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.

What is religious history?

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Religion, politics and law in contemporary Britain: a web archive

[This is an expanded version of a post first published in the UK Web Archive blog.]

It has been over two years in the making, but I am delighted to be able to say that my own special collection in the UK Web Archive is now online.

UKWA (for which I am engagement and liaison lead, based at the British Library) collects and preserves websites of scholarly and cultural importance for the UK web domain. Already UKWA collect some 11,000 sites, and has more than 50,000 instances in total, with series of snapshots of some sites going back the best part of a decade. That’s a lot of data, and so one of the ways into the archive is by means of the special collection, of sites on a particular theme.religion politics law thumbnail

A couple of years ago, long before coming to the BL, I joined a project at the Library which brought together a group of scholars to guest-curate special collections on our research interests. I had become interested in the sharpening of the terms of debate about the place of religion in British public life, particularly since 9/11 and the London bombings in 2005. I’ve long been interested in public debate about church and state; but until relatively recently this happened by means of the print press, public oratory, ephemeral publication and the broadcast media. It struck me that a good deal of this debate had already moved online, and so new ways of capturing and preserving it were going to be needed. And so, the ‘politics of religion collection’ (as it was then known) was born. (See these posts on my progress.)

I fairly soon realised why I’m not an archivist, since all sorts of unfamiliar questions hove into view. When archiving the web, what is the base unit ? A whole domain, such as www.bbc.co.uk ? Or a single URL ? Several sites, like that of the National Secular Society or the Christian Institute were central to my concerns, and so could be included whole. But what does one do with a single post on a PR blog about the handling of the sharia law row by Rowan Williams and his staff ? In fact, the collection is a mixture of whole domains and individual directories or pages from larger sites; an uneasy compromise, but a necessary one.

Also (and I may as well come straight out with it), the collection is selective, and thus in a real sense subjective. As a watcher of contemporary religious politics, against the backdrop of recent history, my impression is that the place of religious ideas, symbols and organisations in public life is at its most contested for decades. Historians are traditionally wary of assessing the significance of present trends, since it leaves hostages to fortune and later events. Yet, all archival choices from a pool of material not defined in advance by provenance involve some judgements as to significance; and historians are as well suited as any to make those judgements. And so I have put the collection together now to enable future historians to begin to answer the questions which I anticipate will be significant. (See an older post on why I think historians should engage with this way of working.)

There were other issues. Were I the archivist for a particular organisation, I’d have no problem with getting permission to add material to my archive: everything produced in-house would be in view. The problem for web archiving is that we’re dealing with other people’s copyright work, and so an individual permission is needed for each site. I have a long list of sites which I would dearly love to add to the collection, but for which (for various reasons) we’ve had no response. So, if you are the owner of Protest the Pope, or Holy Redundant, or Christians in Politics, please get in touch. For now, even if the collection cannot be anything like comprehensive, I do hope that it is at least coherent.

There are particular strengths, and some gaps. It includes many campaigning organisations, both secularist and religious, and is heavy on the conservative Christian groups about which I myself know most. It is very light on non-Christian faiths, since I know the field much less well.  It is still very much open, however, and so suggestions of sites that ought to be included are very welcome, via this blog or at the UKWA Nominate a Site page.

What can you do with it ?  For now, there is a simple browse function; and the collection can be searched on its own.  And over time, all sorts of uses will present themselves, which we can’t currently imagine. But the data is there: a growing longitudinal series of timed instances of websites, identified as thematically related; that is to say, an archive.