The Internet of Babel?

The world of today is one of many differing viewpoints. Different religions, values, and cultures are clashing at an almost constant pace. We open up the headlines in the morning and we read about the rise of radical religious groups, and political movements that seek to regain lost glory. What is happening in the United States is not an isolated movement, and you can see it’s long tendrils all across Europe. We’re standing at a crossroads of two different world-views; one of peaceful integrations and coming togethers of cultures, and an opposing view of isolation and maintaining our unique identity.

It got me thinking about a story from the Old Testament about the Tower of Babel, found in Genesis chapter 11:

The Tower of Babel

11 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth.

I don’t want to spend a lot of time analyzing the story from Scripture, but I want to tie it to today’s world. Throughout the history of the world it’s been hard to learn about those around you. Even going back only into my childhood, the main method that I had to utilize for learning about another person, religion, or culture, was a visit to the library. One of my most prized possessions as a kid was my World Book Encyclopedia set, which at least got me the basics of a topic.

Additionally, meeting people from around the world was much more difficult. It’s only within the last 100 years that people could reasonably consider traveling the world casually. The advent of air travel allowed people to move freely from one side of the planet to the other, and back again without completely changing their lives. This means that most people were rarely exposed to other cultures from around the world, or if they were, it was as a tourist.

One could argue that the world really started to change when air travel became prevalent, and I would agree that was a fundamental shift on our planet. However, I would stand by the real change in our world as the advent of the Internet. It was one thing to have the ability to travel to another part of the world, but it was another step to be able to research and plan your trip without having to talk to another human being. Today, anyone can plan their own adventure into the world with hundreds of thousands of sites of information, while sitting in their underwear.

The Internet has also shrunk the world into a place where anyone can communicate to another person around the globe in real time. We can share information, ideas, friendship and love, all through an electronic portal that makes it feel like we’re sitting right next to a person. This type of power has the ability to unite the world in a way unlike we’ve seen outside of the story of Babel in the Bible. That’s where I start to wonder if we’re approaching another “tower” moment in the history of mankind.

When you look at many of the troubling moments in the world right now, many of them sit at the point of conflict between unity and autonomy. Many of the jihadist movements in the middle east are centered around the idea of a superiority of a militant religious ideal, to the exclusion of others. Many of the conservative moments that are taking the western world, are focused on maintaining an idealized vision of a superior Christian nation, composed of people who all act and believe in a similar way.

Much of what people attribute to liberalism, is often in opposition to those ideals, seeking inclusion (even to the point of absurdity). The liberal movements around the world seek to be open to others, accepting and inviting to the stranger. Immigration, LGBT issues, church/state separation, and the myriad of other liberal tent pole issues, often revolve around being open to how other people want to live their lives and being accepting of that. Even if that openness means giving up a bit of your own personal convictions for the benefit of another.

All of these world views are available for digesting, support, and participation, with a click of the button on the Internet.

Which brings us to the current conflict. Humanity is standing at another precipice moment where our attempt to come together in unity is being thwarted. Unlike the story from the Bible, this thwarting is of our own undoing, enabled by our capability to unbounded information. Every step towards bringing different groups of people together seems to be opposed by a step towards keeping the people of the world in their own bubbles. The harder we push for unity, the harder we get push-back for separation.

What will the outcome be? This musing is really just a moment to ask some questions, as I don’t think any of us know the answers. However, I think it’s interesting to note that humanity has (supposedly) been at this point before. We’ve tried to come together as a unified people, and been forced apart. Is this the point in history where we can overcome this? Or, will our complete and total interconnectedness be our undoing. Can we build enough of a resistance to autonomy to actually push our society towards a unity that can advance humanity as a race?

Or, will my lifetime be the one where we see the world devolve into even deeper divisions, suffering through the undoing of our own technological drive for connection? If our only option is segmented cultures, and we must live with that type of a world, how can we achieve something like that peacefully? I feel like we’re standing at a fork in the road, and the future is murky. What I do know is that the Internet, and our continued technological development, is going to be a key point in whatever direction the world continues to take.

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