Online As In Heaven
October 1, 2020
Two fish are swimming along and an older fish comes by and asks them casually, “How’s the water?” The two younger fish keep swimming and eventually, one of them looks at the other and asks: “What the hell is water?”
The great majority of the world is swimming in digital waters, and soon there will be few who have memories of a time before the deluge. The days of talking about the Internet as a discrete area of life are rapidly fading and will soon be gone. Religious and Interfaith leaders must be activated to dive into the deep waters of the Internet to proactively and productively engage the questions that the Internet poses for humanity. Asking ‘how’s the water’ and being aware of the dangers and the possibilities of the Internet has become critical for safeguarding the wellbeing of our personal lives, our communities, and the future of our world. Even before Covid-19, the Internet was fundamentally changing how we live, challenging some basic assumptions of our communal life and even reframing the experience of being human. Now that we are living in a world shaped by our response to the virus, we realize how late serious religious reflection and mobilization around the Internet has been.
More than ever we need to be asking ‘how’s the water’ and yet as I mentioned, religious and Interfaith organizations have been slow to appreciate the distinct set of challenges and opportunities the Internet has presented to humanity. For too long the response was to encourage a passive resistance by ‘unplugging for a day’ or a utilitarian approach reduced to how to get a religious leader’s sermons or reflections online. In reality, the Internet poses existential challenges to religious definitions and manifestations of community, authority, and tradition. While established religious authorities fumbled and deflected, other actors took advantage of the technology, too often expertly using technology to spread hate and division, with lethal results including the devastating loss of life in Charleston, Christ Church, and Pittsburgh.
Yet even as I say that, we are not too late. People of good faith from across diverse religious, spiritual, and philosophical traditions can make an impact. The impact of digital technology has happened so quickly and so completely that we forget that public access to the World Wide Web is only a little over 25 years old. Kevin Kelly, the founder of Wired Magazine was quoted a few years ago as saying: “As far as the internet goes – nothing has happened yet!”
However, as background, there have been four important moves by the internet since it became widely available in the 90s that the Pew Research Center on the Internet and Technology has highlighted. The first was the arrival of broadband, which allowed for much larger files to be shared including video and images and speeded up communication to be experienced in real-time. The second is mobile, which is pretty close to being completed as more of the world utilizes handheld, wireless devices, and are no longer tied down to wires, laptops, or desktop computers. The third evolution is the Internet of Things, where objects are being given the ability to think, and connected so that objects can speak to one another, sometimes with human mediation and sometimes, actually, most of the time, directly. The fourth and final, which many of us experience daily is the ubiquitous rise of Social Media as a major conveyer of news, personal information, and communities, with Facebook hosting over a billion people on some days on their site alone.
The Internet is dynamic and, even though so much has happened already, what it will be is yet to be determined and requires intense focus. It is not hyperbole to say that the future of humanity is at stake.
As the former head of Google Eric Schmidt famously stated: “The Internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn’t understand.”
Yet it is already having an enormous effect on our lives and much of it is negative. The recent film, The Social Dilemma, gave an inside look into the devastating impact that social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram can have on our lives including a vivid depiction of how these sites are, by design, changing the way we live our lives, how we think and who we are; how these social media sites financially benefit from fake news, as well as watching, tracking and measuring our every move online to sell that information to corporations.
As a Christian minister, I will dare to use some theological language and say that we live in a fallen world, and that “fallenness” includes the web. That is not to say that the Internet is de facto a bad place. There is so much good that happens there. So much kindness, solidarity, and knowledge are available at a click, or swipe of a finger.
No, the Internet is not bad. But, very bad things can happen there, and the way it is being shaped by capitalistic interests on the one hand, and controlled by authoritarian interests on the other, pose grave threats to a democratic and pluralistic society.
It is time that religious traditions and individuals to commit to building an Internet that reflects our mandates to build a world where individuals thrive, where all people are valued and people of all backgrounds come together, rather than being driven apart: where, to adapt a central Christian prayer: God’s will might be done “Online as in Heaven.”
In the next weeks, I will be adding to this introduction with more pieces about the Internet and Religion using the spiritual and religious building blocks of Truth, Community, Transcendence, and Justice. I hope they are a blessing to you and our on and offline world.