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Where the Church of the Internet Goes From Here

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, June 8 2011

Jim Gilliam, you might have heard, gave a provocative and stirring talk at Personal Democracy Forum yesterday in which he declared that "The Internet is My Religion." Gilliam described his embrace of a faith in the connective and transformative power of the Internet, set in the context of his enduring the horrors of cancer.

What now? Well, for one thing, there were fascinating reactions to Gilliam's talk in the Christian blogosphere. Gilliam's video was posted on the blog Jesus Needs New PR, prompting the comment from one watcher that "yes, he's inspirational," and "yes, he's blaspheming." More contemplative was the take of another commenter who saw in Gilliam's talk an understanding of the Internet as serving in the church-like role of community builder. "I see his point quite clearly," wrote the commenter. "Centuries ago the temple was people’s religion. Their center. Their community. Then churches for a long time became the center. Our religion. They usually built the church first in the center. It was the community center. The hub. Where people came together."

"Jim says his center, his community, his religion is the internet. I believe the same is true for many of us here. Blogging. Reading. Commenting. Connecting." The Internet, then, becomes a substitute for a functioning church -- providing the sense of human community that the Christian church might have come to lack.

And when Jim stopped by the PdF office today, I took the opportunity to ask him the question that popped up during the talk, and stayed with me. Where does nature -- the land of rocks and trees and animals and other human physical forms -- fit into all this? Jim, remember, is a survivor of a virulent cancer. That trial included a double lung transplant, an experience his father blogged about. Nature doesn't hold that much magic, answered Jim. "The physical world has been really hard for me. Everything that has happened to me online has been incredible. Everything in the physical world has been a nightmare."

More than that, Gilliam and I also talked about the idea that not only can his talk be read as a critique of the Christian church, but it can also stand as a challenge to the lack of, well, evangelizing that the Internet's early creators and latter-day perpetuators can done about the power and meaning of the medium. It's as if they dropped into the world this immensely powerful technology and, to be dramatic about it, kinda walked away. You can argue that that approach, while understandably, had come back to haunt them -- and us. Witness folks like John Perry Barlow and Yochai Benkler and Susan Crawford heading over to the e-G8 in Paris last month to make the somewhat belated case that the Internet is about more than Facebook and Google and the CEOs and the COOs of those companies.

I also suggested to Jim that his "The Internet is My Religion" speech could be the new "A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace," Barlow's famous 1996 manifesto. Gilliam seemed to shiver with embarrassment, or just humility. But it is as ambitious in framing the way that we think about the Internet. It represents, though, a different sort of metaphor than the one that Barlow advanced -- one set in the political realm. "We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace," wrote Barlow. "May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before." And then there's the way that writer and digital creator Steven Johnson talked about things in his talk at PdF, where he floated the idea of a "Netarian" political philosophy.

Jim, though, is shifting our attention to the spiritual realm. "Each of us is a creator," said Gilliam at a a crescendo of his talk, pointing skyward. "But together, we are The Creator." Fascinating stuff. And as the Internet only becomes more central to human life, from Tahrir Square to the labs of Stanford to deep within the hearts and minds of millions of people all over the globe, the question of what this networks of networks means, really, will, too, take on greater significance.