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Culture

Does the Web Connect Us—or Disconnect Us?

Greg Hodges | Aug 8, 2015

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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Greg Hodges | Aug 8, 2015

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

If you’re reading this now, you’re using the internet. And if you use the internet, it probably means you’ve had conversations with friends, family, or acquaintances about how it has changed the way people interact with each other. Some think that these new technologies have improved our relationships with each other by making it easier to create and maintain personal connections. In the opposite camp, some think that they have alienated us from each other, trapping us in superficial, meaningless activities.

I’m sympathetic to both directions of that debate—but I’ve learned that we receive from the internet whatever we put into it. We’re the ones who make the difference, not the technology.

When my wife Mae and I lived in China, the easy connectivity of the internet became both a convenience and a curse for us. Web-based video calls made it easy, inexpensive and comfortable to have long conversations with friends and family back home in the United States. As a result, we made them often.

We’re also avid readers, and much of what we read we find online. So we found it very easy to continue to read material that our Chinese friends and acquaintances weren’t interested in, if they could even understand it in the first place. Unsurprisingly, this impaired our efforts to culturally integrate into the physical space we occupied in a large Chinese city. We consistently struggled to form soul-to-soul connections with those around us. Even though we physically lived in China, we still mentally existed in the United States. We faced a dilemma shared in one way or another by millions of people around the world: technologies of connection can also be technologies of disconnection.

In 2014, a few months before we returned to the United States, I wanted to look for some way to connect spiritually with more people. Knowing that Mae and I would be returning to the United States anyway, I considered putting my energy into something I could continue doing after leaving China. Social media seemed like a promising outlet. But I wasn’t really sure how I could use it to nurture ongoing, meaningful conversations. Then one day, while reading from the Baha’i writings and a bit of 19th century philosophy, I had the idea for a short essay I could write and submit to BahaiTeachings.org, a website I had recently discovered. Three weeks later, this site published it under the title Nietzsche and Learning to Love Prayer.

People-connectig-through-the-webI don’t know how many people have read it so far, but it must be in the tens of thousands. Over 1900 readers have liked it on Facebook. Seeing that so many people have reacted positively to something I’ve written feels a bit strange, and a bit exhilarating. Scrolling through the list of people who liked it or shared it with others on Facebook, I could see that in some tiny way I made a spiritual connection with hundreds, even thousands of people I will never physically meet, in countries where I may never travel. And yet, to this day, my wife Mae is the only person I’ve ever had a person-to-person conversation with about the ideas in that article.

That experience made me realize the huge, unrealized potential of the web for purposeful and uplifting interactions between souls that would have otherwise been extremely difficult and improbable under purely off-line conditions. Great things are possible. But perhaps we’re still a little ways away from making the most of that potential.

In many ways, the internet represents just the latest stage in a global process bringing the far-flung members of the human race into closer contact with each other. In earlier times, newspapers, printed books, the telegraph, telephone, television, movies, and radio each played a major role in bringing us closer together. The early figures of the Baha’i Faith noticed this and wrote about it. In one passage from the Baha’i writings, written around a hundred years ago, Abdu’l-Baha speaks of the social and spiritual possibilities that have been created by modern communication and transportation. And what he writes sounds more true of the internet today than it does of the technologies he was actually referring to at the time:

In cycles gone by, though harmony was established, yet, owing to the absence of means, the unity of all mankind could not have been achieved. Continents remained widely divided, nay even among the peoples of one and the same continent association and interchange of thought were well nigh impossible. Consequently intercourse, understanding and unity amongst all the peoples and kindreds of the earth were unattainable. In this day, however, means of communication have multiplied, and the five continents of the earth have virtually merged into one. And for everyone it is now easy to travel to any land, to associate and exchange views with its peoples, and to become familiar, through publications, with the conditions, the religious beliefs and the thoughts of all men. In like manner all the members of the human family, whether peoples or governments, cities or villages, have become increasingly interdependent. For none is self-sufficiency any longer possible, inasmuch as political ties unite all peoples and nations, and the bonds of trade and industry, of agriculture and education, are being strengthened every day. Hence the unity of all mankind can in this day be achieved. – Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, pp. 34-35.

The web, by itself, will not inherently connect or disconnect you to and from others. If we use it for noble and enlightening purposes, it can nurture meaningful and distinctive relationships that bring unity to the world. This part of globalization—the material technologies of communication facilitating a spiritual connection between souls—all depends on what we put into it.

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