ANPA  mostly in order to obtain some respectability for what was then a radical idea.) At that time I had already been online for more than a decade and as a longtime journalist I was dying to try the new technology out in what I was sure was a new age of communications. I thought that we just might do some pioneering work, and maybe even get rich in the process.

We worked like hell and I learned a lot about biotechnology without ever really wanting to. But it turned out that we were premature; BioWorld was a succés  d’estime, admired by the futurologists but ahead of the technology (which in those pre-Internet days was 1200-baud dialup) and the market. We struggled for a couple of years and eventually sold it to a company with greater resources, and it survives  (and presumably thrives) today at http://www.bioworld.com/. However I have not since then felt the urge to change the world via the 15-hour day.

Which is not to say that there is no room for such an urge; the specific task that BioWorld set out to perform, which was to implement a new form of communications, was and remains worth performing. Even now, in the era of the pervasive Internet and ubiquitous messaging, the new forms we experimented with have not been fully developed. Trying to sell information, BioWorld was really putting old wine in a new bottle. Since those days, many variations on that same theme have been played, only a few really successfully; and there have been new wines fermented as well, though not many worth drinking. We are all potential publishers now, in the blogosphere; and the pervasiveness of tiny personal communications devices adds whole dimensions to the global network. But performance still trails possibilities.

That’s not trivial. Sociologist Manuel Castells has shown how these global links have given rise to a whole new form of society, which he calls the Network Society, and which is changing our social experience, which is to say our very lives, by substituting networks for the old institutions of family, church, and state as the measure for establishing social identity. 

This is a cataclysmic process. The jobs that are going overseas, the impact of global, efficient, distributed capitalism, are universally recognized as serious social issues. Surely mere experiments like Amazon, as useful as it is, and Facebook, as popular, cannot be expected to serve as the new social forms that will support such a huge transformation. Therefore anyone with ambition, able to wield the powerful communications technologies now available, could perform useful and rewarding service in developing such forms. Now that is surely a grand goal, socially useful yet not without its private pleasures, of being the Greeley or the Hearst or the Sarnoff – or the Jobs – of the age of networks. One might even get rich.

But ambition requires motive as well as skill. They tell a story about an old Jewish peddler who, on hearing that Baron Rothschild wanted a tutor for his son, called at the castle about the job. The baron questioned him closely about his qualifications; but to every query, as to whether he knew languages, or science, or music, the man replied indignantly that he was a poor peddler who was content with the Torah and the Talmud and had no use for other knowledge. Then why, the exasperated baron asked, did you come here at all? The peddler smiled. “I wanted you to know,” he explained sweetly, “on me you shouldn’t depend.”

That’s something like the way I feel about this new challenge. I think it’s a beaut. I think it is hugely important: we are now in a transitional period when the traditional media, such as newspapers, are vanishing one by one, whereas the new media are neither profitable nor particularly trustworthy. I even think, with the arrogance of the insider, that I can see a basic strategy for success. It’s got to be two-way, right? Because communications is about what is common. There it is, and all that needs to be done is work out the details. There are already some signs of the new form in the “hyperjournalism” of blogs serving local communities, thus nestling the community comfortably in the net. This may be the source of a kind of McDonald’s of journalism, locally self-franchised. Take it and run; you could get rich.

But I have attained the blessed state of elderly irresponsibility. Like Santayana, I have kept my date with April. On me you shouldn’t depend.

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