The Internet, Life as We Know It, and Christmas

The Internet is a tool of astonishing power, but it is not an unmixed blessing.

Its dangers were prefigured with amazing prescience in the 1940s by Tolkien’s palantir. Like a palantir, the web exerts a powerful draw by offering us the ability to see whatever we wish; but, also as when using a palantir, we are watched as well as watchers: the web tracks us and subtly guides what we see. It gives us the illusion of control, while denying us the reality of physical human contact. Its world is a shadow of our own.

The Internet is a two dimensional world, but we live in three dimensions (or rather, four, including the great limiter, time). Compare sexuality on the Internet with that in real life: the one is, well, whatever you want to see; the other, depending as it generally does on physical interactions with another person, is uncertain, electric, time-bound and oh so alive. The one is an infinitely cheapened version of the other, reducing to pixels and sound acts that can be intimate and loving, as well as sensational.

The web also serves as an echo chamber. On it, we can dwell all too comfortably in a bubble consisting only of those who share our opinions. Irrespective of what we think, or what we think about, we can find others of like mind on the Internet; and we can convince ourselves that those who are outside our circles are lesser than we – or even  downright evil. To see this sort of crowd psychology, you need look no farther than the comments section of most blogs; there you will find far more hatred and contempt for the opposing team than logic and balance. With the web’s quasi-anonymity, self restraint fades.

Even some of the web’s most alluring capabilities are not exactly what they at first seem to be. Many hope that more fulfilling social lives will flow from their participation in social networking sites, but from what I read (on the web!) and hear, those who dwell on such sites are more often depressed by how happy everybody else’s profiles make them seem than they are thrilled at the genuine connections they have made. Being “friended” on a social networking site bears little relationship to actually having people who care about you. The nuances of human interaction are lost in two dimensional space.

And finally, the Internet deprives us of privacy – mostly voluntarily. We allow ourselves to be tracked so we can electronically hail a cab, find a restaurant or check the forecast. Soon enough, marketers know exactly who we are, our means and our tastes. More perniciously, the NSA, or others, may read our emails, follow our wire transfers and track our social interests and our politics. Big Brother lives on the web, and it is giving him strength.

In spite of these shortcomings, there’s no turning back the clock. The Internet’s astonishing ability to deliver information in infinite quantity and variety at virtually no cost has irrevocably changed our world. If information is power, the web has distributed an important kind of power to all. We just need to be mindful of how it, like Tolkien’s palantir, can play on our weaknesses.


Two days ago, we passed the winter solstice. Tomorrow is Christmas. In a few weeks, we’ll start to notice the lengthening days, even as temperatures drop to January’s lows. Time and temperature – as regularly flashed by roadside billboards – mark our days in the here and now.

The Christian message is a difficult one; I have struggled with it for as long as I can remember. Faith is easy to lampoon, but reason alone is a compass without a pole.

Our world is multidimensional. We live with uncertainties, and the inchoate hope of a dimension beyond our knowing. Whether or not  such an additional dimension exists, I am convinced that we should, and we will be happier if we do, behave as if it does.

Merry Christmas to you and yours.


– M. H. Johnston 12/24/13


Full Moon

Yesterday, this winter’s seemingly incessant snowfalls paused and the sky cleared to an exquisite blue.

When my wife and I sat down to dinner, we were treated to a timeless sight: outside our kitchen window, just above the horizon, a full moon shone through the trees’ leafless branches, reflecting on the snow beneath. It appeared so big and so bright that we happily shut off the overhead fixture and spent most of our mealtime gazing not across the table at each other, but sideways, out the window, marking the moon’s slow but visible progress limb by limb.

The moon is a universal call to the infinite. We are drawn to it, as to fire and ocean or mountain views. Think of what, for reasons that are primal rather than rational, such views, or even just a working fireplace, do for real estate values. These things draw us out of ourselves, and into communion with a broader universe, in which we are but fly specks. They are also the same all over the world and throughout time. We could’ve been poor goatherds in Araby or rice farmers in Asia contemplating the exact same moon. Or Mr. and Mrs. Charlemagne.

These days we spend a lot of time talking about how quickly the world is changing. In my lifetime, the Internet has wholly changed how information is gathered and shared, and the world’s geo-political map has been redrawn many times, as governments, ideologies and alliances have come and gone. Even the makeup of the human race has changed, as different cultures engender different demographics.

But the moon will keep revolving around the Earth for as long as our solar system endures. And, barring some catastrophe, women will go on having babies, and people will live and die in much the same relation to each other and to the infinite as we have today. Human nature will never change: each of has but a few moments under the sun, or moon, to savor God’s work and to do things that matter.

The clouds are back this morning; more snow is expected.


– M. H. Johnston 2/15/14





One comment to The Internet, Life as We Know It, and Christmas

  • Anonymous  says:

    Enjoyed the 12/24 post-very relevant for where we are once again. Faith and life and the world.

Leave a reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>