Virtual Stew - Melting Pot Week on BTR


The Opte Project’s map of the Internet.

I have often wondered: What if the Internet was a physical place? What would it look like? Who would its residents be and what would the physical landscape be like? Would it have some sort of code of law and order, or would it be a culture of chaos? Who would its leaders be, and who would be its followers?

Perhaps what makes the Internet the most fascinating manmade environment ever created is its free access and endless possibilities. It is bound by nothing but the imagination of its citizens. And the rules by which it is governed are regulated by the individuals whom occupy its space—you can choose to be a member or ignore its existence altogether.

The sociological question I ask of this modern invention is how much has online access to global thoughts, knowledge and events contributed to the human melting pot that sees us transform from a heterogeneous species to a homogeneous one? Before the Internet, the only existing social experiment on any near-comparable level was the city. For thousands of years, humankind was predominantly a rural species. Small pockets of civilized people existed where they could survive—in agricultural zones where they could turn the land into harvest. Such a reliance on crops meant little travel, little cross-tribal assembly, and very little multi-tribal interconnectedness. The invention of the city-as-marketplace saw that entire rural-dependence shift, and urban societies began to flourish as self-sustainable environments. The city was the first real experiment of homogeneity in human history. Slave trading and developments in travel methods further sped up the process, and before long, places like London and Paris were populated by a lot more than just Saxons and Normans.

In Ken Burns’ documentary series New York City for PBS, it is said that New York is the ultimate experiment in testing the human capability to live among millions of dissimilar people. Perhaps he was right, as there is no other city that I can think of that is as culturally diverse, and with the same multi-million-person population, as New York. What Mr. Burns had not considered is the idea of the virtual place.

The Internet is the ultimate melting pot. It is a network inhabited by everyone from Hawaii to Nairobi, Edinburgh to Santiago, and Vancouver to Seoul. It speaks a common language (programming), is accessed by one vehicle (a network), is delivered upon one platform (microchips) and needs only one element for survival (us). If you accept those constituents to be the pillars of its structure, then it is hard to imagine how the Internet is not making us all one.

Online communication is expanding our human connectedness to reach places from our own home we could have never imagined. How is this changing the way we interact with people we meet in person? How has my Facebook friend in Seoul affected the way I communicate with the new Korean who started at my company this week? How has my access to online reviews of restaurants in Calcutta changed the way I cook at home? How has watching YouTube clips of Japanese game shows altered my Sunday night programming on CBS? How has iTunes contributed to the revolutions going on in the Middle East?

The fundamental principal behind the “melting pot” as trope is “a place where the fusion of different peoples, style, theories, etc. are mixed together.” Two terms in that definition that are supported by the very nature of the Internet: “place” and “mixed together.” If the Internet is anything less than that, I challenge our readers to tell me what it is.