Toward a global collaboration

The Internet is more than cat videos. It was born with the promise of making us all smarter by connecting smart people everywhere. Guess what? It is actually doing that. Look at the case of prodigies discovered in the far corners of the globe.

By , Editor-at-Large

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    children played games online at a community center in Rio de Janeiro in 2012.
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 It was probably the mid-1920s when the automobile (a word that doesn’t show up in literature searches until the late 19th century) crossed the line from modern marvel to commonplace conveyance, when that amazing technology of horseless locomotion became simply “a ride” or “a lift.” 

Air travel lost its magic more recently. People were rhapsodizing about flight as late as the 1970s. An Eastern Airlines commercial around that time flew viewers above the clouds and put a lump in their throats by calling its fleet “the wings of man.” (It was 1959 when I first flew, but I remember it vividly: a DC-7 from Tokyo to Honolulu to Los Angeles; a tiny window that my siblings and I took turns looking out of; the package of Fig Newtons from the friendly stewardess. It was awesome. Now flying is just “a trip.”)

We’re doubtlessly approaching the point of ho-hum with the Internet. The once-thrilling adventure of surfing and browsing is as dated as Beanie Babies and the “Macarena.” But before we get all been-there-done-that, take a look at a new Monitor cover story. You’ll see how the worldwide web of knowledge – the true intent of the Internet even if it sometimes seems more famous for updating and time-wasting – has penetrated the far corners of the globe.

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But even that isn’t especially surprising. What it yields is.

Prodigies, geniuses, and kids who stand out from the crowd exist in every age and culture. Some are born with special talents. Many simply apply themselves. Some become world famous. Many live their lives in quiet obscurity – which isn’t always a bad thing. They might channel their talents along locally important lines, teaching others physics or developing a new water pump for farmers.

With the leapfrogging made possible by the Internet, the young and talented are increasingly tapping into high-level knowledge and connecting with one another. Even that may seem a little expected given the spread of Massive Open Online Courses, which Laura Pappano explored in our June 3, 2013, issue. In a followup, Laura shows you what happens when knowledge penetrates even the world’s most remote areas: how top-tier institutions such as Harvard and MIT use MOOCs to engage and recruit the brightest students anywhere – Mongolia, India, Pakistan.

It gets better. This is not a story of the exceptional and talented turning their back on their native lands and joining the cosmopolitan elite. Sure, that could happen. But these young people frequently plan to apply what they learn in the land of their origin. These are mental travelers at home in Cambridge, Mass.; and Ulan Bator, Mongolia; and participating in Coursera’s “Modern and Contemporary Poetry” MOOC – the kind of individuals that Thomas Hardy described as carrying “like planets, their atmosphere along with them in their orbits.”

Like the automobile, the airplane, TV, and other technologies, the Internet is a mixed blessing. Everyone knows about its downsides. This week, consider its upside: The next steps in science, literature, music, and a thousand disciplines likely won’t emerge from one nation. They will develop collaboratively on a network that connects the best and brightest no matter where they are. If the World Wide Web is no longer especially remarkable, it’s encouraging at least to see its original purpose being fulfilled: not just to amuse us, but to make all of us better and brighter. 

John Yemma is editor-at-large of the Monitor. He can be reached at yemma@csmonitor.com.

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