One of the assessments of the present age by the chattering classes is that because of new technology, the world is more interconnected than ever before, and that we are all the better for it. The former may be true, in the aggregate. Yet we have to question whether the latter is in fact always the case.
This morning at my usual pre-office coffee spot, I was awaiting my beverage when a delivery man came in to drop off some items and return others. It only struck me as he left that both he and the lady behind the counter were immigrants: he from somewhere in the Caribbean or Latin America, and she from somewhere in East Africa, most likely Ethiopia. They both spoke in heavily-accented but perfectly understandable English to one another, and each used what we would recognize as normal speech patterns in the United States among people who know each other professionally: a kind of informality that grows up between individuals who transact business together often.
I thought about how this scene might have played out a century earlier, with perhaps the delivery man being from Russia and the girl behind the counter being from Italy. In this country we are so often told that we are a nation of immigrants, but we are also a great leveler of cultures. Within their own lifetime, the immigrant behind the counter and the one making the delivery will likely see their children, born in the U.S., possibly growing up speaking their parents’ language, alongside non-accented American English. And their grandchildren, when they grow up, may very well not speak any language at all other than English.
Of course the question of what happens when you have to move to a new country and adapt to a new culture is not a new one. Today for example, the Church celebrates the Feast of St. Henry of Sweden who, as it happens, was not Swedish. St. Henry was born in England, but was studying in Rome when he was consecrated Bishop of Uppsala, Sweden, and went to work in that country. He accompanied the Swedes when they fought against the Finns in 1154, and stayed behind in Finland after the battle to work on converting the pagan tribes there to Christianity; subsequently he was martyred by a Finnish soldier.
We can assume that St. Henry spoke not only his native English, and Latin as a churchman, but because of the nature of his work he had to learn Swedish and Finnish as well. No doubt along the way he picked up some Italian, and possibly even French and German. And who knows: this is admittedly nothing more than speculation, but perhaps there was a language problem between him and the man whom he felt he had to excommunicate, and who eventually murdered the bishop.
That being said, the notion that the Middle Ages was a period of ignorance and provincialism is one foisted upon us by subsequent generations, particularly during the Enlightenment. It is true that for the peasantry, perhaps the majority of them never traveled beyond their native villages, unless there was a war on somewhere. Yet it is not true that people were ignorant of the world beyond the far set of hills on the horizon. Trade, for example, meant that all sorts of products made their way across Europe, Asia, and Africa, and a shopper at a market in London during the Middle Ages could purchase cinnamon for their mince pies brought from Venice, where it had been imported by Arab merchants who had traded for it in Indonesia.
Nor is the assessment of the ignorance of our ancestors borne out by an examination of the lives of those like St. Henry, who traveled widely in the service of the Church. On a tangible level, one need only look at the art and architecture of the period to realize that the lives of the saints from many different countries, for example, spread throughout Christendom and inspired people who lived far from where these individuals lived and died. Many of the medieval pilgrims to sites like Santiago de Compostela or Canterbury were travelers from countries other than Spain and England, who were familiar with the biographies of St. James or St. Thomas Becket and wanted to visit their shrines. This could hardly have happened in a society curtailed by provincialism and closed-mindedness.
These days we are told that the internet and social media have been responsible for achieving significant changes, and there is certainly evidence that this is the case. The fact that the Syrian opposition, for example, continues its fight against the Assad regime by making use of the internet to spread the truth of what is going on under that repressive regime is hopefully going to result in something good. Yet we also see that other repressive regimes make use the internet for evil purposes, to prop up their respective strangleholds over their own people, and prevent the rest of the world from knowing what they are up to. The verdict on the beneficent nature of being more interconnected is still out.
When it comes to immigrants, the question of how the internet affects them is an equally mixed one that deserves further exploration. For those who, for whatever reason, have to pull up stakes and emigrate to another country, being connected all of the time to what is going on back home can be a mixed blessing. True, it allows them to remain connected to what is going on back home, in a more immediate way that would have been impossible for someone like St. Henry.
Yet being so connected may also forestall these immigrants or their children from becoming more integrated into the country where they have ended up, leading them to remain in a kind of permanent ghetto status. Under this scenario, their sense of “otherness” is actually reinforced by modern technology and communications, rather than being eliminated by it. It then becomes very apparent that while technology is a wonderful tool, that is all it is: a tool. It is not a substitute for building true communities.