The Internet and Faith

February 6th, 2012

Have We Lost Our Minds?

Was it really less than two years ago that Nicholas Carr was worrying about losing his brain to the Internet? Carr is a thoughtful observer of the world of technology; and his 2010 book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, captured a fear that many of us have had. Carr wrote, “My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it is changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. . . . I feel like I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text [that I’m supposed to be reading]. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.” And what was to blame for Carr’s distraction? The Internet.

Carr is not ready to get rid of his computer. Or his smartphone. Or his tablet. Or any of the many devices that connect us to the World Wide Web today. He just urged caution and some observation of how our online connectivity is impacting our lives and even our minds.

But the world of 2012 is not the same as it was even two years ago. We are more invested in the Internet than we ever have been, and if we have fears, they are more muted. We are now wired, and our questions about the online world are not about whether to adopt Internet-based technologies or not, but how to use them.

The January Blackout

You probably ran into a problem if you tried to do some research using Wikipedia on January 18. The collaborative repository of facts and trivia that millions consult daily was unavailable save for some links to articles about two bills before the US Congress. Wikipedia was engaged in a day-long protest blackout. Other popular sites such as Google displayed prominent banners or “Stop Censorship” ribbons. The Atlantic magazine’s Rebecca J. Rosen called it “the biggest day of online protest in the English world in history.”

Why all the fuss? Pirates. Congress was considering legislation to address the problem of websites posting and offering copyrighted materials for download, a practice known as pirating.

Legal mechanisms exist to prevent pirating, but supporters of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) say the current laws are insufficient to protect intellectual property. Organizations like the US Chamber of Commerce and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) want to have more instruments available to shut down sites, particularly overseas, that allow for illegal downloads of music and videos or that sell counterfeit goods.

The New York Times reports that the proposed legislation would allow companies that suspect their products are being pirated on a website to “seek a court order that would require search engines like Google to remove links to the site and require advertising companies to cut off payments to it.”

While there are few people arguing for the rights of pirates, many people in the technology sector and many Internet users have come out against the legislation. “The solutions are draconian. There’s a bill that would require [Internet service providers] to remove URLs from the Web, which is also known as censorship last time I checked,” said Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt. Wikimedia head of communications Jay Walsh said of Wikipedia’s blackout, “We were presenting information, but we were also presenting a reality. . . . The [Wikipedia] community knew that a protest like this would establish that reality: This is the world we might find ourselves living in.”

The Internet protest was effective in mobilizing sentiment against the bills. MPAA chairman Chris Dodd called the blackout day protests by websites “stunts that punish their users or turn them into their corporate pawns.” But the response to the protests seemed to indicate that people could be stirred to protect the openness of the Internet as it is currently operating.

The Obama administration seemed to underline the values on display in the protest when it came out against the bills saying, “While we believe that online piracy by foreign websites is a serious problem that requires a serious legislative response, we will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet.” In the wake of the protests, the Senate and House delayed any action on the bills.

Shutting Down the Internet

The Internet’s reach and role in contemporary life was underlined during last year’s Arab Spring protests. The popular uprisings across the Arab world against governments that were perceived as oppressive and undemocratic were aided by the availability of Internet communication and social media services like Twitter and Facebook.

In Tunisia, where the protests began, one of the causes of discontent was the government’s act of blocking access to websites that were critical of the government. When the regime fell, one of the first acts of the new leaders was to unblock all video-sharing websites like YouTube.

In Egypt, the government took a drastic step and shut down the Internet within the country. The New York Times reported, “The shutdown caused a 90 percent drop in data traffic to and from Egypt, crippling an important communications tool used by antigovernment protesters and their supporters to organize and to spread their message.” Such moves were ultimately ineffective, but they are tempting to governments as a means of social control.

Professor Ronald Deibert, a political scientist and director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, has studied efforts by nations like Myanmar, Nepal, and China to filter the Web and restrict access to certain sites; but he called the Egyptian action “unprecedented” in scale. “It’s almost become de rigueur during events like this––elections or political demonstrations––to tamper with the Internet,” he told The New York Times.

Christians and Communication

What the blackout protests and the reaction to the Egyptian Internet shutdown reveal is the extent the Internet has become an indispensable and vital part of our contemporary world.

Like the telephone before it, the Internet can be used for frivolous activity; but it is also the medium through which ideas, social organizing, commerce, academics, and global diplomacy move. It builds whole new industries and political movements and threatens many others. The Internet has moved from a curiosity to an environment in which we all live.

Christians have a history of being early adopters of new means of communication. You could say that the apostle Paul was on the cutting edge of long-distance technological innovation because he took full advantage of the radically interconnected world the Roman Empire was creating around the basin of the Mediterranean Sea. Well-constructed road networks with imperial security allowed for reliable communications between urban centers. Paul traveled those roads and sent letters back to the new Christian communities that were growing up along them. The content of some of those letters became part of the core of the Christian Scriptures.

In the 16th century, Protestant reformers like Martin Luther benefitted from the widespread availability of the new printing press. In the 20th century, preachers like Aimee Semple McPherson took advantage of the growing popularity of radio to spread their messages. And today, Christian bloggers like Rachel Held Evans use the informal communication styles of the Internet to create new forms of ministry.

This heritage is important because it establishes the adaptability of Christian witness and Christian community to emerging environments of communication and connection. More than that, it reveals that Christians have an interest in the potential of these new environments and have entered them in ways that explore how they can deepen our connection to God and one another.

We need to examine, observe, and even fret over the Internet. Ultimately, though, people of faith need to engage with it for the flourishing of life. Though it is new to our garden, the Internet needs tending by stewards who know that God is bending all things toward a beloved community.

Alex Joyner is the pastor of Franktown United Methodist Church on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

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