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By Tom Shroder
Sunday, May 25, 2008

AS I WRITE THIS, talk of buyouts swirl around my workplace. People I've known and worked with for years will be gone within weeks. The well-worn handholds and footholds of the job may be dramatically rearranged, and some may disappear entirely, leaving us all to grope for a new equilibrium.

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Newspapers are in an especially tight bind because they find themselves caught in the fast currents of changing technology and culture. But all of us live in uncharted waters these days. The pace of change and the inevitable displacements that affect us are only going to increase.

We want to believe that once we get past this rough patch, things will settle down to a familiar calm. But calm may be a relic of the past. Which, don't get me wrong, isn't all bad. The opposite of calm could very well be excitement. Who could have imagined 10 years ago that a couple of smart kids could become billionaires by figuring out how to share videos online? The power of this new global interconnectedness is so huge that we can barely comprehend more than the tiniest sliver of it.

The other day, my son and a couple of friends made a spoof video -- a Drano-based science project gone awry with comically horrific special effects featuring much fake blood -- and, hours after they posted it on a Web site I'd never heard of, it had been viewed 200,000 times. In a previous era, that kind of creative child's play would have been a fading memory by morning. Now, who knows where stuff like that leads? Even at the bottom -- maybe especially at the bottom -- opportunities will be materializing out of thin air.

But when you've invested a career, a lifetime, developing a certain set of skills and working your way through an organization, thin air can be no comfort at all. Global warming, another prospect we're all facing, is an apt metaphor for the downside of rapid change. What's wrong with things getting a little warmer? Here's what's wrong: Since the last ice age ended 10,000 years ago, the planet has invested every resource it has into developing an infinitely complex ecosystem based on the temperatures that exist now. It would take another few thousand years to adjust quite as effectively to a radically new climate -- assuming conditions could remain stable for that long.

T.M. Shine's piece, about going out to lunch and coming back to be told he'd been laid off, is a scary, moving and somehow quite hilarious reminder of how hard change can be on the ecology of individual human lives. Shine's story, which starts on Page 10, also demonstrates one advantage humans have over glaciers and polar bears: When things get a little too hot, we can still find a reason to laugh at our predicament. Let's hope humor never gets downsized.

Tom Shroder can be reached at shrodert@washpost.com.


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