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

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.

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
978-0-520-28633-7

[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 grey.ch-under-covers

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.

Religion in Web history: a survey

I am currently working on a chapter contribution to the forthcoming Sage Handbook to Web History, edited by Megan Sapnar Ankerson, Niels Brugger and Ian Milligan. Although the inclusion of the paper is subject to peer review, here’s my abstract. It should appear some time in late 2017.

“This chapter seeks both to assess the state of current scholarship on online religion, and to suggest potential directions for future research. There are now 20 years of research in the field of Internet Studies in relationship to religious organisations, faith and practice. However, it is less clear that this body of work yet represents a specifically historical inquiry about religion on the Web, although it will in many cases provide the foundation of such work. Much of the research to date has concentrated on the nature of emerging communities of individuals: communities that were either an alternative or a supplement to face-to-face relations in particular localities. This chapter draws out trends emerging in this scholarship over the 25 years of Web history, as the affordances of the Web have developed. Attention has also been paid to the balance of institutional authority and individual self-expression in a religious space that is unregulated, or at least that must be regulated in new ways. The chapter asks how far this scholarship may be integrated into wider histories of offline religious authority and practice, which have themselves undergone shifts and transformations of perhaps equal significance.

“Rather less prominent in the literature so far is the institutional history of religion. Making use of the archived Web in particular, the chapter sketches the outline of a new area of inquiry: the evolution of the religious web sphere, both as a global whole, within each of the global religions and denominations, and at a national level. To what degree has the nature of the Web, a decentralised international network system which contrasts with the hierarchical nature of most religious organisations, moulded the religious web sphere into a different shape? Early studies in this area have suggested that, in certain key ways, the religious web sphere can be read as a reimplementation of older structures of influence, attention and esteem that were visible before, and remain visible offline. Insofar as the religious web does not mirror the traditional offline structure of religious organisations, the chapter also reflects on how far this changed shape may be accounted for by broader trends in religious history, in a period of rapid change. How far does it relate to the recent history of religion in the media more generally?

“At a more abstract level, the chapter will attend to the degree to which the myths of the Web, and indeed of the whole Internet – of a pluralistic, idealistic, liberating force with an agency of its own – have shaped understandings of the Web’s religious history. It examines how far the last quarter century has really been a period of rupture and discontinuity, and how much has in fact stayed the same, or continued on a path on which it was set before the Web appeared. It will also assess how far the field has so far been focussed to excess on the new, to the neglect of understanding the histories of how practices and technologies that were once new become mainstream.

British blogs in the web archive: some data

While working on another project, I’ve had occasion to make some data relating to the blog aggregator site britishblogs.co.uk  (now apparently defunct) which occurs in the Internet Archive between 2006 and 2012. I am unlikely to exploit it very much myself, and so I have made it available in figshare, in case it should be of use to anyone else.

Specifically, it is data derived from the UK Host Link Graph, which states the presence of links from one host to another in the JISC UK Web Domain Dataset (1996-2010), a dataset of archived web content for the UK country code top level domain captured by the Internet Archive.

It has 19,423 individual lines, each expressing one host-to-host linkage in content from a single year.

Since the blog as a format seems to be particularly prone to disappearance over time, scholars of the British blogosphere may find this useful in locating now defunct blogs in the Internet Archive or elsewhere. My sense is that the blogs included in the aggregator were nominated by their authors as being British, and so this may be of some help in identifying British content in platforms such as WordPress or Blogger.

Some words of caution. The data is offered very much as-is, without any guarantees about robustness or significance. In particular:

(i) I have made no effort to de-duplicate where the Internet Archive crawled the site, or parts of it, more than once in a single year.

(ii) also present are a certain number of inbound links – that is to say, other hosts linking to britishblogs.co.uk. However, these are very much the minority.

(iii) there is also some analysis needed in understanding which links are to blogs, and which are to content linked to from within those blogs (and aggregated by British Blogs).