Thursday, 1 March 2012

The Centre of the Universe

The early Greeks wrote gnothi seauton (γνῶθι σεαυτόν), “Know Thyself” on the walls of the Temple of Delphi, thousands of years ago. Cogito ergo sum. I think therefore I am. A thought by René Descartes as he wrote in his Principia Philosophiae (1644). In short it captures the concept that the only thing I really know, the only thing I can be sure of is me, myself and I. Not in a physical sense, not as body, but I do have thoughts and that at least is Me.

I am the Centre of the Universe

It is not my intention to get deeply into this fundamental question here. I would like to go from the Me to the Universe and back. The Me is the starting point. Considering that Me is the only thing I know and assuming that the people I see around me do exist, I conclude that everybody else has Me as her or his starting point. That leaves me with the next idea: I am unique, because I am not one of the other people I see. I am the Centre of the Universe. Everything revolves around me.

Directly connected to this idea is the rather alarming concept that I am not unique at all. Because if I am unique I must assume that every body is unique. And every mind in every body. Everybody thus. And everybody is the Centre of the Universe. That contradicts the previous conclusion and so, Logic dictates, one of the two must be false. Or does it not?

Of course some people really keep on believing they are the Centre of the Universe, a lead which leads to Leaders. We have obvious examples in our time, such as presidents, kings, CEOs, generals, artists, thinkers. Think of Julius Caesar, Vlad the Impaler, some American presidents, French generals, Italian bureaucrats and many many more. Society at large revolves around what they do, they think.

A similar movement, probably as old the former, is the concept of higher powers, powers that are above human standards, powers that are at the Centre of the Universe. This movement has some obvious characteristics, shared in more or less the same way across the spectrum. Such powers can take all sorts of shapes and sizes, from the Natural World to ghosts and deities made in the Likeness of Mankind. These powers can be a continuum across all things, shared among many separate deities or considered to be centralized in one manifestation. All these superstitions share the need to be explained to 'the common people' by a small minority of what we, in modern day terminology, may call power-users. In which case the religious power-users act just as the Leaders above. Society at large revolves around what they do, they think.

My Place is the Centre of the Universe

Man's vision is obstructed, in both time and distance. So if you are not the Centre of the Universe than maybe your location is. Everything else is around it. There is little you know about a worldly existence far away. Your village, township, province or country is of course the centre! Both the Leaders and the religious power-users are happy and so are the common people. Who is to claim otherwise? Well, maybe your neighbour who has either a bigger country or a bigger army.

As Time proceeded and History passed us by, we came to see that neither the Leader nor the religious power-user was the Centre of the Universe. And since, like King Arthur's Table, the World was found to be round, it had no beginning and no end. No preferred place. But at least the World itself was the Centre and all Hemispheres were moving around the World.

Until the blasted Copernicus, Galilei, Kepler and the like showed that the real Centre of the Universe was the Sun. And later the Sun was replaced from its central position by the Milky Way Galaxy, until other galaxies were found, until … the Big Bang. And that theory created a Centre of the Universe that could not be beaten: the location where the Bang took place. Indeed, since the Big Bang we can see that the Big Bang itself is the Centre, of itself. And since everything that exists is part of the Big Bang, everything is (in) the Centre. And since everything is everywhere, the Centre is everywhere which is nowhere.

Lost (not the TV sitcom)? Lost about the Big Bang Theory (not the TV sitcom)? OK, here compressed in one sentence: even though we people feel there must be a Centre of 'Everything', of the Universe, there is in fact none. The Theory of Special Relativity states that if I walk, I stay fixed in one place and the Earth turns beneath my feet, and so does the whole Universe around me. How about that for Relativity?

Back to the Beasts

People believe themselves to be unique, different. Unique among other living creatures but also unique amongst other human. Many people believe also, even if they do not say so, that they are smarter than others. Anyway, I am unique and so are you. We are made of different elements, have different backgrounds both socially and hereditary. So we are all unique. Which makes us all the same, within our boundaries of being something you might call Human, or Man for short.

Man, in the course of History as described before, has given himself a central place in the Living World as well. Viewing himself as the Top Predator, the Top Intelligent, the Top. 'Funny', said the fungus, 'I though we were at the top of the food chain. If we eat it, it's dead or going to be dead soon'. Charles Darwin and other great thinkers in his time have shown that indeed we are unique and not unique. We, Mankind, are not at a Centre of Creation, a major Design or a World destined for Our Use. We are just passers-by in a continuous stream of dead and living matter of which we are part. May be we are a bit over the top but we certainly are not The Top. Life as we know it does not end with us.

Being unique is true of every living thing, each whale and each virus. Each fungus and each oak. And it is true of each non-living thing as well: rocks, gravel and clay. In the course of Time some animals, at least, developed a sense of Self. Whether or not plants can do that, I have no answer to that question. Being unique does not make me the Centre of the Universe. Nor you! You're just one of many uniques.

So, we're not unique in space and not as a being. Where does this lead us?

Forward to the Beast

Enter the Internet. A place where we as humans can open up our minds and live or fantasize whatever we want. No animals here, no other worlds. Well, virtuals only. Here you can be really unique.

When I started out on internet, in the pre-web days of the very early 90's, I considered myself rather if not very unique. I was for a group of about 500 people, members of my society, the Centre of a brave new World where no man had gone before; to them I was a unique person, a shaman. I hitched a ride on the new internet and took them along. I coached and co-axed them on board, gave them their reins and they could ride the beast themselves. Only ten years later new members could show me quite a few new things on internet! The uniqueness, the power-user was gone (and probably had never been there).

Here, on the internet, people search for the same principles as our forebears did in the World, the Universe and Mankind. Where is the Centre of the Internet and what makes me unique? Who are the top predators, the power-users that control its memory, writing, culture, meme, print, news, opinions, lies, education?

Like the physical Universe the internet has no boundaries and no Centre. Internet grows but doesn't get any bigger because its size is related to its content. It is filled with unique people, thoughts, fears which are therefore not unique. What triggered me to this comparison was a short note by the Raqs Media Collective in the 2010 Edge question How is the internet changing the way you think?

Suppose in the pre-web or pre-internet days (at least: your pre-web or pre-internet days) you had something unique. Let's say a very special sexual taste, something you wouldn't talk about in the open. Maybe not even in the dark. You’d think about it, consider it and put it away in a dark corner of your mind. Since nobody else has the same taste you consider yourself special, but you also feel sorry for yourself. You cannot share what you like or love because people may judge your taste as improper or strange.

Now turn on the internet, type a few well-chosen keywords and there are hundreds of websites, thousands of photos and tens of thousands of people with the same taste. You're not mad or insane, you are not even unique. So, the question is what can the internet do for me? The bigger question of course is What can You do for the Internet?

Sorry, you may not be unique nor the Centre of the Universe but at least you have friends to share your thoughts with. What is unique is that nobody is unique. And nobody can claim to be (or know) the Centre of the Internet, of the Living World or of the Universe.

What Can You Do For The Internet? Make sure that it stays open, accessible and extremely cheap. Make sure that people who think they are unique, top predators, power-users are curbed. They can take part, as part of unique generation of Mankind. People who consider themselves to be a small part of a great journey where everybody can have a say.

People that share instead of judge

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