What would Tagore have thought of the Internet?

There is a game I play now and again, asking myself what Tagore might have thought of particular aspects of today’s world. I remember suggesting over breakfast at a Tagore conference in 2012 that ‘Tagore would have loved the internet!’ Others agreed. I think it seemed to us that he would have welcomed the opportunity to speak to the world, given what a prolific letter writer he was, with a spectrum of forms of communication from brief notes through to belles-lettres. Would he have loved social media? Would he have tweeted? Had a blog? I don’t think we discussed that; it was just a casual remark over breakfast.

Thinking now about what Tagore would have thought of the Internet, I have decided it would worry him. But I know that’s because it worries me. I don’t like social media. I don’t tweet. I worry about emissions from the enormous data centres enabling all the traffic, from emails and twittering to streaming of music and movies, and all the stuff we keep on the cloud. But that’s not all. It’s the artificial culture that concerns me. The pretend friends. The artificial linked-in-ness. Also, it’s a system – which takes me back to Tagore’s likely thoughts on the subject. It used to be thought – and he expressed this himself occasionally – that his mission was to bring eastern spirituality as a remedy for western materialism. I think a more useful expression is ‘to bring eastern humanism as a remedy for western systematising’. In one of his most critical essays on the modern world, Tagore wrote that ‘all systems produce evil sooner or later, when the psychology which is at the root of them is wrong’. (‘The Nation’ in Creative Unity (1922)) Tagore went on to explain that his remedy for these systems was ‘individuals all over the world’ who are ‘channels of moral truth’, who are like trees ‘spread[ing] their roots in the soil and their branches in the sky, without consulting any architect for their plans’. The systems behind today’s social media are networks of algorithms with no psychology or moral basis, which deal out amongst us fragments of what we have posted according to artificial criteria over which we have little control. And those systems are infectious. We adopt their habits and behaviours. We become channels of trivia. We lose our humanity and become nodes in the system.

I do have this blog – and a website, both named Tagoreanworld, but I don’t use them much. I used to have a website called des4rev, short for Design For Revolution, which got enormous over the years, with masses of stuff on permaculture and socialism, and ideas on world change, which came up in google searches and many people found it interesting. But it’s gone now, I let the hosting lapse.

One good thing about the internet is the way old books get new lives, appearing as e-texts. Tagore’s Creative Unity can be read again at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/23136/23136-h/23136-h.htm . Here is an extract from his essay on ‘The Modern Age’ about how its systems repress personality:

‘The terribly efficient method of repressing personality in the individuals and the races who have failed to resist it has, in the present scientific age, spread all over the world; and in consequence there have appeared signs of a universal disruption which seems not far off. Faced with the possibility of such a disaster, which is sure to affect the successful peoples of the world in their intemperate prosperity, the great Powers of the West are seeking peace, not by curbing their greed, or by giving up the exclusive advantages which they have unjustly acquired, but by concentrating their forces for mutual security.

‘But can powers find their equilibrium in themselves? Power has to be made secure not only against power, but also against weakness; for there lies the peril of its losing balance. The weak are as great a danger for the strong as quicksands for an elephant. They do not assist progress because they do not resist; they only drag down. The people who grow accustomed to wield absolute power over others are apt to forget that by so doing they generate an unseen force which some day rends that power into pieces. The dumb fury of the downtrodden finds its awful support from the universal law of moral balance. The air which is so thin and unsubstantial gives birth to storms that nothing can resist. This has been proved in history over and over again, and stormy forces arising from the revolt of insulted humanity are openly gathering in the air at the present time.

‘Yet in the psychology of the strong the lesson is despised and no count taken of the terribleness of the weak. This is the latent ignorance that, like an unsuspected worm, burrows under the bulk of the prosperous. Have we never read of the castle of power, securely buttressed on all sides, in a moment dissolving in air at the explosion caused by the weak and outraged besiegers? Politicians calculate upon the number of mailed hands that are kept on the sword-hilts: they do not possess the third eye to see the great invisible hand that clasps in silence the hand of the helpless and waits its time. The strong form their league by a combination of powers, driving the weak to form their own league alone with their God. I know I am crying in the wilderness when I raise the voice of warning; and while the West is busy with its organisation of a machine-made peace, it will still continue to nourish by its iniquities the underground forces of earthquake in the Eastern Continent. The West seems unconscious that Science, by providing it with more and more power, is tempting it to suicide and encouraging it to accept the challenge of the disarmed; it does not know that the challenge comes from a higher source.’

Tagore goes on to say that he puts his faith in ‘two great religions of the world’, Buddhism and Christianity, with their ‘prophecies about the world’s salvation’ through ‘the truth of love’. The essays closes with the words:

‘We must know that, as, through science and commerce, the realisation of the unity of the material world gives us power, so the realisation of the great spiritual Unity of Man alone can give us peace.’

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