Uexküll's spider web
"Uexkull said that man is not that much better than a spider. A spider's sight and hearing are poor and its sense of smell is not that great either, which means that its surroundings are limited by its sensory apparatus. But it has its web, by means of which it has extended its sensibility far beyond itself. Its sense of touch is very acute, by every movement of the web it can judge how far off and how big.
In the mornings at the Christian Foundation, when you crept out into the garden before anyone else was awake - not even the sisters - spider's webs hung between the bushes. Drops of dew clung to the strands, they caught the sun. And if you touched the web, even quite gently, wanted the spider would not appear. You had wanted to trick it into showing itself, but its sensitivity was so much greater than your won, it knew you were too big and powerful. Even though you were quite small.
Man is not that much better than a spider, says Uexküll.
The biggest webs were maybe seventy-five centimetres in diameter. Plus the strands to the tree trunks to which they clung. We had an agreement that no one was allowed to break the web, it was a rule among the children, the web was so big and the spider so small, you knew how it must have slogged to make it.
... The webs were so perfect. So regular and yet irregular. Totally identical and always different. Infinitely.
And almost never bigger than seventy-five centimetres.
Through its web the spider did not sense the whole world. It sensed only that part of it that the web could pick up. Direction, distance, maybe the approximate weight of its quarry, maybe its size. But certainly not much more.
Thus, too, with science and its twin, industrial technology. Physics extends its web out into the universe or down into matter, and thinks it is discovering ever greater slices of reality.
It might be feared that this is a fallacy, that is what Uexküll was on the verge of believing. if the spider extended its web further, beyond the seventy-five centimetres, it would still only be able to sense what lay in its own and the web's nature to sense. It would not find a new reality. It would discover more of what it already knew. Of what lay beyond - colours, birds, smells, moles, people, sisters, God, the trigonometric functions, measurement of time, time itself - it would still be hovering in absolute ignorance.
That is the one thing I wanted to say.
The other is this: Maybe it is possible to put it in stronger terms than Uexküll. Maybe the spiders at the Christian Foundation were smarter than man. Because they never extended their webs beyond a certain limit.
What would have happened if they had done so? If the spider's web were extended to infinity, as far out across and down under the threshold of the human sensory apparatus as technology has extended its sensors?
What would have happened is this: pretty soon the spider would be unable to cope physically with inspecting everything that became caught in the web.
And if the web kept on extending, farther and farther away, then the spider would start to receive signals from areas inhabited by other insects and with a climate other than its own. And it would receive many more signals than it could deal with. Then the abnormally large web and what it brought back would come into conflict with the essence of the spider, with its nature.
While the web would begin to change the world around it. Maybe it would become too heavy, maybe finally it would crash to the ground, dragging great trees with it in its fall. Maybe it would take the spider with it into perdition.
This is the other thing I have wanted to say: man's exploration of the world, is web, also changes this world. When I lie awake at night, when I cannot sleep and I sit up and look at the child and the woman, then I am afraid, then I know that the web has extended far too far beyond the sensory apparatus. Now it is reaching out to black holes and stellar nebulae, and down to elementary particles that grow ever smaller, it is discovering things that then rebound onto everyday life, becoming refrigerators, schoolbooks, caesium clocks, submarines, computers, car engines, atom bombs and a steady increase in the pace of life.
In 1873, at the meridian conference, when Sandford Fleming of the Canadian Pacific Railway suggested a "universal world time" for the entire globe, America had seventy-one different time systems. In 1893 the American version of Fleming's initiative was raised to the status of law in Germany. Just after the turn of the century large sections of Europe switched to Greenwich Mean Time.
Man extended time as an instrument right across the world. And into the education of children the school extended precision and accuracy. So far, that they reached the limits of what human beings can bear. The limit at which the web starts to yields to its own weight. And to pull the spider with it in its fall.
We never tore down or split a web at the Christian Foundation. You looked at it and you understood that it was an expression of balance. The spider had done what it could. The web was fine as it was.
From 'Borderliners' by Peter H|oeg.