‘I Believe in God, and the Internet is my Religion’ | The Radical Commons | Marx


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 ๐Ÿ˜‰ ) 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.


7 responses to “‘I Believe in God, and the Internet is my Religion’ | The Radical Commons | Marx”

  1. Trupedo_Glastic

    In a recent lecture on Helgel Zizek gave in Berlin, he said that “The Holy Spirit is just another name for the Communist Party.” Besides, I share your scepticism.

  2. I’m with you here. I wonder if he might be as well…? He calls the internet his religion, not his God. He seems to indicate the community of people as God – “together we are THE Creator.” The internet for Gilliam seems to be an avenue (or THE avenue?) to a fuller realization of God in the world. Seems similar to Zizek’s notion of the Holy Spirit…

  3. Hi Kester, thank you for posting about my speech and taking the time to articulate your thoughts.

    Adam’s comment above is right on, we actually agree. The internet is my religion, not my God. It’s humans connected that become God, and the internet is how we are able to connect to that awesome power. It’s all about people.

    Humanity connected is not always good and it’s not always bad, it just *is*. God is not always good and not always bad, God just *is*.

    But here’s the big difference between the internet religion and past religions: *we* are the creators. That’s what I meant when I said that we all have our own unique skills and talents to contribute to creating the Kingdom of God. We serve God best when we do what we love for the greatest cause we can imagine.

    That is not inevitable, but it is entirely within our grasp. And it starts by having faith in people, connected.

  4. Thanks for clicking by Jim, and I like the clarifications in the comments here – something I should have explored more carefully.

    My concern remains though that although the web does give us increased potential to create, it is more limited in its delivery of creation than we are led to believe. I think there has always been more hype than substance with regards the web – one only need look at the ads that MS are running for IE9 at the moment. Their claims that this is the full speed web, or however they put it, are just nebulous. Similarly, we think that Facebook etc. is going to make us more connected – my hunch is that it simply makes us more anxious. Yes, it’s good to be well connected, but to be fully connected could be a terrible prospect.

    Jim, I don’t know if you saw the recent UK documentary series ‘All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace‘ – but if you can stream it, it’s well worth a watch. The techno-optimist version of a web-utopia is, I think, well critiqued there, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on that. One of the good sections looks at how the content we create online is actually a monetisation of our thoughts, and that is troubling, because it means further connection is a euphemism for revenue generation, which loses some of the original ‘gift’ of the web.

    Good to have you here though, and God’s speed (40meg? ๐Ÿ˜‰ to you and yours.

  5. I’m not saying the web is perfect, that humanity connected is perfect, or that either of those things are even *good*. Obviously they are not. But we have the power to make it better, that is our purpose.

    The fundamental problem I have with much of the dialog around technology, whether it’s “pro” or “con” is that it treats the technology as if it’s some kind of unchangeable inevitability. It’s not. Let’s make it better. Amen.

  6. I agree. Technology is literally in our hands. And there is something very depressing about the ‘inevitable’ position that you mention. As part of the series of events I host on faith and technology (hey, you ever in London, because I’d love to throw some cash/beer at you to speak?!) I’ve often mentioned Twain’s maxim that ‘to the man with the hammer, everything looks like a nail.’ My concern is that we meekly accept the inevitability that the web will infiltrate every area of life and we may as well just let it.

    So I’m all for ‘make it better.’ But sometimes ‘better’ can be ‘off.’ Can I get an ‘Amen’?!

    PS – can I say, while I’ve critiqued little bits of your talk, I thought the way you presented it, and the porous nature of the language, the borrowed metaphors, was superb. Loved it.

  7. Seems to me that Jim is saying the internet is a way (one among many?) to connect people together for the common good. In that sense, it is a religion (a way to embody God). Just as with other religions, the internet often fails, but there is a genuine possibility in the internet that we shouldn’t miss – the possibility of connecting people together for the common good. Jim is hopeful about this possibility. Kester is more skeptical it seems…