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Astonished by the American way of living

I HAVE just been astonished by America. You may not be surprised by that. After all, it is a pretty astonishing place, especially for a Lancashire lad who thought Blackpool the height of urban chic until he happened on Skegness.

Anyway, I have just come back from the American Association of Community Colleges' annual conference, a sober-suited, undramatic, lacklustre sort of affair for the most part, in Seattle.

Seattle is a beautiful city on the north-west Pacific coast and the first astonishing thing is that it has almost no night life at all. Walsall is a better bet for a good night out. At first, I thought I had forgotten to adjust my watch to the eight-hour time gap. But no. At 9 pm, I was alone in the restaurant as the waiters yawned, looked at their watches and started to stack chairs. Outside, the streets were empty of all but the homeless, themselves already tucked in under makeshift blankets in their regular spots. Quite astonishing, I thought, but not what I meant in the opening line.

Nor am I referring to the usual things which drop your jaw, such as the way strangers talk about the most personal aspects of their lives seconds after discovering their good fortune to be next to you in the queue for tickets.

Or how Starbucks can sustain a coffee shop on every street and two on some. Or why there are 12 WH Smiths at Chicago O'Hare airport when there were none anywhere last time I visited, all selling virtually nothing but hideous souvenir fridge magnets of the city. And, in the name of all that is ecologically holy, why is petrol still under a pound a gallon?

No, the two things that had me agog both happened at the conference and both were quite scary in their different ways, though you may not think so. The first came from Microsoft's chief executive, Steve Ballmer. We were expecting a certain Mr William Gates, but he was in court defending his company's monopolistic manoeuvres as the highest of all moral values.

His representative on earth, Steve, claimed that the next 10 years would see an IT revolution which would dwarf all that had happened since the Internet entered our lives. He told us of the wonders of XML, the HTML replacement, which would allow us to capture data from sources on the web and integrate and manipulate it in ways we currently only dream of; or have nightmares about in my case. He showed us his new baby, the "tablet", a hand-held notepad which accepts your handwriting and lets you do all the things you can do with typed text at the moment.

In lectures it will automatically download the speaker's notes and PowerPoint slides. Meanwhile, you can use it to pick up messages, visit your favourite website, write that overdue report, fill in your tax form, telephone your mother and e-mail the guys in the front row. Simultaneously!

In other words, the pace of life will speed up so dramatically that the average age for heart attacks will come down to the point where the problem of overpopulation is solved at a stroke, so to speak.

Does anyone want this? Is it another example of technology running way ahead of demand? I found Mr Ballmer's enthusiasm scary. "In 10 years," he rejoiced, "even the most basic functions of daily life will be dependent on the new technology." What? It took 6,000 years to evolve a ball-point pen. Microsoft is 20 away from allowing a full brain download so that even death need not slow down your workrate.

America hadn't finished with me yet, though. The conference opening ceremony, in front of 3,000 people, was the scariest moment. The AACC president invited on to the stage a college principal, a black woman in a vivid red dress. The assembly fell instantly into obedient silence and the principal launched into a passionate and very loud rendition of "God Bless America", in full.

She finished and there was a hushed split-second pause before, as one, the audience rose and cheered her to the rafters. September 11 has given this nation a unity and determination of a frightening intensity. Can you imagine a college principal singing "Land of Hope and Glory" at the AOC conference? As the applause died down, the president stepped forward and confessed it had sent a shiver down her spine. It had done the same for me, but for very different reasons, I guess.

Graham Jones is principal of Sutton Coldfield College

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