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.

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.

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Utopia, dystopia and Christian ethics in the history of the Web

[First posted May 10th, updated 19 June after the event]

As part of the 2017 conference of the IIPC and the Research Infrastructure for the Study of Archived Web Materials (ReSAW), I shall be giving not one but two papers. The abstract for one of them is below.

The full programme for the conference (in London, June 14th-16th) and booking details are now available.

Utopia, dystopia and Christian ethics in the history of the Web

It has been noted more than once that both the Internet and the Web have been the subject of overarching projections of cultural and social aspirations and fears, utopian and dystopian. The Internet has been feted as a great disruptor: a solvent of established privilege and the outlet for previously marginal opinions; a liberator of suppressed creative energy, in politics, commerce and the arts. It has equally well been denounced as the harbour of criminality, the accelerator of falsehood, the destroyer of traditional industries, communities, languages and cultures. But both positive and negative discourses of the Web have often been expressed in both implicit and explicit theological or (at the very least) ethical and philosophical terms.

Using a combination of the archived Web itself as it evolved over time, and offline commentary that accompanied, applauded, criticised and indeed preceded it, this paper examines the several analytical categories by means of which Christian commentators in Europe and North America have sought to understand the online experience: the nature and capabilities of the human person; apppropriate forms of human interaction and the nature of community; and the economic and social effects on industries, countries and individuals. It will show that these concerns went beyond simple Luddism or concern about particular kinds of content such as pornography. It will show the continuity of these debates with earlier theological and ethical writing about early computing, and how they changed over the history of the Web. Finally, it will explore the degree to which secular utopian and dystopian writing about the Web owed its conceptual vocabulary to these older religious traditions.