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A decade of technology unites, divides the world

As we ring in a new decade, what should we wish for? Perhaps to pay closer attention to how advances in technology can not only instantly change our lives but also drive our history.

Conjuring up a name for the decade that will come to a close on Thursday night has become a popular media parlor game.

Not surprisingly, many commentators have been quick to recall events they believe illustrate what went wrong in the 2000s — from Sept. 11 to Hurricane Katrina to the Great Recession.

I would argue that it’s been more of a mixed bag, wrapped around a paradox. This was a time when the Internet and cell phones bound us together as never before, bringing us all sorts of new benefits.

At the same time, that very technology helped magnify our divisions, sometimes with disastrous consequences — call it the Decade of Disconnection.

Driven by technology, globalization grew exponentially. The trend was brought home every time an American consumer made a purchase online or spoke to a cheerful customer service representative on another continent.

This year, we even celebrated that interwoven-ness by awarding the Oscar for Best Picture to "Slumdog Millionaire," a movie about a call center worker from Mumbai who becomes a game show sensation.

Yet for all the boons of global exchange, the decade also taught us how virulently a small subculture of the world hates America and everything it stands for.

And the race between the nation's ability to use technology to enhance its security and the ability of terrorists to use it to their advantage remained a very close-run thing.

Thus the decade ends as it began, with a religious fanatic attempting to bring down a commercial airline over a major American city — thankfully, with different results this time.

Financial innovations allowed us to become players in the global financial game, from investing our 401(k)s to shopping around for the best home mortgage rate. But they also distanced lenders from borrowers, making the kindly neighborhood banker who knows all his customers a quaint anachronism. Instead, our loans were sold off, securitized, leveraged and hedged in the vast casino that blew up in late 2008 and helped erase $14 trillion of America's household wealth with it.

From searching for jobs to starting small businesses, technology democratized opportunity. Somehow though, the decade left us more stratified along class lines than ever before. The vast majority of new wealth went to the top one percent while the median income of U.S. families declined for the first decade since we started recording those kinds of statistics. And that was before the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression really hit home.

On the political front, the Internet brought us together and drove us apart. It allowed millions of small donors to feel like they helped elect the nation's first African-American president. But it also fueled the hourly name-calling and nitpicking (from both the left and right) that has compounded the headaches of governing for President Barack Obama.

Sadly, it has also allowed a poisonous strain of paranoia and racism to permeate U.S. politics, which while hardly new, was able to spread under the shield of anonymity, without the need for so much as a John Birch Society meeting.

Culturally, advances in “social media” allowed millions of us to “friend” and “follow” each other — giving Americans the ability to reach out day or night to compare notes about everything from cooking to child-rearing.

But those same forces have slowly but surely siphoned away audiences and profits from mainstream news and entertainment vehicles that used to offer a common, national frame of reference.

Once upon a time, millions actually read books that actually taught something (like the historical novels of James Michener), and hundreds of millions took the time to watch edifying television dramas (like “Roots”).

Today, only potboilers, special effects movies and reality TV seem to generate any kind of mass audience. We all end up talking about Tiger Woods and the other celebrity scandals of the day because they are among the few things we all know something about.

So as we ring in a new decade, what should we wish for?

First, perhaps, for the resolve to pay closer attention to how advances in technology can not only instantly change our lives but also gradually drive our history — for better and for worse.

And second, for the wisdom to understand that more interconnectedness does not necessarily make for stronger community, let alone greater personal security or spiritual fulfillment.

When the British writer E.M. Forster ended his moving novel “Howard’s End” with the simple advice to “only connect,” he was referring to something deeper than friending on Facebook.