Friday, July 20, 2007


I suggested in a post the other day that the "global internet may be our best hope yet of freeing humankind from the baleful influence of supernaturalist magic of every stripe." Paul commented that I was too optimistic. The internet, as he pointed out, is a mix of good and bad, sense and nonsense, ennobling sentiment and degrading inhumanity.

And he is certainly correct: Ignorance we have always with us. But as a lifelong teacher, I cannot help but hold that access to knowledge -- reliable, consensus knowledge of the world -- is a good thing, and the internet, if nothing else, makes consensus knowledge available to those who previously had access only to local lore and prejudices. Will good thoughts drive out bad? In a free marketplace of ideas, will humanizing thought always win?

Some studies suggest we are predisposed to optimism or pessimism from birth. Or perhaps I was nudged towards optimism by my Christian upbringing, which imagined history as directional and progressive. I may be hopeful about the internnet because of my early infatuation with the Jesuit mystic Teilhard de Chardin -- at a time when the internet did not even exist!

Teilhard was an prophet of globalization. He understood the pressures of population compression on a planet of finite area and resources, and he foresaw the consolidating role of electronics: "Thanks to the prodigious biological event represented by the discovery of electromagnetic waves, each individual finds himself henceforth (actively and passively) simultaneously present, over land and sea, in every corner of the Earth." He called this emerging layer of disembodied thought the noosphere, by analogy with the biosphere, and his coinage may yet turn out to be the best name for what we now call, loosely, the internet. Certainly, when Tom sends me the globe-spanning maps showing readers of this blog, I am reminded of those passages from Teilhard's The Phenomenon of Man that I read almost half-a-century ago.

Yes, I am optimistic, but I would be hard pressed to refute a pessimist (note the "may" in my initial statement). Teilhard was forced to optimism by his Christian faith. I am an optimist because a lifetime in teaching confirmed for me another of Teilhard's axioms: Minds are stimulated by proximity.