A Ray of Light to Those Adrift on the Sea of the Post-Modern Encyclopaedia Chaoticus

The majority of people have bought in to the vision of the world the marketers created. They opened their hearts, minds, and homes to marketing and entertainment technology, for the most part rejecting traditional methods and past times for what they perceive to be convenience and savviness. Under the heaviness of an endless firmament, in the same old town with the same old people, who could really blame them for falling into the spell whipped up by today’s sophists. Big money spins big dreams and big illusions all for the generation of more income. That’s what marketing is and what marketing does whether we’re talking about the radio marketing of the 1920s or the post-World War II marketing of the television era. Today most people don’t gather around a radio, and some people don’t even have a TV, and yet it seems that our society is ever more saturated with the marketing streaming in through all organs of admittance, a Buddhist term for the senses that seems particular apt considering the degree of advertising everyone is exposed to daily, especially with the almost obsessive use of the world wide web.

The world wide web in all its convenience has created a meta-world that I like to call the Encyclopaedia Chaoticus. The late Latin phrasing I use to describe the Internet illustrates the roots of encyclopedic culture while intimating that the chaos at work is less primordial than it is degenerative. In medieval times, there was an urge to catalog reality, from the natural and human world to spiritual hierarchies. Though by the under-informed, the past is often dismissed as dead and gone, passé so to speak, in the “post-modern” era of the web, we see the encyclopedic urge so popular in the middle ages. Except that with excessive multiplicity comes chaos.

The Tree of Affinity
The Tree of Affinity from the Etymologies of Isidore, an early encyclopedia

The Internet in and of itself is not entirely degenerative. In fact, the Internet is incredibly convenient, allowing instant access to an endless, encyclopedic sea of information, all categorized by code, algorithm, and hash tag. No more do we have to go to the library and dig for information if we have some type of query. However, the problem with the endless sea of web-based information is that people, especially those who have been engaged with the Internet from birth, substitute it for more disciplined and traditional forms of learning. They use it to build up their world views and self-concept, yet there is so much on the web that information access and exposure is chaotic. Big tech certainly manipulates the information that pops up via search engine as well. Though that type of manipulation is a sign of excessive control, for the average Internet user who is unaware of what is going on behind the scenes, what people perceive is that the information they access on the web is presented via chance regardless of how that information is catalogued or categorized. If they use social media frequently, which most young people do, the element of chaos is even more part of the experience. Sure, the user selects what to follow based on need, preference, inclination, and what draws the eye, but in its forms of influence, the information people mentally swim through is chaotically coalesced. Authoritative or under-informed, serious or flippant, useful or extraneous: the information people access daily comes from all directions and has a multiplicity of forms. If what enters the mind has no order, then, albeit useful or entertaining, it creates a sense of exterior chaos, even if just on some subconscious level, and within an age shaped by such exterior chaos, what we see is people participating in the degenerative practices that characterize social collapse.

The Internet is not going away, nor should it, but what the culture needs is some non-domineering yet illuminating structure. Revisiting, purveying, and popularizing our Western intellectual heritage is one way to offer useful ways of seeing and navigating the world for those who are adrift in the sea of the Encyclopaedia Chaoticus. In “The Allegory of the Cave,” those who are chained mistake appearance for reality. The shadows they see are mistaken for the actual forms of being. So too, in the age of the Encyclopaedia Chaoticus, the people mistake access to information as access to knowledge. Even with training about how to select stronger sources, those who are deeply involved with the Internet and social media are passively exposing their consciousness and their ways of being to the chaos of many voices, choosing the points of view of the many over the points of view of the wise. More information forever catalogued does not mean that the substance of the information is of a better quality, not does a cataloguing system make for a non-chaotic experience when what is uploaded is a motley of things. To reveal this conundrum is like taking the chained person into an unfamiliar and strange realm of light. Revealing this to those who have been customarily and comfortably chained will spark outrage and slanderous claims of backwards thinking because for many, the meta-reality of the Internet is what they accept as true and normal. Entertaining traditional ideas in a world where the powerful have directed the attention of the masses toward chaos is sure to be a glaring and uncomfortable activity at first and most likely unpopular for many impressionable young people who just want to fit in with what is mainstream.

a picture of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”
Jan Sanraedam’s Etching for Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

Although our audience may be skeptical or even hostile, we must offer up the light of wisdom without fear. It is not that there is one answer or one way of thinking that everyone should accept. Rather, when people reject the wisdom developed over centuries, they deprive themselves of well thought out help and what is good becomes obscured by the cacophany. So many people today are nihilistic and feel that the world is in an utter state of chaos. Even their bodies are in a state of chaos, out of alignment with the natural cycles of the planet. Would not the light of wisdom help them grow? Let people think as they would. Taking a dogmatic stance just scares people away. However, some of the maladies of modern man will not be alleviated if people keep choosing to wander in chaos rather than appreciating what traditional wisdom can offer.

The web isn’t the only thing contributing to the rejection of wisdom. Some of the problem is anti-intellectualism within society or indoctrination within the education system. Nevertheless, without a re-envisioning of the multiplicity of the web and what it actually offers and how it affects the psyche, we become a people more deeply adrift upon the sea of the Encyclopaedia Chaoticus.

The ray of hope is that we can still invigorate the western intellectual tradition and shape the future of web culture for the better. What we need to contemplate is how we can best popularize wisdom for generations that are dependent on web culture for shaping their experience of meaning.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder “A Dutch Hulk and a Boeier from the Sailing Vessels”