Thanks to @designbygecko for putting me on to this extraordinary talk by Jim Gilliam at a web conference recently. Jim was brought up a fervent evanglical – and remains so, except that his faith is now truly in the Internet.
He has his reasons for his conversion: he’s suffered multiple cancers and had to have bone marrow and dual-lung transplants, and each step of the way it was other people on the web who pushed for him to be given access to procedures, campaigned for him and gave him encouragement.
Gilliam is serious: the internet is his religion. He believes fervently in its power to build a new world, by connecting people together and giving them a voice and an opportunity to create.
God is what happens when humanity is connected. Humanity connected is God. Each one of us is a creator, but together we are THE creator.
A couple of things I’d want to say about this. Firstly, it connects quite well with Zizek’s view of Christianity. He proposes that in the crucifixion we see the actual death of God, and it is then in the community of the Spirit (who like Google will, as John 14:26 puts is, teach you all things and remind you of everything I’ve said 😉 ) who become the risen Christ – embodying God on earth in Marxist collectives.
Marx’s contention was that we are alienated from our labour, and this fits well with Gilliam’s vision, because he sees the internet as the way for us to rid ourselves of this alienation and become fulfilled people. As Zizek put it in First as Tragedy, Then as Farce:
Enclosure of the commons is a process of proletarianization of those who are excluded from their own substance… The present conjecture compels us to radicalise it to an existential level well beyond Marx’s imagination.
In this sense, the internet is one way of radicalising the commons to a level that would have been beyond Marx’s imagination. What I am convinced about is that the route out of our capitalist malaise is via a reinvigoration of ‘the commons’ in its broadest sense: we need to rediscover what it means to share a common life, to act communally and regularly beat down enclosures where we see them encroaching on the common ground which is the theatre within which community life is lived.
But I have my doubts about Gilliam’s internet fervency. Perhaps he is more right than he believes: the internet is rather like a religion, and is thus open to serious power abuse and practices of disinformation. What appears to be ‘free’ and ‘abundant life’ can actually a whole lot of wasted time getting anxious on Facebook, or trying to pump some deadened hashtag into life.
Whereas Gilliam believes the internet will redeem people, unshackle them and allow them to reach their potential, I believe that only other people can do that. The web can inspire people to great acts of altruism, but it can also drag people into grand selfishness and vanity. It is, in other words, only a technology, and, as such, it deserves our worship only as much as a golden calf.
The things the web achieves boil down to connecting people because community structures have failed. The web couldn’t save Gilliam’s life, only an actual donor could do that. So what we should celebrate is community and generosity, rather than modes of connection.
If you watch to the end of the video, I think you may detect a level of discomfort with Gilliam’s ending, and the applause is slightly tinted with sympathy, rather than easy acceptance. I think that this suggests a deep-rooted reflexive skepticism of the internet as saviour. Gilliam’s story is emotionally charged, but we should be careful not to give ourselves to a new religion on the basis of a few ‘signs and wonders.’
Good health to him, and all the best for his start-ups, which look to increase activism and political engagement. But while the internet can help us engage, as I’ve said here before, I’m convinced that it works best only as a tool for arranging physical engagement between actual people.
The net may be a sacrament, but it is not God. God’s ‘absence’ – however we interpret that – has left a troubling hole in our sense of self and community. The net has grown to fill some of that, but we need to be careful.