God may be eternal, but timing is everything.
The Vatican is just about to name a patron saint for the Internet. This is no great surprise to close watchers of the Holy See. There have been signals that a cybersaint was in the works for the last two years.
Of course, you probably did not realize there was such a need. You have been logging on for years without worrying about the moral, religious or interpersonal implications. It is just part of your life. Besides, what does religion have to do with the Internet, anyway?
Maybe nothing, maybe everything. Just think about what has happened in the last year. Had Pope John Paul II acted promptly, could the dot-com crash of the last 10 months been averted, or at least softened? Having a saint watching over the efforts of programmers, Web site developers and Net users would have at least made it easier for devout entrepreneurs to stomach their reversals of fortune. Unclear is whether it really would have helped at all. Saints do not tend to be particularly concerned about the commercial success of their flocks. Saving souls, not corporations, is the primary goal.
The churchs choice also seems to hold minimal promise for the modern age of networking between networks.
The selection for patron saint of the Internet appears to be St. Isidore of Seville. This is a Spaniard, born in approximately 560, who lived in an age when it was possible for the most erudite person extant to think it was possible to set all human knowledge down in writing.
That Most Erudite Person Alive would have been St. Isidore himself. He was a friend of scholars and an enemy of barbarians, including the Goths and Vandals. He produced a 20-volume encyclopedia called the Etymologie, as a definitive work among his prolific writings.
The 20 volumes covered everything from grammar to rhetoric to medicine to “victuals” (food) to languages to stones and metals to agriculture to war to ships, houses, clothes and furniture.
But the sad part is that St. Isidore was not really creative in his own right. He simply compiled existing knowledge. Even though his work went through 10 printings at a time when printing was still a monumental effort, he was not providing any original insight into humankinds development or environment. He also was not creating any new means of communication. He was an editor. A learned editor, but an editor, nonetheless. And we all know they only have original ideas once or twice in their careers (wink, wink).
In effect, St. Isidore was a much more specialized patron. He was, perhaps, the patron saint of databases – if encyclopedia can be considered the print equivalent of a database.
If the early 21st century view of the Internet is that it is the repository of the worlds knowledge, then maybe Isidore should be its patron saint.
But the Internet is not just a database. It is not just a metastasizing body of the Earths knowledge. It is a progenitor of the same. It is a collaborative work the likes the world has never seen or fostered before. We are all Isidore, publishing together a work that only grows in stature, influence and complexity.
Indeed, the Roman Catholic Church itself recognizes that the Web can not be pigeonholed. By choosing Isidore as its patron saint, it says the Net is the modern embodiment of human knowledge. But it also recognizes that it is a means of linking individuals of all incomes, pursuits – and redemptive qualities.
Watching over that intertwining of minds is what Isidore really will be called upon to do. Think what you will of the Roman Catholic Church, the pope and even the Catholic Online Forum. But the key mandate of the Prayer Before Logging Onto the Internet asks for the intercession of Isidore to “direct our hands and eyes only to that which is pleasing to Thee and treat with charity and patience all those souls whom we encounter.”
Not a bad way for all humankind to conduct itself online. Maybe we could use a patron saint after all.
Tom Steinert-Threlkeld is Chief Content Officer at Ziff Davis Media and a former Editor-In-Chief at Interactive Week. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.