Early Christian reactions to ‘cyberspace’

I now have a new article published by the journal Internet Histories, which is available online.

Here’s a summary. Alternatively, read the accepted version in full (Open Access PDF)

Technology, ethics and religious language: early Anglophone Christian reactions to ‘cyberspace’

The article falls broadly into two halves, both concentrated not so much on the history of the Internet and Web as technologies as on the kinds of terms Anglophone writers used in order to understand them. The time frame is what I’ve called the ‘long Nineties’, beginning in 1989 and ending in 2001.

Between 1992 and 1996, as Thomas Streeter has shown, ‘the Internet ceased to be imagined as merely a cluster of imperfectly connected technologies that interested computer scientists and became instead an integral system with an agency of its own to promote change: change that could not be resisted, only shaped’. This was followed by ‘a remarkable effusion of writing in English between 1996 and 2001 that addressed the spiritual and ethical implications of the coming technological revolution. At the same time as the dotcom bubble inflated, writers across Europe and North America were seeing visions of future utopia and dystopia fashioned by this seemingly unstoppable technology.’

The first half pays particular attention to language, and the degree to which discourse about the Internet was cast in religious terms. The article looks at the whole range of metaphorical and metaphysical framings of the internet and Web: from purely metaphorical talk of the ‘soul’ of the Internet (meaning an idealised culture of its users), to its use as a metaphor for God (and of God as a metaphor for the Internet). These ideas were related to the notion of the ‘technological sublime’ (David Nye), but some went further to attribute to the Internet something very much like a consciousness and (at the extreme) a manifestation of the divine. There was little in this complex bricolage of concepts and images from several religious traditions to form anything like a coherent theology of the Internet, and the very imprecision of the concepts involved was part of their valency across apparently antithetical fields of discourse. I suggest that contemporary imaginings about the Web were one example where religious sentiment, broadly defined, had transferred its focus to something other than mainstream religion. If the secularisation of language has never been completed (assuming it could ever be), it should be no surprise that moral and ethical debate was often conducted in terms derived from the Christian history of the West.

The second half looks in particular at Christian reactions to the Internet in general, and this pervasive use of religious language in particular, since its very syncretism was a source of acute discomfort to those Christians attempting to understand it. It first puts these reactions in a longer context of Christian criticism of computerisation more generally, dating back to the early 1980s and indeed earlier. Some Christians responded simply to the likely effects of particular manifestations of life online, seeing ethical challenges in relation to economic and social exclusion, and the subtler impact on the health of interpersonal relations; others, though in the minority, elaborated a semi-mystical evolutionary understanding of the Web, inflluenced by Teilhard de Chardin, that had parallels with those more influenced by pagan or Buddhist thought. Others again set aside high-flown imaginings, either positive or negative, and adopted the Web as a pragmatic means of achieving their ends. I concentrate in particular on some of the reactions to shifts in the conceptual vocabulary of the West in relation to personality and the soul, human capability and its limitations, and the relationship between humankind and God. The more overheated rhetoric that surrounded virtual reality, artificial intelligence and the capabilities of the network seemed to threaten the Christian notion of human uniqueness and the right relationship of fallen imperfect humans to their Creator.

Web 25: Histories from 25 years of the World Wide Web

Niels Brügger (editor)
Web 25. Histories from the First 25 Years of the World Wide Web
New York, Peter Lang, 2017. Paperback at £36.

It’s always a great pleasure to have sight of a book in which some of your own work appears. In the case of Web 25, it contains my short cultural history of the first 20 years of world Web archiving. But the book as a whole is full of intriguing other things, some of which I draw out here.

One of the most interesting areas (for me) in the emerging field of Web history is that of the early intellectual history of the Web: the modes in which people told stories about how the Web came into being and what it was good for (and the dangers it held). It was just this kind of research that my own paper at the ReSAW conference in June was aiming at ( ‘Utopia, dystopia and Christian ethics in the history of the Web‘ (podcast)), and there are several points of contact with two papers here: Marguerite Barry on the ways in which the Web entered general public conversation; Simone Natale and Paolo Bory on understanding the early history of the Web as one instance of a ‘biography of media’.

There are also several intriguing chapters that examine the concrete histories of particular parts of the Web: Sybil Nolan on one particular news site (the Australian The Age Online); Elisabetta Locatelli on the genre of the blog in an Italian context; Michel Hockx on the development of the Chinese Web; Jean Marie Deken on one particular organisation, the Stanford Linear Accelerator Centre. Here we have case studies at every level of magnification: organisations, particular kinds of content, whole nations.

There is also methodological reflection: from Matthew S. Weber (‘The challenges of 25 years of data: an agenda for Web-based research’); Federico Nanni and Anwesha Chakraborty on integrating archived Web materials with other sources including interviews to build diachronic accounts of the evolution of a particular site; Anne Helmond on the importance of embedded third-party code as a means of understanding what she terms ‘historical website ecology’. It’s a potentially very fruitful approach that complements the kind of analysis of link relations between sites that I’ve attempted here and here. It also connects with Niels Brügger’s own chapter, a short history of the hyperlink.

Finally, in the same section as my own there are chapters on the experience of creating and managing Web archives themselves, both in national library contexts (Paul Koerbin on Australia, and Ditte Laursen and Per Møldrup-Dalum on Denmark) and Camille Paloque-Berges on Usenet as an archive that falls outside the more established patterns into which Web archiving has fallen.

All in all, the volume is another part of an exciting upswing in interest in the idea of Web history, represented by The Web as History, the new journal Internet Histories and the forthcoming Sage Handbook to Web History.

Technologies of Religion: a review

[The version of record of this review appeared in the journal Internet Histories  ]

Sam Han
Technologies of religion. Spheres of the sacred in a post-secular modernity
Abingdon, Routledge, 2016
ISBN:978-1-138-85586-1

Technologies of Religion, by Sam Han of the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, offers both more and less than the description from its publisher would appear to indicate. Its main impact is as a work of critical social theory, and specifically concerning the cosmogonical, or ‘world-making’ qualities of contemporary religion as it meets new (and in particular, digital) technologies. Han is concerned to show that new technologies and religion come together to form ‘spheres’ (or ‘worlds’), that no longer correspond to the categories of the classical sociology of religion as associated with Durkheim or Max Weber. Gone is much of the stability and hierarchical longevity associated with authoritative institutions; Han’s spheres are in constant flux, unbounded, networked. These ‘modular assemblages’ have a kind of promiscuity, as different worlds or spheres form network connections with others, across which certain elements (traditionally separate) may ‘resonate’ according to their ‘affinities’ (p.30).

In a short review it is difficult to fully sum up Han’s theoretical argument, developed stage by stage in close dialogue with philosophers, aestheticians and sociologists and occupying very nearly half of the book’s 113 pages of text. (Particular attention is paid to Peter Berger, Mircea Eliade and John Milbank amongst others). Perhaps of most interest to readers of this journal, and historians of religion more generally, is Han’s engagement with recent readings of Max Weber, and with classic secularisation theory more generally. Students of secularisation have often tended to understand ‘religion’ and ‘technology’ as antipathetic: that the growth of new technologies, along with modernisation in general, has in general acted as a solvent of traditional religious belief and the organisations which support it; an assumption which has often been carried over into scholarship on religion and the Internet. Han wants to show that the two, far from being antipathetic, in fact exist in a relationship of mutual support which is ‘ontologically creative’ (p.31). Scholars of religion and the Web have in recent years themselves moved away from such an oppositional model of the religion/technology relationship, and have begun to unpick the ways in which religion and the Web mutually influence each other; Han’s work provides a welcome boost to that process.

Chapters 3 and 4 are an examination of some of the theoretical themes worked out in relation to Bright Church, a large ‘multi-site’ evangelical church which operates on several ‘campuses’ in the United States. Here Han seeks to show that the multi-site model of church – in which a single preacher’s message is simultaneously videocast to each campus – places traditional ideas of religious space into play in a new way. Han also examines the ways in which the presence of technological objects in the worship space may be read as constitutive of the message being conveyed. Chapter 4, examining both Bright Church’s own graphical user interface and its use of Facebook, is concerned with the nature of religious communality. It is in these two chapters where the weaknesses of the book show most clearly.

Although it is not Han’s main concern that it should be otherwise, his thesis of the ontologically creative nature of religion and technology is curiously ahistorical. This is a shame, since a greater engagement with the history of religion and the media has potential to strengthen his case. His reading of the design of the worship space and the technological fixtures and fittings within it is suggestive, but it could have benefitted from a greater consideration of the means by which earlier ‘technologies of religion’ – candles, music, paintings and sculpture, priestly vestments, liturgical vessels, and the movements of people and objects – have created the ‘atmosphere’ that he analyses in terms of projector screens and mixing desks. Similarly, the book’s analysis of the means by which identification is created between a worshipper and a physically distant preacher would bear some juxtaposition with scholarship on religious broadcasting on radio and television and its reception, or on the circulation of recordings of worship music from ‘celebrity’ worship leaders for use in the home.

More generally, this reader was left with the impression that, whilst Han’s theoretical framework may well be a fruitful one, it is by no means established from the empirical data presented, which is thin. Han focusses on Bright Church alone, which raises the question of how typical it may be of other churches, Christian or otherwise, with multi-site operations. Only some twelve pages of documentation of Bright Church are given, in which small space is included an observation of the worship at one of its several campuses as well as readings of associated Christian technological literature, and of the online church interface; Facebook is given a single page. Han asserts (p.62) that the experience presented at Bright Church New York may safely be taken as typical. Whilst clearly true of the presentation (since it is controlled from a Global Operations Center in Oklahoma), the experience is surely modified by the physical size and shape of the room, the number of people present, as well as by the use of local musicians. There is also little discussion here of the perceptions of the worshippers themselves, either those present in person in New York or engaging with Bright Church online, and also relatively little from those responsible for its leadership. A much deeper and wider empirical engagement would be needed to ground Han’s theoretical work than is on offer here.

These cavils aside, Han’s study presents many fertile lines of enquiry for historians of religion and the Web. It is well written, although it is often dense and heavy in its use of jargon terms and will tax those without a close acquaintance with the theoretical work with which it is in dialogue. At £90 for only 129 pages it may stretch some budgets, but once in hand it will repay attentive reading.

Reflections on Web Archiving Week 2017

Once in a while, the unplanned turns out to be as good if not better than the planned. It had not been the intention that the annual Web Archiving Conference of the IIPC should be combined with the second conference of ReSAW (the Research Infrastructure for the Study of Archived Web Materials). However, they came together in London last week, with intriguing results.

One of the great pleasures of the event is the diversity of both speakers and delegates: the institutions represented by the IIPC were there in strength, but also present were the largest assemblage of researchers I have yet seen. These include not only people from computer science and related fields – a group that has been engaged in this space for a while – but also an enlarged contingent of scholars of media and communications and several of the humanities disciplines. At the Archives Unleashed datathon on Monday and Tuesday there was a particularly creative meeting of scholars, technologists and archivists – the crucial nexus of relationships for making successful tools and services. The whole week was marked (for me) by a refreshing openness to the perspectives of others, a frankness about difference, and a collegiality without hierarchy which (if it can be sustained) bodes very well for the future.

If I compare this discussions last week with those in this community perhaps three or four years ago, a number of differences stand out. As I’ve tried to show in my short history of Web archiving, direct engagement between archiving institutions and researchers came relatively late in that twenty year history, and even four years ago there was still a sense that researcher engagement was still only very exploratory. We now seem to have reached the stage where substantial attention is being paid to understanding the needs of users as a preliminary step to developing new tools and services (of which there were also many exciting examples). Here I’m bound to mention the research study that I (as Webster Research and Consulting) carried out for the Parliamentary Archives, which Chris Fryer and I presented, but I also have in mind papers on citation practice (Nyvang et al), the research data management issues involved (Zierau and Jurik), and what users need to know about the materials they use (ie. what to do about descriptive metadata), a theme taken up variously by Bingham, Dooley et al, Maemura et al. The variety of different use cases both discussed in the abstract and demonstrated in concrete reminded me of how varied the user base for web archives is (or could be) and how much we need as fine-grained an understanding of those different users as possible. As Ben Steinberg of Harvard noted ‘How we [ie. the providers of services] think archives should or could be used may not be as pertinent as we imagine…’

Another theme for researchers that surfaced several times at the first ReSAW conference in Aarhus two years ago was the need to understand the offline as context for the online. In Aarhus the particular point was about the need for oral history and for analysis of print and manuscript sources to understand how web materials make it online to begin with, and the theme was taken up last week by Federico Nanni and (in passing) by Gareth Millward and Richard Deswarte. There were also reminders here that a full history of the Web will need to take account of the history of computing more generally (Baker and Geiringer), the interaction between the Web proper and other content delivered online, notably social media (Castex, Schafer et al, Day Thomson), as well as the wider social and intellectual context in which the Web is embedded (Schroeder, and my own paper on the religious language of the Web) .

What of the future? Delegates who followed the same tracks as me may have come away with a sense of the diversity of analytic approaches to the study of the Web, and impressed with the depth at which scholars are now seeking to understand the methodological challenges they face. The aim, however, must be to build on this reflection to a point at which the Web archive becomes simply one type of scholarly source amongst many in the production of substantive scholarly insight on history, sociology or literature as Gareth Millward noted. I look forward to the day when I can go to mainstream historical conferences and hear contemporary history written using the archived Web.

There is also, I think, a challenge to the community at large in navigating a path through the diversity of new technical development and analytical need on display here, to decide which elements best serve users in particular situations, and so should brought forward and made part of ‘business as usual’ operations. Some will be incorporated by web archives themselves, others maintained by communities of interested scholars, others probably commercialised. The IIPC has a part to play here, while remembering that a significant part of this new thinking is taking place outside the membership. At least one person on Twitter thought a combined conference like this was worth repeating, and it would certainly be a way of developing the listening process between archives, users and developers that is required.

Finally: I celebrated the diversity of the conference when viewed in terms of professional background, but in another sense there is still much to do in terms of geography. I counted some 17 or 18 nationalities represented here, a joyous thing in a fragmenting world, but nonetheless overwhelmingly from Europe and north America. The archiving and study of the Web, a global medium, still remains dominated by certain countries.

My thanks are due to all those involved in organising such an excellent event: Jane Winters as host at the School of Advanced Study (University of London), and Olga Holownia of the IIPC and my former colleagues at the British Library which also contributed most significantly. It was my pleasure to be a part of both the IIPC and the ReSAW programme committee, and to hear such a fine set of papers.

 

New article: On digital contemporary history

A little article of mine has just appeared in the Danish historical journal Temp, based on a lecture given in Copenhagen to the Danish Assocation for Research in Contemporary History in January 2016.

It suggests that there has been a relative lack of digitally enabled historical research on the recent past, when compared to earlier periods of history. It explores why this might be the case, focussing in particular on both the obstacles and some missing drivers to mass digitisation of primary sources for the 20th century. It suggests that the situation is likely to change, and relatively soon, as a result of the increasing availability of sources that were born digital, and of Web archives in particular. The article ends with some reflections on several shifts in method and approach, which that changed situation is likely to entail.

By the kind permission of the editor, I make it available here.

Title:  Digital contemporary history: sources, tools, methods, issues
Details: Temp: Tidsskrift for historie, 14 (2017), 30-38.
Download the PDF