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Have you ever thought about the meaning of space and time? It seems extremely ordinary and commonplace. But it’s a strange thing when you really contemplate it, especially when we start thinking about how people interact with each other online.
Let’s review the basic rules: space has three dimensions: height, depth, and width. Anyone or anything can only be in one place at a time. In order to go somewhere else, we must pass through all the space in between. Time passes in one direction, like a car moving along a road. What happened in the past is gone. The present moment always slips into the past, but never goes away. We’ve taken these simple rules of space and time for granted since time immemorial. But in recent years, one of our species’ most unusual inventions has disrupted that common sense: this thing you’re using right now called the internet.
In addition to time and space as I just described it, a second realm of time and space exists with its own rules, all opened up by computers, phones, servers, undersea cables, and other electronic infrastructure. In this realm any webpage can connect immediately to any other by simply linking to another site, without having to pass through any intermediary locations. Online conversations from years ago can be found, perfectly preserved, as if, at any moment, one of its participants might hit the “reply” button and keep it going. You can interact with an individual on the other side of the planet more intensely than someone on the other side of the room.
Wherever we go in our physical environment, we see people completely motionless, gazing into their phones or their tablets, seemingly oblivious of those around them. Like an artificial arm or leg attached to a human body, this electronically generated time and space attaches to and interacts with the natural sense of time and space. Today, our minds function in a hybrid universe, partly in the physical environment, partly online.
One aspect of this transformation involves the change in how individuals become present to each other. When we interact with people over the internet we typically leave something behind—text, photos, audio or video—that they will later discover and respond to. Although photos and video have made the web much more visual than it once was, the presentation of the self over the internet still comes primarily from written language. Web-based social interaction mostly occurs with words—for instance, my body is in Maine, USA, but through my words I appear in front of you wherever you read this.
So how do we go beyond mere words and make spiritual connections with people online? The internet doesn’t just create more or fewer opportunities for fellowship—it goes beyond quantity to quality. Online interactions unfold under different material conditions than those that occur offline. And depending on the choices we make and the habits we develop, the contact we have with people and the traces they leave online can either nurture our spiritual development or impede it.
The web only has words and pictures to express complex emotions and thoughts. So any effort to raise the spiritual quality of our interactions online must take into account the power of words. Consider these ideas about the qualities of words from the Baha’i Writings:
Every word is endowed with a spirit, therefore the speaker or expounder should carefully deliver his words at the appropriate time and place, for the impression which each word maketh is clearly evident and perceptible. The Great Being saith: One word may be likened unto fire, another unto light, and the influence which both exert is manifest in the world. Therefore an enlightened man of wisdom should primarily speak with words as mild as milk, that the children of men may be nurtured and edified thereby and may attain the ultimate goal of human existence which is the station of true understanding and nobility. – Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, pp. 172-173.
I don’t need to be physically near you to be affected by your spirit. Your words carry a power of influence that can travel around the world. They can destroy like a raging fire, or illuminate like a light. If you use well-chosen and well-said words, they can help nurture others to a condition of true understanding and nobility. I would never get on a plane and fly to Indonesia so I could insult a Muslim to his face–so I should be careful that I don’t do virtually the same thing by writing something insensitive over the internet. By using a computer, I have tangible spiritual responsibilities to people all over the world.
Yes, it may be difficult to know who’s out there reading what you’ve written on Facebook, or who will watch the video you’ve posted to YouTube. It’s impossible to know what they’re going through or what will speak to their heart at that moment. So be prepared. Our words have power. Our words can travel around the world. Our words can persist online for years. They could burden people in ways we don’t understand; or they could enlighten their souls. We don’t know if that power will be released today, tomorrow, or ten years from now. But when we make our words resonate with love and respect over the internet, we can be confident that they do matter. With each passing year, our new common sense will reflect our changing powers of human expression.