A recent pleasure-reading jaunt through the Internet impressed me in its fluidity, so I want to document it here as a great example of user narrative. It started when I opened the “Opinion Today” newsletter I receive daily from the New York Times.
In it, toward the bottom, was a small item on the Dot Earth blog about a study of the potential causes of the “Little Ice Age”, an era of depressed temperatures worldwide from the fourteenth century to the early twentieth. While the study focused on the delicate nature of the global climate — how relatively small nudges can dramatically change local weather — I was left wondering more about this Little Ice Age.
So I looked up “Little Ice Age” on Wikipedia and was introduced to a scientifically and historically fascinating episode in human history. A subset of that article discussed increased volcanic activity during the LIA, and linked to something called the Year Without A Summer, which I learned had wreaked havoc globally on crops and therefore on societies generally.
At the bottom of that article was a list of “See Also” links to similar events in climate/human history, which included such enticing titles as “New England’s Dark Day“, “White Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere“, and the tersely ominous “Volcanic winter“. In the span of a half an hour, my life had gained an entirely new category of fascination — the dramatic, unpredictable, worldwide climate event resulting from a volcanic eruption.
Whenever episodes like this crop up, I am struck by how seamless and almost lubricated the activity of gathering information has become due to the Internet. It took me less than an hour to find out more about this topic than a full day (at least) in a library would have done just fifteen years ago.
At first this revelation (which I have almost daily), made me feel very hopeful about humanity. With near-universal access to all of this information, how will we avoid an imminent era of peace and unity? Almost as soon as I had that thought, I began to feel a sense of the precariousness of both factual authority and access to certain kinds of information.
Because it’s clear that my journey depended almost entirely on the sphere of information I live in — one that includes the New York Times, scientific journals, and Wikipedia. What sorts of narratives are emerging for people who either don’t find those sources of information credible, don’t know they exist, don’t have access to the Internet, or can’t even read? How far apart is my worldview from theirs? How do we start to see the world more similarly, thus making unity even a marginal possibility?