Friday, October 7, 2011

Six Degrees

This morning I had another of those "small world" moments that seem to come so frequently in our hyper-connected world. I'm involved in a public art project for Columbus's bicentennial next year to create original pieces for the carillon bells at my church, and one of the composers who I've shown around the tower friend requested me. Even though I had never met her before this project, I come to find out that she's already friends with two other friends of mine. This is the point where most people just laugh and make a joke about how Columbus is really a pretty small town. But I've thought about this before and I'm not sure that it's so much that Columbus is a small town, but that we are all connected a lot more than we think.

Think about how many times this has happened to you: you're at a party, maybe not even in your hometown, and you fall into conversation with a stranger. That person happens to know someone where you're from or where you work or from your hometown, and son-of-a-gun you know someone who went to school with that person or who works with them or who dated them 5 years ago! Heh, small world, right?

But what if you're not at a party? What about that person walking down the street towards you? If you started a conversation with them, how far from you would they be? Or what about that other driver who you yelled at for cutting you off this morning? Or what about that guy sleeping on the stoop next to the bus stop?

Not so much fun anymore, eh?

I think that the truth we never think about when we laugh about the fact that we "happen" to know someone who knows someone is that really it applies to anybody. And not even people in our own hometown or even our own country. I'm willing to bet that every person reading this right now knows at least one person who either currently lives or used to live abroad. As soon as you find that connection you're into a whole other network. So my parish priest who grew up in Liberia probably links me to the Nobel peace prize winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and through her to all the people suffering in Africa who she and her compatriots have tried to help. Mankind's suffering and triumphs are not as far removed from us as we might think.

Some may say that this is just the result of our hyper-connected world. Except that it isn't. In the Homeric epics every time a character comes to a new place they recite a litany of connections that tie them to the people in that place. Texts ranging from the Bible to the Norse sagas are filled with genealogies that are designed to give the reader context and connection to the characters in those stories. This is a fundamental human drive: to find the connection, to learn how we are all connected to each other and what that can lead to.

Ironically, I think that the connections we are discovering through technology are are actually allowing us to return to our natural desire to find what links us together. I can only hope that as more people discover this and more connections are forged it leads to more understanding among all people, and a greater care for our common humanity.



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