How the Internet is Like Language

The power went out, and with it the WiFi, for four hours the other day while a pole was being replaced and again for an hour today while the A/C was being fixed.  It was almost overwhelming how lonely and isolating it felt.

Before you think me too dramatic let me say that we’re currently in a rental house in Ecuador, in a neighborhood that still consists primarily of empty lots or newly constructed but not yet occupied houses and we’re 45 minutes from the nearest city and without a car at the moment.  None of these things feel isolating when the internet is working.  (As an aside, the WiFi here is better than the best I can get back in South Carolina.)

It’s not that I spend all day on the web.  The bulk of my work requires internet and I do use it heavily, but there are many hours every day where I’m reading, exercising, playing with my kids, eating, preparing food, sleeping, or just relaxing when I do not use the internet.  One would think a few hours without WiFi would simply let me switch to one of these activities with no mental stress.  But it didn’t work that way.

The minute it went down I felt trapped in a desolate place, separated from the world.  Not because I wanted to do something specifically requiring the internet at that moment, but because I didn’t have the option.

WiFi provides a kind of invisible psychological ether that connects me to all of humanity.  Just knowing it’s there, at the tip of my fingers through my smartphone, gives me a profound spiritual sense of connection to all mankind and to great ideas and facts and images and more.  It is the subtle substrate that makes me always a part of a network or community, even when I’m quietly reading or sleeping.

In Ecuador we’ve had experiences where we were nearly incapable of communication with the other humans around us due to my deficiency in Spanish and some Ecuadorians rapid speech.  In our current neighborhood there are many French Canadian expats who speak not a word of anything but French.  At times a feeling of fear and disconnection can sweep over you when you realize you cannot share ideas with any of the people around you.  What if you need something?  What if you just want to chat and aren’t up to the exhausting task of sign-language and hackneyed Spenchglish?  You’re stuck on a (metaphorical) island, surrounded by people but without any connective tissue.

The parallels between these experiences are striking.  Geographic proximity and physical presence do not connect us with our world.  Information and a means of exchanging it do.  That is the task language performs.  The internet performs it even better.  It can instantly translate between languages, among its other wonders.  The web is like a performance enhancing drug for language.  It exponentially increases the idea sharing power of words.

This silly idea that the internet and social media have somehow severed human connections or weakened community is an absurdity espoused by those blind to the world around them.  It’s no less ridiculous than claiming, “People used to really connect before language was invented.  Now all they do is constantly stream ideas back and forth with sound waves.”

It’s not even the speaking or web browsing.  It’s knowing you can.  What a powerful connective web for the human race.

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