The Net: Second Babel or New Jerusalem?

by Roy Sniffen

Who gets these ideas? Why would someone suddenly decide to pile this rock on that stone and build a tower as high as Heaven? What kind of impulse is it to look out and up and suddenly want to go there -- wherever "there" might be and at whatever cost it might take to get there. And who comes up with the idea that at some point there was a perfect Jerusalem -- City of Light and Peace -- and that the mission is to rebuild it in modern garb as new, magnetic, curative for all the troubled souls aboard spaceship Earth? I don't have answers for these questions, but I intend to use these models for a discussion of the Internet as its stands and as it may develop.

First, a review of the Tower, represented by the wondrous construction at Babel; and of the Temple, the microcosmic model of the perfect Jerusalem. To the hearers of the oral tradition that preceded the writing of the Hebrew Scripture, the image of the Tower of Babel would have set imagination flying. Joe Egyptian, who might or might not have seen the pyramids at Luxor (or even the one in Las Vegas), would see it spiking upward and upward, above the palms, above the frowning countenance of Sinai and Mount Hebron. Envision it rising from an arid plain, soaring to thinness as it reached to the blue canopy over the desert. And then the storyteller would switch to the denouement. The All didn't approve of the trespass, didn't like it coming so close, so a confusion of tongues was imposed on the working people. And that confusion was great enough to halt the work, stop the upward advance, and cause, eventually, the squabbles that brought the great tower to ruin. The offense here goes by two terms, one from the Hebrew: chutzpah; and one from the Greek: hubris. Both have an approximate meaning of stepping above one's stations of being so bold, even, as to approach usurpation of the place The All reserves to itself. The punishment here was a cacaphony of languages, mutually incomprehensible, differently inflected and drawn in squiggles and shapes it takes much practice to learn and additional schooling to learn well. And so it lay until Gene Rodenberry invented the Universal Translator for the classic Star Trek force a few millennia later.

The absence of the perfected Jerusalem, our Temple, however, has more to do with timidity and equivocation than with boldness and effrontery. The vision is expressed early on in the Genesis story when the wandering Abram, who would become Abraham, father of us all, meets and is aided by Melchizedek, king of the City of Light and Peace. Melchizedek, and indeed his city, is a shadowy image, a cloaked vision of something humanly possible but not yet realized. This is a place that never was, but always lies a borning just over the next curve of the horizon of human sinfullness, just past the next story of the long and tragic abuse humankind has always heaped upon itself. Part of every Messianic story in the Mediterranean crescent, and, indeed, a composite part of every nirvana-heaven-shambala story everywhere, is the shining city on the hill where cares exist no more, where all tears are dried, and where the lions and lambs gambol side-by-side in bucolic serenity.

Why aren't we there? Vanity, says the preacher. Our strivings are to get more, not give more. Our efforts are for personal acquisition not for the betterment of humankind on earth. We are trappped in fantasies of earth bound wealth and pleasure, and thus consigned to stay in the valley underneath the light of the shining city, which we can approach but never enter without deep and abiding spiritual conversion. For all our efforts at purity we remain like the Star Trek Ferengi traders, ineluctably overtaken by our materialism. Some read this proclamation of the preachers as unchangeable, as stuff ingrained in the human psyche. And the reaction to the preachers message differs. With generally eccentric devotion, a few choose self-abnegation and worldly denial by joining holy orders, seeking to be free of the "meat suit" that separates them from the Source of All. Some go to the other extreme and proclaim their humanity by amassing goods and wealth and imbibing in all the fleshly delights. And the midstream of that is a humankind that awaits the elevation to heavenly stature that will surely come from some carrier of the light beams -- either one who has come and is remembered in church and temple, or one still to come either in this millennium or, surely, in the next.

Emerging from this exigetical thicket into the later years of the twentieth century, one finds a growing tangle of telephone cords and server computers open to one another across the entire span of the globe. And what shall we do with it? There are exciting books written about the prospects here. One can read of ways to become wealthy by "mining" the assets of the Internet. And although many of those books bear the materialistic stamp of those in the waiting room of messianic expectation, the "wealth" at hand could be any number of things. With all the world's libraries and many of its great museums just a few keystrokes and mouseclicks away, what is it that we will choose as the outcome of this vast new openness? Not an easy question. Amorphousness is the Internet's name at the moment, but the biological process of shaping is noticeably underway.

Evolutionary processes already at work may have cast one outcome, but I suspect that the vastness here is too great to ever settle into concrete or concretized patterns for very long. Yet, if it never stands still, can it ever become anything other than an entity of endless bazaars and interleaved and incomplete communications? There is a strong element of Babel2, here. One of the prime uses of bandwidth is chat. Signing onto an IRC channel and letting it roam unguided through a listing of thousands of Internet cubbyholes filled with six, 10 or 100 denizens typing to the aliased others about everything from inflation in Finland to "wet sex" in Kenosha, WI, is an experience imagined, perhaps, only by that Stone Ager with a propensity for skyscraper construction.

Or go to a new 'community' such as eWorld, where people linked to a chat room laugh as one over puns sent forward by typists at keyboards across oceans and continents, then turn and mourn as an online community when one of its members dies in a tragic accident. If in a more sedate mood read a newsgroup or two, there's everything imaginable (and a few unimaginable) from 'rec.aviation.homebuilt' to 'soc.rel.unitarian-univ'. Or become almost raptured by the bright purples of one of the Louvre's Monet's suddenly there, at your desk, on your monitor screen. The sheer amount of available data overwhelms the ability to absorb here.

A simple explanation of espionage says that "information is not intelligence until it is analyzed." I would hold that all the information available out here on the Net is latent intelligence, and in spite of the awakening tendency to be unreceptive to neophyte users and despite coded message killers and other tools of self-styled "net vigilantes," that latency is never for one moment untapped. The data are always in motion, following the electronic winds from cpu to cpu around the globe. But then what? Intelligence for what? Knowledge to what end? The anarchist in me arises as I look at those questions. Is this a 'real' worry? Why can't it just work itself out? The answer probably is that such a potential will do more good for more people if channeled, even slightly, than if left to brood and spread without a goal -- meaning, here, more than the individual's goal of wealth accretion, or the exactly right datum for the current sociology paper, or the cyber-stimulated chatroom orgasm. And the optimist in me says there will be those who will take it for good if for no other reason than to prevent it from being taken for no good.

A latency like this can become either the hammer driving home a revolution or the caress of charity. It can be either a merely transactional flow of electrons or a river of human realization and progress. And, wonder of wonders, it probably can be all of those things all at the same time. So where do we go? Whom shall we take with us? Our chariot is at the ready, and only the destination is unknown. Will it be the tower or the temple? Babel again, or the perfect Jerusalem for the first time? Or are we on target for some place never known before? One thing is clear, not only is the whole world watching ... the whole world is on this journey, too.

Copyright 1995
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