How Big Is The World?
April 26th, 2010

I can’t remember anything about any commencement address I’ve ever heard in my life.  But ten years later I can still remember the sermon from my undergraduate baccalaureate service.  The speaker, whose name has escaped me, was a woman.  She posed a question that was somewhat novel at the time, while the internet was in its relative infancy by today’s cyber standards.  I’ve considered it periodically in the intervening years, and I don’t have a better answer today than I ever have in the past.  And that fact alone makes me think that her question is every bit as relevant today as it was then. 

Her question was: “Does the internet make the world bigger or smaller?”

Our world has always been as big as we can imagine.  That has not changed with time.  And for people who dare to dream big dreams, that makes it very large indeed.  Columbus, Magellan, and other explorers found the world to be a much larger place than most of their contemporaries.  They spread the knowledge they gathered, and over time the people around them became able to imagine a world much different than the mere space in which they lived.

With the advent of the printing press, radio, and then television we were able to imagine more than ever, given the speed and granularity with which information was able to travel (not to mention the ease and affordability of travel itself).  As a child my own worldview was aided by the World Book, National Geographic, and the evening news.  But the internet took this premise to a new place altogether.  And the world became a much bigger, or smaller place, depending on your perspective. 

Information makes the world bigger because it broadens our view.  Our radius is extended and the realm in which we exist – mentally and metaphorically, if not physically – grows.  We are influenced by things happening very far away.  We factor into our decisions and outlooks the causes and effects that will be measured by people we will never meet.  In that way, the world becomes huge to us.

Conversely, information makes the world smaller because it brings things, events, and people that were previously unknown to us into the orbit of our knowledge base.  It makes things personal and intimate.  It puts the world, once abstract and intangible, squarely within our view and within our grasp.  When the entire world can influence you, and you it, it shrinks substantially as it becomes attainable in some way.

Every day I see headlines, photos, and video footage from around the world on a screen perched on my desk.  And those things become very real to me.  They are part of my world, even if they are not directly a part of my life.  They make the world fit inside of my head.  The world, to me, is made smaller by their accessibility.  But without the internet much of that information would not make its way to me; or at least not in such crystalline form.  And the boundaries of my worldview would not include these corners of our planet that failed to make the finite cuts of print media and half-hour news programs.  In this way the internet makes the world much bigger, stretching my awareness to new people and places and issues. 

I suppose the answer to this riddle-of-a-question is: both.  The world becomes bigger with increased exposure, and smaller with increased accessibility.  And this paradox has fascinated me for ten years now.  But while it’s a question to which I have settled on a quasi-answer, the related question to which I’ve not yet formulated my response is: Exactly how does this influence the way I should live my life?

6 Responses to “How Big Is The World?”

  1. Eva Says:

    Yes, such a riddle. Such an interesting question, Gale.

    This makes me think of a related question. Does technology (the Internet, cell phones, texting, Twitter, Facebook) make us more connected or more isolated? Maybe we’re “communicating” with friends and family more often, but are they deep, meaningful conversations?

    And then this makes me wonder – another peripheral question – if knowing about all the news from around the world is good for us. I’m not saying I only care about the small world of my neighborhood and city. I am interesting in the rest of the world. But too much information, 24 hour news, crises all around the world, can be overwhelming and so terribly depressing.

  2. Jane Says:

    Great question – and I love that it can be answered both ways. But with regards to relating it to how you want to live your life? I struggle with this. I’m forever frustrated with my daughter’s desire to live her life so publically with twitters and status updates on Facebook. But then, I LOVE the accessibility of the internet and all that information at your finger tips. Some days I can’t wait to get to the computer to look something up and then we also choose a day a month to shut everything off and just be together as a family. A constant struggle with technology.

  3. Gale Says:

    Jane – thanks for your response. I think it’s so interesting how different people interpret things. I intended the final question of my post quite differently than you took it, but your interpretation is every bit as valid. You responded regarding the internet itself. I was referring to the information that we get from it. For instance, if I have greater exposure to the good and the bad in far-flung places on Earth due to the internet, what does that knowledge do to my life? But your question of technology is also an important one – and probably a more immediate one. As bloggers, we clearly find value here. But as you’ve pointed out (and I agree) there is also value in walking away periodically.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful comment.

  4. Nicki Says:

    I have a problems with all the “connectedness” the internet has given us. Sometimes, the problems are that we forget what is physically close to us as we talk with those who are “out here in internet land.”

    I have to say that I was struck by your first few lines. Two of my children graduated from Catholic colleges. I was, at one of them, more drawn to the homily at the baccalaureate Mass then the keynote at commencement.

  5. becca Says:

    For me, the internet has made the world smaller. I definitely see both sides, but because I feel so much closer to people that i never would have met had it not been for this network, I feel it’s a cozier world. I also FEEL like I’ve met so many more people in the world than I have because of how easy it is to find information on them and read about them. Nothing feels impossible anymore. with the amount of ways to gather information, I feel like I can learn about absolutely anything and anyone… scary, but true! Interesting post Gale – thank you!

  6. Ten Dollar Thoughts » Blog Archive » In My Infinite Wisdom Says:

    [...] one such address I’ve ever heard that I found actually worthwhile, or at least thought-provoking, was actually a Baccalaureate address.  I’ve thought a bit about what philosophical brilliance I might impart on young graduates, but [...]