BRUSSELS -- At 4 a.m. the thought crosses my jet-lagged mind that I have lived beyond my intended time. I lie awake in a Belgian hotel room watching an American television announcer exclaim that the yen has just strengthened against the dollar in Tokyo while weakening slightly against the German mark.
Equally strange, I have convinced myself that I need this information at this very moment. Plugging into the instant global communication grid is meant to reassure those who travel and track international events for a living. But the scene I describe is proof that we have created a world that is simultaneously so interdependent in communications and so fragmented in substance that no one is in control.
We "know" so much that we risk knowing next to nothing. Policy makers and plumbers alike are overwhelmed with the urgent from afar, right on schedule. We mistake the immediate for the important, the most recent for the most relevant. Andy Warhol replaces Karl von Clausewitz as strategist in the electronic era.
Warhol's metaphoric 15 minutes of fame for everyone becomes the standard for judging all events, instantly and globally. Iraq's hostage release chases Iraq's hostage-taking and its even more prehistoric invasion of Kuwait from the screen and thus from our collective and constantly bombarded Weltanschauung. Poison gas is not Saddam Hussein's ultimate weapon: the amnesia television can induce is.
Wars and other calamities abroad once reached America like distant thunder rolling across a plain. Unlike Europeans, Americans had time and space to prepare, to refer to the past and to principle and to decide what to do.
Now foreign disasters burst about Americans with an intensity and proximity for which we are not historically or geographically prepared. The confused and floating nature of the public response to the Persian Gulf crisis is the latest case in point.
You are there as Saddam and Jim Baker haggle in front of the cameras over meeting dates, not unlike two Hollywood producers who have asked their "girls" to call each other to set up lunch.
(Still secret tapes will no doubt reveal this intercept from Baghdad one day: "Mr. Saddam's schedule is just impossible before Jan. 12, honey, with the SCUD-B tests and the nuclear-lab visit and all." Pause. "Well, Mr. Baker needs to clear time right after the 12th for several B-52 flights." New pause.)
The artery along which Saddam and Jim, yen and mark rates and the rest whisk through the fog of the Brussels predawn is of course Cable News Network. CNN is a technological and journalistic marvel that transmits not only news but an illusion of meaningful interdependence around the globe to plugged-in officials and travelers. Whether the hotel is in Dallas, Hong Kong or Jeddah, the electronic cocoon is seamless.
People everywhere know about the same thing at the same time. The result is the atomization of politics in modern society. No longer does the notable sent to the capital return periodically to disclose and explain the nation's business to the unenlightened citizen who has been busy with other tasks. Anchor folk have already presented the disclosure and explanation. Talk-show hosts replace the tribune in seeking out the vox populi:
Who's right, Saddam's girl or Jim's girl? Should the United States have 430,000 troops in the Gulf, 217,000 or none? Nuke 'em, starve 'em or give 'em Kuwait?
It is not just CNN that circles the globe with American accents, perspectives and images to impose imported electronic reality over local color. The in-house movie button on the television set also beckons at odd hours: between appointments, during sleepless bouts with jet lag or when the sun goes down in any number of capitals that are drab, dull or dangerous.
The time lag of movie exports for most of these in-house systems adds to the twilight zone feeling. Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood are still omnipresent in this in-house universe. I once watched the first half of "City Heat" in Baghdad and caught the ending six months later in Damascus. A moderately gruesome sequence of violence in a thriller I watched in Havana was excised when the same film turned up at a Beijing hotel.
There are tiny clues to local characteristics and sensitivities in such cuts. But the electronic cocoon envelops the modern traveler so thoroughly that anywhere is rapidly becoming everywhere. Hotel rooms once were a way to get away from home and to get another view. Today the hotel room becomes a way to stay home and to keep the same view in sight.