The Indigenous Internet

| August 6, 2011

Recently I went to see Werner Herzog’s documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, featuring awe-inspiring ancient cave paintings in France created tens of thousands of years ago. The visuals and camera work were incredible, but one part that really struck me was an interview with a researcher recounting an anthropologist’s experience with Aborigines in Australia. While the anthropologist was with one of the natives near their tribe’s sacred rock paintings, the native began touching up the paintings. The anthropologist asked him why he was doing that, and the man responded that he wasn’t the one painting the rock; that a greater sprit, which was part of the rock and the paintings, was guiding him to paint it. This anecdote is just one example of a completely different way to conceive of self and tools.

A characteristic of indigenous beliefs is the interconnectedness of all things. A person is connected to a rock is connected to the sky is connected to a tree is connected to the ocean is connected to a bird.

We’re living in a time period of globalization and great disruption. We live in a moment of hyper-connectedness yet hyper-isolation. At this moment, I’m typing on a computer assembled in Taiwan, wearing jeans made in China and a shirt made in the USA, drinking coffee grown in South America. Things are so interwoven on a massive, international, billions-of-people scale; yet our lives are so different than how humans lived for thousands of years. Many of us [urban westerners] do not have any real connection to nature, as in sleeping outdoors, hunting for animals, moving with changing seasons. Most of us do not live within an intergenerational tribal community, interacting daily with extended family members, living amongst the same people our entire lives. In a time of increasing interconnectedness, we are also increasingly isolated from other people as well as the natural world.

It’s interesting to think of the Internet, though, as resembling some type of ethereal, interconnected essence, similar to indigenous beliefs. It embodies a power much greater than one individual; it is a repository of our ancestors; it contains echo chambers of millions of people. It stores our memories and knowledge. We huddle over its glowing light for hours a day, eerily. This is several steps away from the Internet guiding us to create a cave painting, of course, but when we type in a search term into Google, the knowledge, patterns, and behaviors of millions of other users are harnessed into a result that is far beyond our individual keyboard typing. I don’t want to over-spiritualize the Internet or think of it as something beyond just people—because that’s what it is, people—but the interconnectedness it affords inspires something akin to awe.