The Internet, Social Media and Imagined Communities

Bhagirath Iyer | SIPA, Urban and Social Policy, Class of 2018 

In 1922, French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin introduced the concept of “the Noosphere”, which was imagined by him as an envelope of human thought that would surround the Earth. Chardin believed that human beings – the highest-evolved beings on planet Earth – were first in an expansion phase on Earth and that phase has now given way to a contraction or unifying phase, where the success of human evolution will be decided not by Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’ but by human capacity to converge and unify.

The Noosphere is the space or, in Chardin’s words, “the living membrane” where our thoughts and ideas interact and converge. He imagined that this process of convergence and unification will lead to a single peak – what he called the Omega Point. But, importantly, the unification is complete only when along with our minds, our hearts also come together, “without which the ultimate wholeness of its power of unification can never be achieved”.

Chardin’s idea of the Noosphere has often been compared to the Internet and the World Wide Web. In fact, Chardin had even predicted the use of computers to help in enhancing our mental capacity. But are we really moving towards the unified state imagined by Chardin? Are the social media tools that we use today – tools that Chardin may not have envisioned within his idea of the Noosphere – helping to unify our thoughts and emotions?

Facebook and Twitter, two of the most commonly used social media tools on the Internet, are both undoubtedly helpful in sharing ideas. Recently, social media also helped bring many people across the world together after the terror attack targeted at French magazine Charlie Hebdo and the “Je Suis Charlie” slogan united many, sharing a common feeling of outrage and condolence.

However, both tools encourage you to take positions upfront, declare your interests, follow people who share your interests and join groups that interest you, possibly building digital walls around you and confining you within an echo-chamber. Arguably, you become part of an imagined community – to borrow from political scientist Benedict Anderson – even if the community is not a nation, and in fact, may be different from what you identify as your nation.

Do social media tools promote hatred? If we are “keeping out” people, do we also begin to hate them? Does that help explain the rampant ‘trolling’ on social media, which sometimes borders on abuse and violence?  Could that explain why, in the Chelsea bombings, a naturalized citizen of USA would want to harm innocent people belonging to his country of citizenship? Or could that explain why thousands have left their homes to join ISIS and its so-called Jihad?

We may not have the answers to these questions today, but it is worth exploring if and how social media (and the Internet) may really be dividing us more than bringing us together towards a unified (and loving) global mind, as Chardin had imagined.



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