“These are the days of miracle and wonder,” wrote Paul Simon in his song “The Boy in the Bubble.” I’m reading a book called The Age of Wonder about a time in the late 1700s and early 1800s when all branches of science were experiencing astonishing breakthroughs—from the development of telescopes powerful enough to see deep into space for the first time to the invention of the voltaic battery that researchers actually thought might have the ability to create anew the “spark of life” in a person who had died. It was the tantalizing and frightening possibilities of the latter that gave rise to Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein.
Today is, as Simon sings, another age of wonder, though we take much of it for granted. Today we think nothing of the ability to connect with anyone anywhere instantaneously. We also have at our fingertips vast stores of information that can be analyzed by computer programs in ways unimaginable to prior generations. And the Internet lets anyone be a publisher.
Of course, these advances can lead us down paths as dangerous in some ways as Frankenstein’s. Too much analysis of unrelated data can border on numerology where one finds meaning in meaningless patterns. The fact that the Internet effectively puts a printing press in everyone’s hands can be both liberating and daunting: liberating in that it helps dissidents in tyrannical regimes reach beyond the censors and communicate with each other and the world; daunting in that it becomes easier, to paraphrase Mark Twain, for a lie to race around the world while the truth is still putting its pants on. And telling the difference between what’s legitimate information and what’s just thrown up onto the Web in hopes that you’ll click on it and pass it around like a cat video isn’t as easy as one would hope.
(To continue reading " Miracles and Wonder, Past and Present," from our April 2012 issue, please click here)
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