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

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.

Electronic Dreams: a review

Tom Lean
Electronic Dreams. How 1980s Britain learned to love the computer
London, Bloomsbury, 2016

[This review first appeared in the LSE Review of Books in December. As the Review’s terms of reuse are admirably free, I republish the review here.]

A character in Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys observed that ‘there is no period so remote as the recent past’. Contemporary historians will recognise the force of Bennett’s observation, and it is perhaps particularly apt in the history of computing. Historians and theorists of the Internet and the World Wide Web have always to reckon with the common view that these systems are as they are inevitably; that they could have come about in no other way and in no other form. In a time when the personal computing industry is to all intents and purposes divided between PCs running Microsoft software on the one hand, and the products of the Apple Corporation on the other, all popular consciousness of any pre-history to that state of affairs has been lost.

Into that gap comes Tom Lean’s study of personal computing in 1980s Britain. Based on a University of Manchester Ph.D. thesis from 2008, it is produced and priced in order to reach a readership wider than simply historians of technology. The appeal of the book will be seductive to those (like this reviewer) who learnt IT at school on a BBC Micro, and played games on a ZX Spectrum. Although it flirts occasionally with the danger, the book avoids being merely an exercise in nostalgia by the crispness of the writing, and a deft interweaving of users, technologies, makers, and the wider context of government thinking and media history.

Lean vividly evokes the very earliest stages of the development of kit computers for home assembly in the late 1970s, as innovators working in spare bedrooms provided other enthusiasts with new toys with which to experiment. The story is a British one to set alongside the more familiar founding myths of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs in their garages. Striking also is the degree to which the personal computer was a tool without a use. No particular market existed for the earliest machines, apart from as a tool with which to learn about computing itself. Lean goes on to show that the uses to which these machines were put were often not those the makers had anticipated. Many were disappointed that machines that might have been put to educational or commercial use ended up used only for games, even though the games industry was to become highly significant for the British economy. But Lean shows that this very open-endedness was the most significant legacy of the time. Without a graphical user interface behind which the workings of the machine were hidden, a generation of computer scientists and engineers were able to learn the fundamentals of computing and what it might enable.

Lean’s narrative includes the development of a market, which was by and large mature by 1983, and which collapsed within a few years. In a very short space of time, market leaders had emerged – the ZX Spectrum, the BBC Micro and the Commodore 64 – and with them a panoply of books, specialist magazines, and companies that produced software. Lean’s account is detailed on the relative technical capabilities of the several machines, including those that lost out in the race for market share, but also surefooted and informative on the wider context. There is an international element, as British machines competed in a global market, against competition from the USA and Japan in particular. For a time, British innovation was a success story which the Thatcher government was very ready to tell. 1982 was declared IT Year, and saw the appointment of the first government minister of IT, Kenneth Baker. For a moment, British entrepreneurship and innovation could be set rhetorically against the supposedly bloated and inefficient traditional industries that Mrs Thatcher had set out to reform.

Particularly intriguing is the role of the BBC. In line with its threefold role to educate, inform and entertain, the BBC had in the 1970s paid attention to the coming world of computerisation, and its likely effect on employment, to set alongside early utopian and dystopian visions of the future. The Computer Programme (1982) was part of a broader Computer Literacy Project, involving television and radio, books, a programming course using BASIC, and (most unusually), its own computer, the BBC Micro. Developed inside a week by Acorn of Cambridge, as their engineers slept under the laboratory benches, it was technically outstanding and soon secured a dominant position in schools, despite protests from other firms that to patronise one machine should not be the role of the BBC as a national broadcaster.

Historians of the Internet will find much in the section on Prestel, the system for receiving centrally held data on specially adapted televisions via a home telephone line. Launched in 1979 but more or less defunct by the early 1990s, it was administered by British Telecom, building on the previous Post Office monopoly in telephone services. Although the number of users was small, those that did adopt Prestel were using it for many tasks now common on the Web: buying tickets, finding travel information, banking. Prestel failed where the French equivalent Minitel succeeded, reaching some 9 million users at its height. That failure illustrates the haphazard and serendipitous nature of success and failure in the history of technology. While the system was technically advanced, Prestel’s charging model was wrong for the time; simple organisational inertia prevented a more widespread connection of the new home computers to the system, and it lacked the wholehearted support of government, which was forthcoming in the French case.

If the book is let down by anything, it is by some slack proofreading, as errors abound. Scholars wishing to follow up any of the matters raised will need to resort to Lean’s thesis, available via the British Library’s Ethos service, as the referencing and bibliography here are very light, perhaps as a concession to a more general readership. These cavils aside, Electronic Dreams will be essential reading for those interested in how Britain came to love the personal computer.

Evangelicals and sex on the Internet: a book review

Kelsy Burke
Christians Under Covers. Evangelicals and sexual pleasure on the Internet
Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2016

[This review first appeared at Reading Religion. What follows is a shortened version]

Evangelicals, we are led to believe, have a problem with sex. On both sides of the Atlantic, if the mainstream media knows anything about Christians and their views on sex, it is that Christians cannot agree, and particularly on the status of gay relationships and the nature of marriage. These debates are complex, but the stereotype of the Puritan, whose conservatism covers not only the contexts in which sexual intercourse is permissible but also which forms it may take, has tended to color all evangelical thinking on sex a single shade of

Kelsy Burke’s new study of evangelical sexuality websites tells a new, finely nuanced and wholly convincing story. Her raw material is close readings of a group of websites — message boards, blogs, and, yes, sex toy stores — supplemented by extensive survey and interview evidence. In them Burke uncovers a “new evangelical sexual logic”, in line with an older principle: that sex is to be between married, monogamous heterosexuals. Within those bounds, however, the Christians Burke observes find spaces online in which they are available to work out, individually and in dialogue with others, the most pleasurable and fulfilling ways to enjoy their relationship with their spouse. Here is there no Manichaean duality of body and spirit, no ascetic mortification of the flesh. Users present their own prayer, personal testimonies, and interpretations of scripture in an iterative form of “lived religion,” that fills in the empty spaces within the bounds of official interpretation on matters that are rarely broached face-to-face in local churches.

For scholars of the Web and of the Internet (Burke rarely distinguishes between the two), there are many suggestive and intriguing lines of enquiry here. Acting anonymously might, on the face of it, be expected to present difficulties to the Christian. Burke’s subjects short-circuit any unease by means of a stress on the omniscience of God. One might be acting anonymously, but God is one’s witness as to the integrity with which one conducts oneself. Evangelicals have often attempted to create safe spaces and alternatives to the cultural products of a corrupt world—Christian film, Christian holidays, Christian heavy metal. Here, we see Christians creating safer stores for sex aids, in which they may be purchased without the unacceptable messaging that would surround such a sale in a secular store. Also interesting are the ways in which authority is constructed. Evangelicalism has historically been amongst the least clerical among Christian traditions in its control of which voices are heard and which may be trusted. Here, even that relatively loose emphasis on external validation by an institution is unpicked; those who create and maintain these sites do so on the basis of their marriedness, their personal piety, and their sense that they are under the gaze of an omniscient God.

If there is one area in which I would have wished to see more, it is on the nature of the Web itself. One of the governing myths of the Web is that it is a boundless space of infinite possibility, free from control, in which users and site owners may create their own reality. But each website is in fact an amalgam of conscious and unconscious design choices made by site owners, embedded in the software applications they develop themselves or license from others. These choices are made both in anticipation of and in response to the needs of users, insofar as they are known. How a website looks, and the things it allows users to do and not to do, are part of this story, into which the author might have gone further. It would have made an already fascinating and suggestive study even richer.

Review: Society and the Internet

Earlier this month I wrote again for the LSE Review of Books. Since the Review is admirably free in the reuse it will allow, I republish it here under a Creative Commons licence.

Society and the Internet: How Networks of Information and Communication are Changing our Lives.
Mark Graham and William H. Dutton (eds.)
Oxford University Press, 2014.

The word ‘revolution’ is at a discount when it comes to discussing the impact of the internet, but current reactions to what is undoubtedly far-reaching and permanent change fit a longer pattern. Societies in the midst of rapid technological change often perceive the change as both radical and unprecedented. Previous technological shifts in communication have before been greeted in the same way as the internet, being understood in terms of utopia and dystopia. For some, the internet is a new technology in the vanguard of the inexorable progress of such abstract nouns as Freedom and Democracy. It dissolves the power of old elites, putting the power to communicate, publish, mobilize and do business in the hands of any who should want it. For others, it provides dark corners in which criminality may flourish out of reach of traditional law enforcement. It undermines the business models of cherished institutions, saps our powers of concentration, and indeed threatens the alteration of our very brains in none-too-positive ways.

These two mutually contradictory narratives have one trait in common: a naïve technological determinism. Both stories radically overestimate the degree to which new technologies have inherent dynamics in single and obvious directions, and similarly underestimate the force of the social, economic and political contexts in which real human beings design, implement and use new applications to serve existing needs and desires. It is the great strength of this stimulating collection of essays that at every turn it brings such high-flown imaginings back to the bench of empirical research on the observable behaviours of people and the information systems they use. Given the rapidity of the changes under discussion – the commercialised internet is only now reaching the age of an undergraduate student, as it were, with social media still in junior school – this kind of very contemporary history meets sociology, geography, computer science and many other disciplines in a still fluid interdisciplinary space.

The volume is very much the product of the Oxford Internet Institute, with all but six of the thirty-one contributors being associated with the institute in some way. The twenty-three essays are arranged into five thematic sections: everyday life; information and culture, politics and governments; business, industry and economics; and internet regulation and governance. Whilst the grouping is convenient as an orientation to the reader, the effect of the book is best experienced as a whole, as several themes emerge again and again. In this review I examine just three of many such themes.

One such is the complex geographies of the web. Gillian Bolsover and colleagues examine the shifting geographic centre of gravity of internet use. The proportion of total users who were located in the United States fell from two thirds to one third in a decade, and the proportion in Asia grew from a tiny 5% to nearly half over the same period. Bolsover and colleagues find that this shift in numbers is accompanied by distinctive geographic variations in the uses that users make of their internet, and attitudes to its regulation. Reading this chapter in conjunction with that by Mark Graham would suggest that these patterns of use map only loosely onto patterns of knowledge production (the “digital division of labour” between nations). These patterns of production in turn relate only inexactly with patterns of representation of places online; the “data shadows” fall unevenly. That said, the Global South both produces a small proportion of the content online, and is itself underrepresented as the subject of that content.

Many businesses, and media businesses in particular, have found the last ten years a time of particular uncertainty about the impact of the internet on long-established ways of doing business. Economists will be interested in two chapters which seek to address some of these issues. Sung Wook Ji and David Waterman examine the recent history of media companies in the United States, and point out a steady fall in revenues, and a shift from a reliance on revenue from advertising, to direct payment by consumers. Greg Taylor’s valuable essay examines the ending of the traditional economic difficulty of scarcity of goods by the advent of an almost limitless abundance of content online. This has created a different theoretical problem to be understood: the scarcity of attention that consumers can pay to that content.

Perhaps the most coherent section in the book is that on government and politics. Several governments (mostly amongst those western nations that were the early adopters of the internet) have placed considerable hope on online delivery of government services, and on social media as new means of engagement with voters. At the same time, both the chapters by Margetts, Hale and Yasseri, and by Dubois and Dutton examine the uses made by individuals of electronic means to organise and to influence government independently of, and indeed in opposition to, the agenda of that government. Governments have often expected greater benefits and lower costs from e-government; and political activists have tended to lionise the role of the self-organising ‘Fifth Estate’ of networked individuals to which Dubois and Dutton point. These five chapters situate all these hopes firmly in empirical examination of the interaction of politics, culture and technology in specific contexts.

Individually, the essays in this volume are uniformly strong: lucid, cogent and concise, and accompanied with useful lists of further reading. As a whole, the volume prompts fertile reflections on the method and purpose of the new discipline of Internet Studies. The volume will be of great interest to readers in many disciplines and at all levels from undergraduate upwards.