This might seem like a no-brainer for many people, but it was something I slowly came to understand when I was a kid growing up.
My parents don’t really get the internet. My grandmother doesn’t even know how to turn a computer on. My father rarely uses the computer. Whenever he does it is just to check bank statements or e-mail. My mother also doesn’t understand the computer, much less the internet. She mainly uses the computer for typing up letters in word, for checking e-mail and facebook, and to play bejeweled. For both of them the computer is simply a tool, like a telephone. I can understand where they’re coming from; they spent the majority of their lives in a computerless world, even more of that time without the internet. The one thing they haven’t grasped about the internet is perhaps its greatest power: the ability to answer questions.
Both of my parents don’t understand how to use google to find the answer to a question they have. “What are some good chicken recipes?” “What movies are playing at the theatre tonight?” “How do I do fix X,Y,Z?” They’re both used to finding these answers elsewhere.
Where am I going with this? Well when talking to my grandmother, or my parents, I wondered how I would explain the internet. What IS the internet?
The first analogy that came to mind was a university, which leads me to the point of this post.
What is a university? The campus? The buildings? The books? A university is none of that, it’s the faculty and students that make up the university. If all the people left, the cold empty buildings would not be a university. If you get a degree from a university, what that degree signifies is that the people who make up that university deem you as having achieved a certain level of knowledge and ability. The buildings just serve as a meeting place.
The internet is the same way, only more pronounced because it lacks a physical location. It exists in the digital realm that we access through our computers. Or at least we create the notion of this digital realm by linking up millions of computers and servers where the actual content physically exists, just as the “university” realm exists through the connection and interaction of ideas and concepts that physically reside as chemical an neurological interactions within the brains of those who collectively are “the university.”
But what I’m trying to get is more than just this notion of creating realms of information through the transmission of ideas. What I slowly started to understand while growing up was that we are all there is. The lines on a map are not physical boundaries between countries, they exist purely because we created them. The system of calendars and years are setup by us. Only we mark the passing of time. Sure the earth completes one full rotation in about 24 hours, and one full orbit in 365 of those rotations, but it is we who arbitrarily picked a beginning and end to each year. On midnight of December 31st, the other animals on the planet have no idea that one year is ending and another beginning. For all they know, it’s just another night, and tomorrow is just another day.
I first came across this concept when I started studying history more in-depth. While we talk of “historical periods” like the Roman empire, or the middle ages, or the renaissance, there is no clear delineation between the start and end of these periods. Bells did not ring, the sun did not stop, and a voice from the heavens did not announce “You are now in a new historical era!” The only thing that separates us now from the middle ages are a lot of revolutions of the earth.
What is society? What are laws? If you are at a stoplight, in the middle of nowhere, and there is not a single person around, there is nothing inherently wrong about driving through that red light. It is only wrong because we say it is wrong. (Because doing it in a populated area could get someone killed) But if you drive through that light out in the middle of nowhere, nobody is going to make a mark by your name.
There is a saying “All knowledge is human knowledge.” For a while this bugged me. “Well that’s stupid, a squirrel has the knowledge of how to gather nuts for the winter,” but that’s not what it is addressing. It’s more of an existential statement. This whole post is about an existential realization I had growing up.
We are all there is. We make the rules, we alone are solely responsible for our actions and for creating meaning in our lives. There is no safety net or wall we can lean against. We’re completely vulnerable to error.
Which brings me full circle back to computers. I feel that more and more we are trying to make life like a computer program. If a computer were self-aware, it would not have the existential problem that humans do. A computer must obey laws (the coding of a program) in order to function. That coding is created by external entities, us. Our own version of coding that we attempt to enforce are social mores.
For me, one of the most stand out examples of this was when I went to Disney world with my now ex-girlfriend. We were going out to a late night fireworks show and it was a bit chilly. I wanted to pack one of the hotel blankets in my backpack to keep us warm. She protested. This made her very uncomfortable and she tried to explain to me that I can’t take the hotel blanket from the room. Why not? You just can’t. (coding) I explained to her that nobody was going to know, that I was going to return the blanket when I was done, and that if anything happened to it, that I would personally pay for its replacement. She grudgingly dropped the issue, I took the blanket, and we were warm. The whole incident really stuck with me. Why is it such a big deal to break the computer codes? We are the masters that wrote them in the first place. They exist because we say they exist.