Life is Not Virtual

author: Tom Brokaw, NBC
published: April 19, 2013,   recorded: April 2008,   views: 2270

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In this heartfelt address, Tom Brokaw characterizes the transformation of the world by digital technology as a second “Big Bang,” a time of great possibility, but also of danger.

This revolution is being advanced not by “a small collection of monkish wonks working in a secret lab” but by a vast and ever larger population ranging from inventive teenagers to military analysts in the Pentagon, says Brokaw, who feel “power at their fingertips and in the bowels of their servers.” They believe that the world is limited only by their imagination. Yet, cautions Brokaw, “life is not a virtual experience. If we develop capacity and leave out compassion, what is the reward? What are the consequences if speed overruns reason?”

The most memorable people Brokaw has met during 45 years in journalism are not world leaders and movie stars, but “brave young, black and white civil rights workers” determined to end the "moral hypocrisy” of the segregated south; a doctor saving a young girl’s life in Somalia; a fireman searching for lost comrades in the wreckage of the Twin Towers. For Brokaw, greatness is defined by unrecognized and modest heroes “who put their hands in the dirt and spend nights in scary places to make this precious planet a better place for us all.”

The technology revolution must serve a larger purpose, Brokaw believes. He describes American aid workers using the internet to help victims of an earthquake in Pakistan, both to speed rebuilding and “to make a lasting impression on those poor souls who believe the world has forgotten them, especially the Western world.” Brokaw states, “These are new tools that require a human face as we attempt to diminish and lower the temperature of Islamic rage.” Brokaw has written of the “defining generation” who fought in World War II. He suggests an analogy with those in our own time who meet our greatest challenges with powerful new technologies: the growing divide between haves and have-nots; disappearing ice caps and rainforests; and increasingly scarce and expensive energy.

The generation that rises to answer these challenges must have “an attention span and patience longer than the conventional post on YouTube.” They must also search for truth amid “distortion, fraud and anarchy.” Brokaw ends by asking the privileged generation that wields new technological tools, his listeners, to make “a moral and intellectual commitment to leave this precious planet a better place than we found it.”

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