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Cheers to the New... and to the Old

Professor Jurg K. Siegenthaler. American University

Let's raise a glass to the New Year. We need a better one to bring us peace, especially in Africa and the Middle East.

This content was published on January 2, 2007 - 16:31

For the beginning of 2007, I also have a little grab bag of observations on lesser issues: the internet, air travel, and an aspect of history.

Time Magazine has declared you, the internet user, person of the year of 2006.

The choice has been criticized because it might not really be "you," the individual, who directs the creative process once a new idea like YouTube or MySpace has sparked. But these social networking tools via internet may be a new reality of transformative power.

I am a little skeptical whether they forge a new social movement. We have heard before that internet-facilitated learning or web-based democracy will sweep across Western society, empowering the educationally underprivileged and lifting the common people to new heights.

Second creation

It is a fact that the very early, very simple emailing networks among researchers fostered unprecedented scientific transparency and cooperation. Now, the $150 computer, originally launched at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is ready for use by millions of so far unconnected people in the developing world: a baseline development catalyst.

Recently, Google acquired the Swiss enterprise Endoxon to develop a "virtual globe," a system bringing together various pieces of geo-information with the established search engines to create the opportunity of finding information in a targeted, localized way.

But note that this is not achieved by a "social movement" from the ground up. Rather this "second creation of the world" via internet is a sign of the down-to-earth business sense of Google and other companies.

Still, it is notable that the benefits may trickle down to "you." According to the SonntagsZeitung newspaper of December 24, US-developed geo-informatics software on unterground utilities is integrated in the programming training of Swiss secondary school students.

United States internet penetration is 69 per cent, that of Switzerland is 68 per cent (Nielsen data). The impressive connectedness of the Swiss amazed the American travel author Rick Steves when he learned that students in the 140-inhabitant mountain village of Gimmelwald (Bernese Oberland) all had their own websites.

Thus the internet person of the year is important, but he or she is not simply self-made.

New world of flying

My air travel nugget in the grab bag has to do with the restlessness of the US airline market, where mergers of major proportions loom and bankruptcies are being entered or resolved. Cost-saving mergers of traditional airlines (e.g., one now proposed by U.S. Airways to Delta) are a means of coping with competition from low-cost carriers.

But, in a zero-sum game, what may be good for the industry does not benefit the traveling public. Travelers have benefitted economically from the discount airlines, but at what overall price? Interested in low fares, they have become amazingly docile and stoic even at the peak of holiday flying, as I just recently experienced myself. Although jammed in three-hour waiting lines in a Washington airport even a first-class passenger would raise nary a voice of complaint that scores of flights were cancelled in front of his eyes.

I suspect that the situation in Europe is quickly becoming similar. Some 130,000 passengers were stranded by Air Madrid overnight in mid-December. But the same number will soon be jumping on SkyEurope Airlines planes flying from Vienna to 16 other cities. Cheers to the new world of flying?

Common threads

Finally, here's to the old. On making the transition from America to the old country, one steps from adventure and the lure of the open sea to the most intricate local color.

Case in point is the book "Swiss Family Robinson," a great children's classic success in America. It was published by the clergyman Johann David Wyss of Bern in 1812, an emulation of Defoe's classic work, as an educational tale for his children. It has been a steady US bestseller.

The book is not well known among today's Swiss youngsters. Nor are the roots of the imaginative author well acknowledged.

After determining that he started his career as pastor in a town two miles from where I am staying right now (in a house coincidentally once owned by one of his descendants), I traced his bookwriting to a country house in the suburbs of Bern, where once lived Susanna Julie Bondeli (1732-1778), the most prominent woman of the Bern enlightenment, a descendant of Charlemagne(!).
Her circle included Johann Rudolf Tschiffely, founder of the Economic Society and advocate of scientific agriculture.

The threads of the old and the new run deep here, if only one looks for them. They form transatlantic links. A descendant of Tschiffely's, Aimé Félix Tschiffely (1895-1954) journeyed on horseback from Argentina to Washington DC, "an epic adventure that still marks one of the greatest horse rides of all times." And the "Swiss Family Robinson" is about to be brought to a whole new audience: Hollywood is right now producing the 2007 movie version.

Jurg Siegenthaler

The views expressed in this column are not necessarily those of swissinfo.

Biography

Every month retired professor, Jurg Siegenthaler, compares and contrasts aspects of life in Switzerland with that of his adopted homeland, the United States.

He emigrated to the United States from Switzerland in 1967, and is now a retired university professor living close to Washington, DC. He is a graduate of Bern University (Dr.rer.pol., 1966).

His fields of teaching and research encompassed economic history, social theory and social policy analysis. Throughout his career, he has maintained close comparative research interests in the US and Switzerland.

He is associated with the Institute for Socio-Financial Studies, a research non-profit that has done a lot of work improving financial literacy at the community level.

Since his retirement, Jurg Siegenthaler has broadened his involvement in community organizations and in the arts. He is married and lives with his wife in Silver Spring, Maryland.

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