"When they told us they were going to network the world with an information superhighway, they left out the part that there was going to be the world's most junky flea market on one end, and the world's most terrifying porn shop at the other."
I've lost touch with the old college friend, but I still remember that stupid joke. Hell, it makes me laugh even now, mostly because it's true.
Yet, as true as it is, it's false in the details.
In a lot of ways, the World Wide Web is a lot like education: it's all in what you make of it.
If all you want is the world's biggest flea market and the world's most esoteric porn shop, then that's exactly what you're gonna get.
But if you look at the World Wide Web as a window onto other parts of the world, then you're gonna get yourself one hell of an education.
Here's the thing: Whenever I scan my FList here on LJ or on IJ, whenever I snoop out blogs written by eyewitnesses to whatever is happening in their corner of the globe, whenever I read or watch or listen to the record someone is keeping of his or her everyday life, I'm constantly reminded of three things:
- The more I learn about other people who do not live in my backyard, the more keenly I'm aware of the things I don't know
- There are people out there who don't think they are extraordinary who leave me humbled every day by their wit and insight
- That people are people...no matter where they live, what primary language they speak, god they worship (assuming they worship any), or government they live under
All fairly trite clichés, I grant you. But like my college friend's joke, it's also very true.
The truth of this once more hits home, mostly because I've been sniffing out Burmese/Myanmar blogs to get a handle on what the people on the ground are saying about the Saffron Revolution as the Monks face down one of the most oppressive military regimes on earth.
Most of the time, I'm reduced to looking at pictures, primarily because Firefox won't render the Burmese written word into anything more than a series of repeated question marks. But even if it could be rendered, I'd be no more enlightened than before simply because I'm hopelessly ignorant about the language.
Yet, for ex-pats and people outside the country, those images, those words (I assume they have the proper software to render the written word properly) may be the only lifeline they've got into the country. And the people who are writing, taking pictures, uploading videos to YouTube...they may be risking their lives to set the information loose on the Web, where from there it can leap from blog to blog, journal to journal, email to email so people outside can at long last see what they see.
And once more I am humbled, and strangely elated. I see, I learn, and I lose my ignorance just a tiny bit as I once more recognize the basic humanity that is there.
This World Wide Web is a tool. Tools can be misused, mislaid, and even abused. But in the right hands, when used with the right mindset, eyes can be opened and minds can be made to think.
Yet, for all the grand and great things that can be conveyed, I find myself greedily scanning those posts about everyday life. When I'm freezing in Boston during the winter, it still gives me a giggle to read that someone in Sydney is planning to enjoy a nice summer day by going to the beach. Hell, I know the seasons in Australia are opposite to the seasons in the U.S., but nothing quite brings it home more than reading about someone chatting about the beach crowds while I turn up the thermostat.
I find myself endlessly fascinated by Europeans talking about taking their holidays, or going to university, or complaining about political issues in their backyard.
Or reading about people in the Philippines going to work and battling traffic and dealing with the family or excitedly talking about the big headlines capturing local attention.
And, hell, when some Candian friends on my FList went to Cuba for vacation, I studied every single picture as if I could somehow walk through the screen and go see Cuba for myself.
The fact is, these little bits of life, these inconsequential moments when viewed together reveal the multi-layered, mutli-colored, multi-varied wonder that is humanity. It's an electronic quilt laid out across the earth that is both wonderful and terrifying to behold once its hidden beauty is recognized for what it is.
As for feeling ignorant...well, I suppose that's okay. Ignorance goes both ways. The real question is, "Well, what are you gonna do about it?"
I choose to learn. And maybe, before I die, I'll be marginally less ignorant than I was when I was 8 standing on Cape Cod shore and understood in a blinding flash of light that there were people just like me on the other side of the Atlantic. And the feeling of elation that realization gave.
But here's the great secret about the World Wide Web: By sheer dint of the number of people wandering around, you learn very quickly that you are not the center of the universe. You are, however, a member of one great, big, bloody chorus.
And every once in a while when someone out there is trying to figure out how you live day-to-day, how you are dealing with your big questions, and how you see the Big Thing that's going on in your backyard, you get to have a solo.
It's not a bad deal for all that, even if there's a flea market at one end and a porn shop at the other.
I'll take it.
So, c'mon. Spread the World Wide Web love. Bring yourself. Bring your friends. Bring complete strangers. Tell me in comments what you have learned about the world because you were able to "meet" someone you otherwise would never know existed.
This moment of fuzzy-headed liberal thinking is brought to you by the coming of fall and the realization that I am a hopeless optimist at heart.