I can’t imagine life without Google. How about you? With a few keystrokes and a click of the mouse, the whole world of information is right at my fingertips. A life without Google? How would I look up the weather, order a book, research trends, access Wikipedia, keep up with my favorite band, look up movie times or even get the Blackhawks score?
If there wasn’t Google, how would I Google myself?
Try as I might, it’s nearly impossible to imagine life these days without the ubiquitous search engine with the quirky name that places nearly all the world’s available information at my fingertips.
Now, of course, there was a time in my life when Google didn’t exist.
But for most of our first-year students sitting here this afternoon my riff on Google seems somewhat archaic, because you’ve never known life without Google. The search engine was created in 1996 – in a garage, of course – by two students. They envisioned a way to “organize a seemingly infinite amount of information on the web.” In essence, Google was their solution to help all of us in our seemingly unquenchable need for information.
A few years later, those same students received millions of dollars in equity funding to launch the monster search engine they called “Google.” And today, we rely on this $60 billion dollar behemoth to process six billion search requests every day. Half of which must be people Google-ing themselves.
Google wasn’t the first effort to amass and catalogue the world’s information. People have been trying to “know it all” for a long time. In the 3rd Century before the Christian age, the Ptolemies of Egypt established the Royal Library of Alexandria, described as the largest of the ancient world. The Library’s mission was to collect all the world’s knowledge. The Library was a target for destruction by occupation armies of Julius Caesar, later by the Coptic Pope Theophilus and ultimately by decree of the Muslim caliph Omar ibn al-Khattab. Its storied repositories have been scattered across the globe or lost forever.
In the seventeenth Century, German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz spent his life constructing a logical scheme to capture the totality of human knowledge using mathematics, philosophy, theology, history, and jurisprudence. Leibniz concluded that human knowledge was more complex than he could logically rationalize and convey to any other human being. The results of his knowledge calculus have never been published.
19th century French author Gustave Flaubert attempted to write a story of two men who sought to immerse themselves in every branch of human knowledge – from religion to archeology to chemistry. As a consequence of their quest, Flaubert’s heroes experience great misery and grief, only to return to their lives as copy-clerks. A perfectionist, Flaubert himself was so obsessed with the idea of amassing knowledge that he read more than 1,500 books in preparation for writing his satire on the futility of human knowledge. He hoped that this story, Bouvard et Pécuchet, would be his magnum opus. The work was never completed.
If Leibniz and Flaubert found the quest for all human knowledge impossible, imagine their task these days, where through the marvels of technology, human beings are creating as much information as the entirety of recorded history combined, every 12 months. A recent study by IBM indicates that soon the doubling of human knowledge will occur every 12 hours. As a result, scientists have concluded that no human device can contain and store the extent of human information that has been generated in our time. So they have turned to creation. DNA, in fact.
The New Yorker recently reported that Joe Davis, a scientist and artist, has embarked on a project to store all the information in Wikipedia into the genetic data of apple trees using bacteria that will insert the coded DNA into the DNA of a four-thousand-year-old strain of apple. He aims to create a “living, literal tree of knowledge.” Given the immense capacity of DNA to store genetic code, scientists believe that we will have a nearly unlimited amount of storage capacity for all the information being generated by humans around the world. Maybe in a few years, you will be able to plug into your local orchard and download the latest Beyoncé release. (I have to pause here. I’m having an Avatar moment.)
If human beings can now generate and potentially store all of the accumulated knowledge of recorded time, and if a search engine like Google can retrieve it with the click of a button, don’t we have everything we need. Like, “Library of Alexandria? No problem. Click. Got that covered.”
Shouldn’t open and unfettered access to all that knowledge be sufficient for human flourishing? And if so, why does anyone need to go to college? Why are you here today? Why is it that we still yearn for more? And what is it that we yearn to know?
T.S. Eliot probes this insatiable, uneasy human quest for knowledge in his poetic Choruses from The Rock:
O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying!
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Brings us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.
Eliot suggests that, amidst all our technological wizardry, medical advances, and two millennia of human progress, we are even farther removed from knowing the Source of all creation and our hope for eternal life. Eliot strikes at the heart of what a rigorous education at Valparaiso University is all about. Here, we seek to turn information into knowledge. Together, we will seek to discover Truth and cultivate wisdom. Here, we offer both a cultural ethos and opportunities for you to draw closer to the essence of Life and Light: the source of all knowledge, the source of all wisdom, the source of all Truth.
Convocation is the ceremony in which we officially welcome you, our newest students. This is the 86th Opening Convocation at Valpo. And like the women and men who sat in these pews 10, 20, 50 years before you and who will sit here 50 years in the future, you are challenged on this day to use your time at Valparaiso University to gain knowledge, seek Truth, and grow in wisdom. We believe you carry the potential to accomplish exceptional things, not only as part of this community but also throughout your lives. You come to us with aspirations, dedication, devotion, hope – a desire to fuel your passions and find your purpose in this world.
Students, throughout your experience here at Valpo, you will begin to discern your gifts and define the work of your life. As a Lutheran institution of higher learning, we understand this as your vocation or your life’s calling. Thomas Merton, a prolific writer in the American Catholic tradition and Trappist monk, said this about vocation: “Discovering vocation does not mean scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of true self I already possess. Vocation does not come from a voice ‘out there’ calling me to be something I am not. It comes from a voice ‘in here’ calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.”
Students, while you are at Valparaiso University, take great care to listen to the “voice ‘in here’ calling [you] to be the person [you] were born to be.” It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity at this once-in-a-lifetime place. And it has the capacity to change the course of your life. All of us at Valpo, faculty and staff and your colleague students, are all here to help and support you in this very important process of deep reflection and discernment. Because we know that when your passion meets your purpose, when you find that most excellent thing that you will live to do, your very life will become an offering for the glory of God.
Valparaiso University is a place that will prepare you for a fulfilling life; one lived with knowledge, character, integrity, and wisdom. At Valpo, we bring people together intentionally from different backgrounds, belief systems, and cultures to learn from one another, to participate in important and sometimes difficult conversations, to express a wide variety of faith traditions, to model for one another and for the world what it could be like to live in a community of love and mutual respect, even when our differences may be irreconcilable, and to prepare for lives of leadership and service.
I am pleased and very proud to officially welcome you into this exceptional community of learning we call Valparaiso University. May God richly bless your quest for Truth, from information to knowledge, and from knowledge toward wisdom and understanding. And I most fervently pray that, while you are here among us, you discover that thing that you will live to do.
Welcome to Valpo!