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Restoring Humanity to Daily Life

Guest Column Benjamin Ho

Walking into the Student Center a couple of weeks ago on a quest for an envelope, I witnessed an incredible phenomenon. Setup on the first floor sat a television with NBC coverage of John Glenn's historic re-penetration of our vast firmament. But why is it so historic? When the hype of this publicity stunt was first announced, I shrugged it off as perhaps some NASA ploy to maintain its funding levels. After all, when it comes down to it, there is little to differentiate this launch from the previous twenty-four in which the Space Shuttle Discovery has lifted into orbit.

And yet, I am thus confronted with this incredible phenomenon. Crowded around this tiny television were over 50 students and members of the MIT community eagerly anticipating the 25th liftoff of Discovery.

Walking out of the Student Center with newly procured envelope in hand, I soon encountered a similar gathering in Lobby 7. This was proof that this was not a fluke, that these gatherings were happening all across the country, and that there was corroborative evidence to the fact that there was a live audience bigger than even the audience for the first launch of Discovery some fourteen years ago, an event quite a bit more historic.

What is going on? As we approach the turn of the century, I have recently been considering how the 1990's will be remembered. The 1960's is remembered for the counter culture, the 1980's for the greed, but what about the 1990's?

Could it perhaps be for our cynicism? Generation X, the defeated generation, growing up in a world that has lost its luster. And yet, have things changed? Has Generation X finally grown up?

Evidence seems to point that way. NASA had become forgotten, space flight had become routine, people had forgotten the simple miracle of sending a man of earth past the barrier that had once been our prison, and out into space. And yet, just a couple of weeks ago, we all stood still, and again gazed with awe, out into the wonder that is space. We live on a campus where public forums on race, student life, and substance abuse rarely generate little more than a handful of spectators at the Student Center. The fact that such a crowd can form in front of a small TV makes this phenomenon truly remarkable.

This is a year in which the glitz and glamour of the NBA have been supplanted by the great American pastime. As ratings for network television sports continue to decline, America was captivated this year by a return of the excitement and the spirit that made this uniquely American game what it is.

Look at music. As I turn to MTV today, I cannot help but think how drastically the music world has departed from simple rock, the staple of MTV's birth. Yet, the Rolling Stones toured to massive success. New singers evoke the folk songs of bygone decades. And both Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr are attempting to re-launch their careers. These touches of the past are perhaps a harbinger of what we will see to be the true zeitgeist of the 90's.

What will the twentieth century bring? We are standing here together on the threshold of a new information age. The Internet is so pervasive that rarely does a company advertisement go by that does not include a web address. Things are changing incredibly fast; a URL shown for the Super Bowl just three years ago was terribly novel. As rapid information flow becomes more and more central to our way of life, many are anxious that humans will lose their humanity as we all become entangled in a digital web.

However, from the ubiquity of reminders of the past that persist in our mind sets today, and the fact that much of the wonder of the simpler things that seem to have been lost are instead simply latent, waiting for an event such as John Glenn's space flight to resurface, all of this leads me to believe that, despite technology, our humanity is indeed safe.

As those of us stood in the halls of the Student Center, quietly sharing this solemn moment as the Discovery lifted off, it was not so much that a great American hero was returning to space as it was perhaps more a reacquaintance with the wonder that we have all somehow forgotten, a reaffirmation of that which makes us human.

Benjamin Ho is a member of the Class of 1999.