“I am only one, but still I am one.
I cannot do everything, but still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something I can do.”

Edward Everett Hale

Thursday, 9 June 2011

The wonder of it all

I spend a lot of time on my computer most days of the week, either working, or browsing Unitarian blogs or Facebook. Having been born in a pre-personal computer age, (which really wasn't that long ago, no matter what my kids might think!) I am still blown away by the sheer wonder of it all. This was brought home to me by a comment, made about my last blogpost here, on Facebook, by Rev. Victoria Weinstein, who is mentioned in it. She had been alerted to it by a mutual friend, Paul Wilczynski, whose wife comes from my small part of the UK. So an American Unitarian Universalist minister in Massachusetts made contact with a British Unitarian ministry student in Northamptonshire, linked by a friend in South Carolina - and almost instantaneously. Can you imagine how long it would have taken, and what a complicated undertaking it would have been, before the existence of the World Wide Web?

It was Unitarian Sir Tim Berners-Lee who came up with the idea of the World Wide Web. Joshua Quittner, technology editor of Time magazine, describes what happened:

"he cobbled together a relatively easy-to-learn coding system — HTML (HyperText Mark-up Language) — that has come to be the lingua franca of the Web; it's the way Web-content creators put those little colored, underlined links in their text, add images and so on. He designed an addressing scheme that gave each Web page a unique location, or url (universal resource locator). And he hacked a set of rules that permitted these documents to be linked together on computers across the Internet. He called that set of rules HTTP (HyperText Transfer Protocol). And on the seventh day, Berners-Lee cobbled together the World Wide Web's first (but not the last) browser, which allowed users anywhere to view his creation on their computer screen. In 1991 the World Wide Web debuted, instantly bringing order and clarity to the chaos that was cyberspace."

The thing that brings a lump to my throat is that Berners-Lee could have become a millionaire, a billionaire, as a result of this inspired invention. But from the very beginning, he has fought to keep the Web open to all and free to all. Which is such a gift to the world. I salute him.

1991 - that is only 20 years ago. The world has changed so much since I was a little girl in the sixties. My life as a child then was not enormously different to that of my parents in the 1930s. OK, there were more cars, and we had a television, but my childhood activities and pleasures were much the same as theirs had been: exploring the neighbourhood (I was lucky enough to be brought up in the country); reading (voraciously!); playing board games; doing jigsaw puzzles; building lego - simple pleasures.

I think that things started to spiral out of control with the advent of the first PCs - personal computers - in the early 1980s. For the first time, this amazing technology could be owned and used by ordinary people. My first computer was an Amstrad PCW, with green letters on a black screen, and 256K of memory. And I thought it was brilliant! Then Bill Gates introduced Windows, and Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, and the whole computer world took a giant leap forward. On the entertainment front, first videos, then CDs and DVDs and MP3 players and satellite television changed the way we experience music and films. Today, hundreds of every-day objects have little computers inside them to make them work. Mobile phones are everywhere, and the latest smartphones are mini-computers all by themselves.

The sad thing about all this progress is that it is all taken so much for granted, especially by young people, who have grown up with it. Remember, it is twenty years since the invention of the World Wide Web, so a whole generation has never known a world without it, my children included. If my husband and I talk to them about what growing up in the sixties was like, the response is "how did you manage without it all?" coupled with relief that they don't have to. Sometimes I will comment on how amazing I find a particular piece of technology (for example when I watch the How does it work? programme on the Discovery channel) and they look at me with pitying smiles. They are very hard to impress. Their sense of wonder seems to have atrophied.

And I think that's a shame. I hope I'm not sounding like a Grumpy Old Woman, but I really do worry about our dependence on technology for our work and leisure. I'm a victim of this as much as anyone else; if my computer breaks down, or I can't access my e-mails or the internet for any reason, it feels as though my arm has been cut off. I can't do much of my job of serving Unitarians in the Midlands without it. But I think that it is only too easy to take all our modern marvels for granted (until they go wrong). We live in an immensely complex world, entirely reliant on the work of others and on technological innovation to live our lives. We press a switch and the computer turns on, the light turns on, the car starts. We turn on a tap and the water comes out, fresh and drinkable. We go shopping, and the shops are full of goods that have been delivered by a complex logistics network. How often do we actually consider where things come from, and how many people we are dependent on for our consumption? All these things are taken for granted; it is the nature of the complex society we live in. It is mundane, every-day, not a matter for wonder.

Well, maybe it should be. If we lived mindfully, with awareness, paying attention to the every-day miracles that make up our lives, maybe our sense of wonder would return. I have a book at home called Spiritual Literacy: Reading the Sacred in Every-day Life, which has really made me re-think how I approach that same every-day life. Frederic and Mary-Ann Brussat, the authors, explain: "The readings in this book reflect the wide variety of approaches and experiences of the sacred in everyday life. Many of us recognise the presence of Spirit moving in our lives through encounters with things, places, nature, and animals ... Our activities also put us on a spiritual path, [as does] being moved to service. A spiritual perspective is perhaps most evident in our relationships. We use this term broadly to refer to the many connections in our lives."

Reading it was a revelation for me. The Brussats have collected hundreds of examples from contemporary books and films, which they use to show the reader how to see the world with fresh eyes. Before reading it, it would never have occurred to me to thank my car for getting me where I am going, or to see the spiritual benefits of washing up mindfully. But I know now.

This is a very different approach to life. It involves being open and trusting, taking life as it comes, with thankfulness. Most importantly, it involves being aware, all the time, of the marvels around you, whether they are people or places or things. I'm not saying that we can do all this all at once; it is the work of a lifetime. But just being aware of this different approach to life may make a difference; it may help us to realise that the world is a pretty amazing place, and to count our blessings at the wonder of it all.

1 comment:

  1. This is great Sue...I spent most of my life tryinh to escape the ordinary and everyday...the greatest gift I have discovered is to expereince the beauty in the most simple things...all i needed was to clear my lenses...thank you X