My daily email from The Writer's Almanac this morning reminded me that today is the anniversary of the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. Immediately upon reading that, I had a vivid memory of that day. I was in my freshman year in college in 1986 when the explosion occurred, and I was spending every morning buried in a building at the edge of campus trying desperately to pass Intensive Japanese. I was walking to lunch after class when I heard the news from another student. Later studies showed that something like 85% of Americans heard the news within an hour after it happened.
But the ones who heard it first were by and large kids in school. Because Christa McAuliffe was on the plane, the first "Teacher in Space", thousands of schools broadcast the launch live and every classroom gathered around the television. I've heard a number of my peers describe that experience--the shock of the adults, the confusion of the kids, some of whom exclaimed "cool!" and other of whom burst into tears as the smoking pieces of the shuttle shot off into different directions against the bright blue sky.
I've heard a number of people describe the explosion of the Challenger as one of the defining experiences of my generation--"Generation X" or whatever we should be called. I think this might be true, and not just because so many of us can remember where we were when we heard the news.
My parents' generation remembers watching the first lunar landing and hearing Armstrong's claim that all of mankind was stepping forward in that moment. My sense is that they believed it, too. Technology was the engine of progress, and governments and groups gathered their resources to create massive projects that Pushed Us Forward.
But my peers and I grew up with technology. I'm on the older edge of GenX, and even I had computer classes in grade school. I did all my writing, from high school on, on a personal computer, not a typewriter. So technology was a tool at my personal disposal like a toothbrush or a paintbrush, not a source of wonder and awe. The television program I do remember watching during high school was "The Day After" a nightmarish depiction of the aftermath of a nuclear attack on the U.S. And then came the Challenger explosion. The lesson for me and my peers? Technology isn't much good for holding us together. In the end, things fall apart.
And yet, technology is embedded in the culture of my generation, so our response was never to reject the tools but rather to use them differently. Is it any surprise that a generation with the image of a technological masterpiece splintering into the air embedded in our memories is perfectly happy to let technology become more diffuse and more diverse? The technological masterpieces of our generation look a lot more like Wikipedia than they look like a lunar landing. Hundreds of thousands of entries, mutually edited and refined, connected in purpose and vision while remaining not just tolerant but nurturing of mind-boggling diversity and the opinionated argument that involves.
All of this brings me to our conversation yesterday with about 14 women and one man from the Iranian-American-Muslim community. My favorite part of the afternoon came at the end when we responded at our tables to the question, "What question could we ask that would move this conversation to the next level?" When we de-briefed our answers, I was amazed at the widely differing approaches our groups had taken. One table asked, "Who is responsible for the sanctions against Iran, why are they continuing, and how can we change them?" Another table asked, "How can we begin to tell the story of our history together?" and another said, "How can we broaden this conversation to include a much larger number of people?"
And then a young woman in a headscarf took the microphone and said, "The question that we felt would take this conversation to the next step is 'Would you come to my house for dinner?'"
That question rang true to me. I liked all the others, too, and I do hope we have another, larger conversation eventually. But it just might be that the next step is for a couple of us to have dinner together. If a million of us had dinner together, in groups of four or six or seven, maybe we'd even prevent the next war. That's the kind of process that I have faith in.