“Our age needs a power of Knowledge that rises above Nature, because it must inwardly deal with an element which is dangerously at work within its life, and which is one that has sunk below Nature. Of course what is here meant is not any sort of return to earlier states of civilization, but rather that human beings should find their way to bring the new conditions of civilization into right relation with themselves and with the Cosmos.” (Rudolf Steiner: The Michael Mystery GA026 From Nature To Subnature)
We cannot escape technology, indeed we must not attempt to avoid it. We must develop the strength, understanding and insight that will protect us from being overwhelmed by what Rudolf Steiner refers to as: “this new civilization of Ahriman”. This civilization currently presents itself to our daily experience through digital micro-technology and the devices, processes and systems that make up this technology. To the extent that we are immersed in it, to that extent, at least, must we also rise above it. A danger is that the immersion in it can dull our capacity to rise above it. Considering the intensification and increasing pervasiveness of micro-technology, – sustained meditation, contemplation, introspection and prayer, can be far more difficult for an individual in the second decade of the 21st Century compared to even the final decades of the 20th Century. It is possible to now experience that as each year goes by, it becomes increasingly difficult to sustain inner spiritual activity. Strength is needed. – strength that can only come from the Spirit: Spirit Strength. In every moment we can find ways of taking up the challenge of sustained soul-spiritual activity – and developing spirit strength.
A necessary starting point needed to bring the new conditions of civilization into a coherent relation with ourselves and with the Cosmos is to really attempt to understand the various aspects of technology that we encounter. We need to show an interest and to become rather curious about what we are confronting. How is a moving image of the British Prime Minister able to appear on the screen of my high definition smart TV during a so-called ‘live’ broadcast from London? How is it that we can hear our friend on the other side of the earth speaking out of our iPhone? What is a ‘Smart Meter’ and why do I need it? Danger lurks when we can’t see or understand something that is directly affecting us.
As an exercise in understanding I am going to focus on the internet and some of the devices that enable us to access it. Some see the internet as the epitome of technical civilization. Some see it as evil. It has even been described as a worldwide encompassing web of spidery beings! Let’s look soberly at what it is and what it can do. We will then focus on the main internet access devices: portable computers, smart phones and tablets.
The internet is a gigantic communication transmission system. Similar to a telephone system (which is a direct forerunner of the internet), it enables rapid point to point communication. A phone system enables communication between human beings. It achieves this by linking devices – normally telephones, but also facsimile (fax) machines, within a networked wired system. The telephone system also links other devices such as fire and burglar alarms and the computer systems that monitor them. All these points in the telephone system have an identifying number. We all know our phone number. Similarly within the internet point-to-point system, every point has its IP (internet protocol) number. For convenience, if we want to reach a point on the internet we only need to know the web address rather than the IP number. The browser system converts the address to the number. Every modem linking a computer to the internet has an IP number. If your computer is linked up via a modem and is online then your computer is one of the millions of links that make up the internet. When you use the browser software on your computer (or other device) to access a web site, you are actually sending a request for a packet of digital data to be sent to your computer via various transmission routes that could be both wired or wireless. The data then streams into your computer and is interpreted within your browser software and various other software items and hardware components of your device. A web site page then shows up on your screen. It is amazingly quick most of the time.
Besides closely resembling a telephone transmission system, the internet is also very much like a mailing or courier transport system. Data packages get moved from point to point. Sometimes packages get broken into sub-packages for ease of movement. Sub-packages can be sent via different routes to the same point. Distribution points are placed all over the internet and appear as physically based web service providers. Data warehouses called servers are placed around the globe. These can be huge and this is where data files are kept in discrete groupings as ‘sites’ – millions of web sites are made up of billions of files. The files were put together by web designers, developers and individual internet users. These data files are the essence of the internet. These are what we are requesting, accessing and receiving when we enter a web address into a browser or click on an address in a search engine list. The whole thing is unbelievably fast.
There is nothing inherently bad about the internet – no more that the telephone system is bad or the mail service is bad. It is actually very useful and can make life all that much more cohesive and effective if we wish. As with so many other developments through the ages we can see that the internet facilitates new ways of doing things so that previous ways are no longer needed, or needed to a lesser extent. Postal mail services are being cut back. A six day service may now be a three day service. Postal workers have far less paper mail to sort and distribute. Traditional telephone services are now increasingly affected by the cellular (mobile) system and direct internet telephony such as Skype and other internet telephone (VoIP) services.
The bad or evil that we project onto the internet is no more or less the evil that we could attribute to the postal, freight or telephone system. The actual evil or good arises in the use. If we send or receive drugs or pornographic images by parcel post, then it’s what we are doing that could be considered bad, not the medium. The same goes for illicit use of a telephone system. The internet lends itself very well to all sorts of legitimate, positive and highly resourceful uses. We can communicate with others, check on our bank account, renew our library books, research all sorts of things, as well as be entertained if we wish. This covers much of what many of us do with our access to the internet. However, there are significant and general dangers underlying use of the internet and modern phone technology. In the next article we will look at some of these dangers as well as some of the hygienic practices we can employ in order to minimize danger.