‘The mortal in the portal’: how the online world strengthens our capacity to be truly human

I am indebted to Richard Ovenden, the University of Oxford’s Bodley’s Librarian, for the title of this blog; speaking last week at a City of London Livery Company Event in Vintners’ Hall, he used the phrase during the course of his fascinating (and passionate) insight into the work that librarians now do to educate their users about data and its meaningfulness, and his words captured my attention. ‘The mortal in the portal’: so many significances in a single phrase! So much that resonates with our experience and current understanding of how we interact with the online world! And so much embedded within it that points to the potential for our future relationship with technology …

‘Portal’ is a word loaded with potential in its own right – with its hint of technological sophistication in a future, science-fiction inspired world, it embodies the sense of a gateway to a wider world, be it access to our past, now digitised, or to geographically distant places, or to culturally and philosophically diverse thinking. As for ‘mortal’ … yes, this brings with it a time-limitation, for all mortal lives come to an end, and – with our wry sense of very human humour – we recognise that we attribute to it a sense of mistakes easily made and the potential for error (sometimes fatal), but it also communicates life, ageing, growth in wisdom and organic, creative thought, energy and movement.

Bring the two together, and we realise that each depends on the other to realise their potential. Without the mortal, the portal is inert – a series of 0s and 1s, without purpose or intent; without the mortal, the portal would not have been conceived of, nor would it operate. Without the mortal, who is there to press the ‘on’ switch?

Without the portal, though, the mortal is restricted to what he or she can find in the world immediately around, and while we know from personal experience how rich and varied this is, we know too, now we have glimpsed the possibilities that ‘the portal’ brings us, how much richer and more varied our worlds can become when we are able to access the vast fields of accumulated (and accumulating) knowledge that are ‘out there’.

Part of this week’s Times Educational Supplement is devoted to exploring the ways in which technology can enhance learning in the classroom, and in one of the articles I urge schools to think more broadly and more boldly about how to embrace this potential (and, specifically, in this case, the potential of online gaming). If we can prepare our young mortals with the skills of flexibility, adaptability, robustness and resilience, and if we can release in them their innate sense of curiosity, creativity and a desire to explore, then we can ready them for a world where they can make the best use possible of the work that previous mortals have done to create online portals to past, present and future. In turn, they will take this work forward, creating new pathways, new gateways and new levels of understandings.

And if we prepare them properly, with strong, deeply entrenched values that recognise the overwhelming importance of respect for fellow human beings and the essential togetherness of humankind, then we can ultimately ensure that their life’s work will be, as should ours be, to use the potential for connection and understanding that the online world brings to help heal division and make a truly positive difference and change in the world around us.

1 comment

    • Richard Ovenden on December 4, 2015 at 3:40 pm
    • Reply

    I must credit Lorcan Dempsey for the wonderful phrase: I was re-using it!

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.