Wikipedia’s recently blackout in protest to the SOPA bill presented before Congress, and its possible threat to the free exchange of ideas over the web for the common man. According to the Wiki SOPA article, “On January 18, the English Wikipedia, Reddit, and several other websites coordinated a service blackout to protest SOPA and its sister bill, the Protect IP Act, or PIPA. Other companies, including Google, posted links and images in an effort to raise awareness. An estimated 7,000 smaller websites either blacked out their sites or posted a protest message. A number of other protest actions were organized, including petition drives, boycotts of companies that support the legislation, and a rally held in New York City.”
My friend Julie-Rae educated me on this matter, to which I attended to but a cursory look, my mind occupied with the immediate concerns of school and family. However, I did have an opportunity during the protest to go to Wikipedia’s site and do a “test search” to see what the blackout actually looked like. I can’t remember what search term I put in, but the article showed up briefly, but half a second, followed by a blacked-out screen with a questions of whether or not the viewer wanted to see the act pass, and its possible consequences (re: the black screen).
First and foremost, I agree with the protestors, although not in the hyperbolic sense as some of my friends online. Interestingly, in my own personal research for an upcoming discussion on Frankenstein with my AP classes, I came across John Milton’s Areopagitica (Milton’s Paradise Lost is heavily alluded to in Shelley’s Frankenstein) which, all the way back in 1644, protested a similar move by the English government, and includes the wonderful credo“Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties,” as stated by its introduction in the Norton Anthology of English Literature. Mine is the brief nod and “of course it’s crap,” agreement to the SOPA bill, then on to changing my 8 month old son’s diaper.
But my initial reaction to the blacked-out screen was not one of activist outrage.
It was relief.
I am one of those people who, due to a lack of discipline and the temptation to indulge in every discussion, film, Youtube post, or blog which comes my way, will willingly stayed glued to the screen until my eyes water, and jump from blue hyperlink to blue hyperlink. Wikipedia’s blacked-out screen suddenly put an end to this, albeit for a moment. A moment of a minor epiphany. I was given a brief Sabbath from the Internet.
Let’s take ourselves back to the core, essential definition of Sabbath. It comes from the Hebrew shābath, “to rest.” In more religious contexts, it is the day set aside by Christians and Jews to focus on God, which means a reprieve from work, errands, duties, and other activities which draw our attention away from Him.
Using more technological terms, a Sabbath is a means to “switch off,” from the distractions of the world.
We’ve all gotten to this point, perhaps, of wanting to turn off our cell phones, our laptops, shut off the iPod, leave our cars and tramp off into the woods for a few hours and communicate, perhaps with a friend or Nature, face to face, sans all technological applications. In our 24-7 nonstop society, this has turned into a real need, one that, for me anyway, often goes unfulfilled. There is too much to do, to see, to learn! And, O Happy and Accommodating Internet, look what thou hast provided! Unlimited information and discussion, and always at my fingertips.
I’m not saying this is inherently a bad thing. It would be the height of hypocrisy, given that this will soon be posted on my blog which I enjoy others reading online, to make such an absolutist statement. Yet Wikipedia’s blackout offered me a meditation on the dynamics between humanity and technology, and that need to periodically, perhaps more than we realize, to “switch off.”
I don’t think it is a mistake that the authors I most enjoy chose to forego or criticize technology. Brian Jacques, author of the Redwall series, wrote “My chief delight and satisfaction is annually to desert the world of modern technology. When winter fades and spring blossoms into summer, I feel an overwhelming urge to travel back once more. Mouse Warriors and Badger Lords come striding through the realms of my imagination.” JRR Tolkien, author of the Lord of the Rings, once wrote that the LOTR epic was essentially about the struggle of Man, the Fall, and the Machine. Sauruman’s downfall, in part, is due to his interest in the mechanical over his interest with things that grow. CS Lewis, in a more balanced view, stated in his essay “Is Progress Possible,” that with technology, “We can become neither more beneficent or more mischievous. My guess is we shall do both; mending one thing and marring another, removing old miseries and producing new ones, safeguarding ourselves here and endangering ourselves there.” GK Chesterton insisted that science, and thereby technology, should be used and viewed as “a tool or a toy.” Each author, in other words, put technology in its proper place.
And I think Wikipedia, unbeknownst to them, showed that to me as well a few nights ago. That night, the black screen and white lettering glowing faintly from my monitor, reminded me that it was well past time to switch off. I walked outside, the twilight air cool, and gazed up, drinking in the vesper air. I remembered Kerouac in his book Lonesome Traveler, on watch as a fire lookout on Mt. Desolation: “Sometimes I’d yell questions at the rocks and trees, and across gorges, or yodel ‘What is the meaning of the void?’ The answer was perfect silence, so I knew.” Or Thomas Merton, who most likely would have brought the Psalms to mind: “Be still, and know that I am Lord.” This idea of man alone, with the One, or himself, or just the lone nightingale in the tree beyond. A blacked out screen, beckoning to this, a single breath alone, before bed and rest.