Problems the New Media Bring
to the Study of Religion

An apology to members of the EIR AAR.

In my abstract I wrote:

"With the advent of recent telecommunications technology, the study of religion must undergo a revolution. Not only is it possible for researchers to network among themselves, but this is also the case for religious individuals exploring their faith and others. With this new form of instantaneous global communication, it is now possible to not only virtually meet and discuss issues with members of one's faith who could be located half way around the world, it is also possible to access information about other religious beliefs and practices. More than a revolution in communications and publishing, the Internet is also altering ways religious individuals are seeing the themselves and the world, interacting in religious communities, missionary work, as well as simply practicing their religion."
I suggested that I'd speak to you about some of the religious trends appearing as a result of this second revolution in publishing and disseminating information, in order to look at some of the initial methodological problems associated with investigating religious expression on the Internet.

When I originally wrote the abstract for this talk, I had something in mind. Well, that didn't last long. Rather than focus on religious trends, I think it is more interesting to reflect on how the Internet is altering the experience of being and being human. But have no fear, I have prepared a Web page with links to various indices regarding religious studies and religions among other issues. The address is or look for the Fondarosa on the Alta Vista or Lycos search machines. I also have provided a list of top-level indices regarding religion.

Now that the business section is over, on to a future of the humanities.

After having thought about how the Internet is affecting religious expression for some time now, I not only see it as potentially providing a revolution in publishing and self-expression but also one that experientially challenges notions of self and reality as traditionally imagined. If this is the case, that the Internet brings wide-reaching implications to the ideas of self and reality, we find ourselves considering what is potentially of cosmological significance. This, I think, has serious methodological implications for anyone investigating human cultural and religious expression and, quite frankly, it's something I'm much better suited for.

When, after reading my abstract, I said that what I had in mind for this talk didn't last long, I foreshadowed one of the most important aspects of the Net: things change constantly. The acceleration of time as such is one basic component to life on the Internet. This characteristic is also common to all forms of creative activity. Images come and go until the final thing emerges. But because the Internet is different in terms of memory (all things are archivable or are being archived) there is this intangible mutability surrounding cyberspace.Things are kept in archives but the world on the Internet still changes as rapidly as the unconscious. The Internet is developing a shared imaginal inscape that sometimes seems to fluctuate as rapidly and as strangely as a dreamscape providing an experience of being that is close to the Freudian unconsciousness - a loss of a sense of time, lack of real negation, constantly evolving images and representations of space.

Let's unpack that statement a little: when homesteading in the online environment, experiences of time and space change; notions of the body and the physical world evolve or devolve, depending upon your perspective; aesthetics are changed; self representation is broadened immensly; and, the idea of community is altered significantly. This is a brief list of a sense of self that is emerging out of the near-virtual world. It is also, I believe, a short description of the experiential reality of the Internet.

Just think of it, over 40 million people are estimated to on the World Wide Web and who know how many more using the Internet. All of them are noticing these challenges to traditional ways of expressing self in relation to one's self, to others, and to the world. But it is more than self expression that is being examined. There is the experience of participating in the online culture. Sandy Stone, a professor of the Advanced Communication Technology Laboratory at the University of Texas, Austin, suggests that going online amounts to leaving one ontological space and entering into another. Making parallels to transcendental experiences, she claims that it is almost impossible to explain what was experienced using metaphors belonging to the physical world.

When there are over 40 million people the world-over actively moving from one ontological realm to another, from the physical world to the virtual world, new cultural expressions and experiences must emerge. There is no doubt that this is indeed the case today. All one need do is spend a few hours channel surfing on TV any given day and count how many items about the Internet you find. There will be more than you expect: for instance, in over four hours of channel surfing last Friday night I found 3 commercials related to the Internet, 2 news items, 2 fiction items using the Internet as part of the story, and 2 half-hour shows dedicated to explaining the Internet. Or we can look at the proliferation of Hollywood films using the Internet. Mainly B films, most borrow near-future dystopian visions from Cyber Punk in which a tattered and ugly physical world is sharply contrasted to a shiny, fairy-land like image of the new world. The subtext being something like this: virtuality is more beautiful than reality, but just as dangerous.

Not only is a segment of the global population sharing in a different ontological reality, just about everybody else who is subjected to traditional forms of mass media is being introduced ideas about the Internet regularly. With all the attention focused on the 'cyberspace' it is not hard to understand that the reality of the Internet does not jibe with the hype. Rather than providing some Hollywood version of a virtual reality - like the holodeck on the Star Trek spin-offs: complete, physical immersion in an image of a specific reality - the Internet offers a much more subtle and, hence, imaginal experience of an alternate reality. Whether it is actually possible to develop a full-blown VR suite as imagined by various people is something that hasn't been determined yet, still the development of VR as such to isn't necessary for the emergence of new ways of imagining self, community, and world comming from the direction of Cyberspace.

I want to argue that the Internet represents an emerging culture despite the dissociation of hype and reality. It is a culture that is obviously related to the mainstream yet is of a different order. It a culture that is desperately trying to define itself and its denizens and in so doing, people form intangible communities. What, then, does this have to say about the notion of community? According to some anthropologists, those of us who have not experienced inner-city slums, reservations, prisons, or aboriginal life really don't know what community means. If this is the case, then what then can we say about virtual communities? What constitutes a community in the virtual plane of existence? This is one area of investigation that needs be considered in more depth than I can here. Still, community on the Internet can be said to constitute the following items:

These kinds of things are all considered characteristic of the development of any culture. But the Internet is an emergent culture. As an emergent culture, its growth depends on how well it can provide a dramatic and meaningful experience for the individual user. That is, it must provide sufficient reason for the user to continue participating in it and must provide a sufficiently meaningful alternative to other forms of experience (William James suggests these criterion in The Will to Believe).

Obviously the Internet can provide these things to individuals who use the technology, but this is another issue that also needs careful consideration. Individually, computer mediated communication can be powerful. Not only is it a fantastic research tool (access to the world's largest library online is high on my list of things I must have as a researcher, along with a good dictionary and a word processor), the Internet also offers access to a different experience of reality. Experientially, I think the Internet can be compared to the experience of learning to see the world in a new way as one does when they start to dream and think in a second language. (There are several discussion groups looking into the cognitive implications of the Internet.)

More, as a result of the Internet's popularity, new cognitive structures are developing and being adopted which have implications in all areas of life, in the real world or otherwise. This is why I look at the Net and Net culture as an imaginal realm par excellence. It is an intangible world that is subject to constant re-construction and, since our imagining of ourselves is strongly connected to our experience of the worlds in which we live, this has significant implications for the human sciences.

As a virtual community in a virtual world I think the Internet is primarily imaginal in nature. As such, it becomes necessary to examine the metaphors and fantasies emerging through life on the Net, which are applicable to ontological experience. But we need to ask the question, what constitutes a metaphor, in general, and how are they represented in the multimedia genres, in specific. Briefly, I propose adopting a semiotic perspective so as to avoid some of the problems intrinsic to post modern discourse theory, which is weakened with its insistence on remaining fixated on the word as the only means of communication worthy of investigation, let alone in the inappropriateness of mapping linguistic structures onto the physical world.

Semiotics, as described by Julia Kristeva in Language: The Unknown, finds that units of meaningfulness like metaphors also exist in ways other than the verbal. They appear in dance, gesture, image, music, among other areas of human activity. On the Internet, one must be a both a producer and critic of music, art, literature, and personae because meaning appears in these many forms. More than merely bringing about a renaissance in letter-writing and auto-biography, the Internet is producing a situation in which the individual once more must become some sort of an interpretative, Jack-of-all-trades.

The metaphors or fantasies of this emergent culture must be understood to be more than mere figures of speech. They are something more than a mere textual occurrence. In the virtual world, everything that appears is there for a reason and needs to be examined in order to provide insight into the world being represented and experienced. Yet, metaphors and fantasies are not merely passive expressions of knowledge, but are active motivations for behaviour and perspective. Metaphors and fantasies are interactive - they may emerge, mature, and wither in emotional content but they still exist waiting to inspire insight when the time is right. Metaphors, symbols, and images are in all cultures indices into how a people imagine what it means to be human in the social and physical world.

There are all sorts of metaphors emerging in the online world today. Many of them are technology specific but they often seem to relate as much to real world experiences as they do to virtual experience. Of the variety of metaphors available for examination, I would here like to look briefly at some of the metaphors which are being used among Netizens to describe their online experience of space, self, and body.

When talking about space in the online world you might find yourself pondering the idea of participating in last century's west-ward expansion into North America. People liken their online activities as forays into a wilderness; Web sites seen as homesteads on a virtual frontier. Not only is this one online fantasy of space an interesting social comment about the lack of opportunity for finding a means of sustenance in the real world compared to the idealized online world, it reflects a long standing imagination of the Internet as the Wild West, either as a place of freedom for some or a place of anarchy and perversion for others. More institutionalized imagings of space in the online world include municipal government sites which offer their services in the form of virtual townships. At such places each service is located in a 'building' which you must virtually visit in order to use. In such imagings of space you find less the notion of anarchy than you do of civic order and fortitude.

There is more to the idea of space in the online world than this. We also need to examine MUDs and MOOs in this light. Multi User Domains refers to an Internet technology known as IRC. By joining a MUD or MOO you effectively are participating in an online, real-time conversation with any number of people. You must go to specific kind of place on the Internet in order to participate and these places are called chat rooms. In these rooms, people play games of consensual imagination in which they travel about imaginative worlds in a primarily text-based medium. It sound very similar to role playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons (and in fact this is how they got started) but they are structured differently and the players do not interact physically. I have never participated in a MUD or MOO myself but many people have told me about how addictive participation is and how it can drastically affect you off-line life. (the Psychology of the Internet discussion group is in part dealing with the issue of MUD and MOO addiction). IRC technology which started as role playing fantasy games, has now moved into the realms of political campaigning, psychotherapy, and cultural criticism (there is a room that discusses Internet/post modern culture). It cannot be long before actual religious services of some sort or another are conducted online in real-time.

Here are some other things to consider about virtual space: people often name their Web sites using spatial references; each of us using email have an address in the virtual world; the usage of the term 'site' when referring to Web pages is revealing in itself; and, most interestingly, it is possible to travel the world virtually in less than 80 seconds. Contrary to life in the real world, we can all travel as long and as far as we want in the online world. The problem being, of course, it just isn't the same - I'd rather relax on a real beach somewhere then go to one virtually.

But don't let this get the way of recognizing the influence representations of space on the Internet has in our world. According to Bill Mitchell, author and Dean of Architecture at MIT, real world buildings are traditionally designed to enhance face-to-face interaction and cities are essentially mechanisms for sustaining this contact. But when the possibility that human interaction no longer necessarily must be face- to-face, the logic behind traditional architecture and cities is fundamentally challenged. According to Mitchell, one of the social changes the online world brings is a fragmentation and recombination of space. Like deconstruction, old edifices are broken into their components and rearranged to suit the needs of a new generation.

Telecommuting has fragmented the office place, transplanting it from the centralized office into the home. ATMs have turned banks as buildings into holes in the wall, and online money will further remove banks from the physical world, as we all find tellers in our computer. This fragmentation of space as a result of what the Internet brings to society need not be imagined as dystopic. Mitchell claims that as further decentralization occurs there will be a resurgence of emphasis on the local physical community, which will continue to support face-to-face contact and diversity as it always has while telecommunications technology will provide the connection to the wider business and service communities.

If the Internet provides a different experience of being in space and if, as mentioned earlier, there is a concurrent alteration in the experience of time, there must be a correlated transformation in the articulation of self. Using feminist theory and archetypal psychology in my dissertation, I examined contemporary, postmodern articulations of selfhood. I concluded that self is being imagined in these two disparate areas of thought as polytheistic (having a religious concern as well as many difference faces to itself as opposed to singular and static), interconnected, existing within a community, it is not separable from the body, and it is imaginal at root, seeing the world from an aesthetic, heart-felt perspective.

Our understandings of self are dependent upon our understanding or fantasies of both our internal and external worlds. While the Internet does not problematize the notion of an external world any more than a book depicting a fictional world might, it does offer new ways of gaining insight into selfhood. We will briefly look at some more of these fantasies below.

One of the essential semantic categories of the Information Age is digitization. I first started considering the idea of a digitized world 12 years ago as a musician in Baltimore. At that time there was this incredible influx of digitized musical equipment which promised a great variety of affordable sounds to the average musician. But because digitalization is literally the sampling and perfect reproduction of any sound or effect, there is a strange aesthetic quality attached to digitized music. Zeros and ones are used to replicated in an exact, step-like manner what was in reality an ever-changing and imperfect curve. The warmth, the soul if you will, of the sound was some how lost to digitized 'perfection.'

Computers and the Internet all run, underneath everything, on zeroes and ones. Physically, the Internet is hard to describe because there is more to it than just individual hardware and the telecommunications infrastructure. It is, rather, a stew of hardware, software, and vaporware (that which exists only in people's minds, so far). It is a bunch of machines connected to and communicating with another bunch of machines through telephone lines. The machines have little accessories called programs which you really can't see but make all this communing easy and desirable. Incredibly long strings of zeros and ones (is this the dualism of our emerging ethos?) construct images, sounds, and give ideational experiences. Zeros and ones are making our worlds today.

Not wanting to delve to deeply into the interesting coincidence of this digitized dualism (zeros and ones representing on and off) to Western dualisms such as good and evil, male and female, mind and body, or the rational vs. the non-rational, I want to point out that these invisible codes - think of them as the helpful little-people who appear in fairy-tales the world over - are manipulated with a specific purpose, whether it's sending email or displaying the coolest Web site you can make. What is significant about this is the fact that the intangible is being made tangible. Zeros and ones enter your machine and produce images, spaces, representations of self, and much more.

Now, all this would be pointless unless there was actually somebody doing something really creative out there and there are a few. For instance, a Spring 95 edition of Wired magazine reported that there is a group of Bay Area technoshamans or technopagans (it's hard to tell without a score-card sometimes) that are looking to the World Wide Web as a way of making their magic manifest. These people are using HTML programming combined with their magical practices in order to develop a spell, send it out, and see it in action.

This is an interesting turn of events, for as I understand much of neo-pagan magic is not what we learned from Hollywood. That is it is not something as dramatic as streams of light emanating from some one's finger-tips. Rather magic has been imagined more along the lines of how Jung describes alchemy, the metamorphosis of self though meditative practices with mundane things. Yet these people in San Francisco seem to be transforming this idea of a metaphorical/non-tangible magic into something that is almost tangible (binary code that makes images appear on your screen - is this the new oracle?). I see this as foreshadowing a significant change in the magical practices of some neo-pagans at least. I also see the possibility that these kinds of developments reflect emerging cosmologies and ontologies suited for the digitized, 'information age'.

I look at the things that binary code has brought to our society and cannot help but see the possibility of people imagining themselves in similar fashions. Already I've run across biologists adopting digital metaphors in order to talk about DNA. It surely cannot be long before the digitized self will emerge as a paradigm for contemporary identity. If we live in worlds that are predominately imagined in binary forms, so too will we imagine ourselves. Frankly, I am rather uncomfortable with this possible imagining of self because as there was a loss in the warmth or soul in natural music, there is more than likely to be a loss in self under such circumstances. This loss of self could appear as a loss in the ability to imagine our selves in manners not rooted in dualisms, a continued elevation of the right over the wrong, and the rational over the non-rational. All of these possibilities lead to further denigration of the physical body in contemporary thought.

In stark contrast to the potential reduction of self the metaphor of digitalization brings, the Internet also provides the opportunity for multiple expression of self. I have run across innumerable references to transgender practices on the Internet. This to me reflects part of what I understand James Hillman is getting at when archetypal psychology suggests a polytheistic model of the psyche. Many people online find themselves with the freedom to project various personae to the virtual world. This can take all kinds of forms from simple nick-names or assumed identities to cull blown cross-dressing and gender-bending. For instance, I recently received some email about a job doing hyper text mark up from a person whose name I did not recognize at all. Well, curiosity got the better of me and I sent a note back essentially asking "who the hell are you and why did you send that note." I got no response and so went on with my life. Yet, last week I ran into a friend of my roommate and he informed me that he was my mysterious benefactor, under a pseudonym.

One of the reasons why Sandy Stone's work on identity in the face of the Internet is so popular is because she not only speaks about this issue, she has made a practice of altering her identity constantly, to the degree of getting a sex-change operation. Regardless of my questions about the rational for elevating her thought in popular consciousness (how authentic a sense of identity can she truly claim as a man turned into a woman and how can she claim her experiences to be representative of those of the vast majority of people?), she emphasizes the fluidity of identity which I take to suggest that self is something more than static and singular. Rather it is something that is constantly emerging out of our imaginings and is something that some Netizines play with regularly.

Our environment produces us. When we engage with sufficiently complex symbolic systems, to some extent we synchronize our internal symbolic field to the external one. Computer aided communication with all that it brings, from games to the Internet, is mainly linguistic in the sense that it communicates ideas to us in specific manners. As such, computers structure our way of seeing ourselves and the world. They don't really change anything as much as they rearrange our thinking patterns so that different thinking just appears.

One serious consideration regarding identity or self in computer mediated environments is the role of the body. It is imperative not to loose sight of the body, as feminist critique informs us. To do so is to run the risk of loosing the ability for self-representation and subject it to control by institutionalizing forces that see it merely as a thing to be manipulated, inscribed upon, used, and owned. Because the Internet makes it possible to interact with people virtually, it makes it possible to experience leaving behind the security of the self as dependent upon body-identity. While this is definitely a good thing for many handicapped people, who are for the first time experiencing social interaction with out the difficulties their physical appearance bring, it is not ultimately desirable to separate oneself from the body and, indeed, it is impossible.

No amount of technology which allows the imagining of different bodies or personae is going to slow down the eventual death of a Net geek with the AIDs virus. Merely because it is possible to express the different faces of self does not mean that we have left our bodies behind and done the impossible, escaped our epistemological grounding in the body and the physical world. The body and all it implies goes with us each time we enter the Internet. As William Shatner puts it: "The inherent problem with this technology is that a single pair of eyes focuses on a single screen, and by some electronic extension, you are connected to somebody else--but it's in the abstract. The danger is that we become enamored with the abstract and forget that life is really touchy-feely."

The Internet has provided us a degree of freedom of expression that has never been available before. This has profound implications for our society: new cognitive structures are emerging as we speak, an alternative aesthetic must arise, and self expression is changing as more people the world-over experience this alternate ontological reality. But because the Internet is so abstracted, as Shatner points out, it is imaginal at root. If you want to look at the imagination, Hillman emphasizes, you have to use an imaginal perspective. For me this means paying close attention to the fantasies, metaphors, images, and myths that the Internet will bring to our world. (There already are email Daemons and little animals like Gophers are already on the Internet - what exactly does the presence of such entities portend?) Paying close attention to such imaginal figure does not mean attempting to explain their presence so much as it suggests a participation in the image, providing an intimate understanding of the experiences they represent.

The Internet is all forms of media rolled into one and as such requires a multidisciplinary analysis to account for it's many forms of expression. Aesthetically, the Internet brings to experience something close to stream of consciousness. In presentation and production aesthetic objects on the Internet are not linear in nature. Reflecting less the straight-forwardness of the rational mind, the Internet bring an aesthetic experience that is close to the unconscious. This is something that Scott Lasch's (reference to Lasch) noted in The Sociology of Post Modernism, in which he identifies the emergence of an alternate sense of aesthetics in postmodern culture. He believes that this new aesthetic claims for itself the a space similar to the Freudian unconscious. While I happen to agree with Lasch, as a survey of modern art since surrealism will attest, I also see this alteration of aesthetic sensibility as an effective model to use when examining Internet cultural expression. Using something like Freud's methods of dream analysis it is possible to encompass the fantasies of self and society being expressed online.

While a postmodern aesthetic is in part a reaction against the imprisonment of the mind, self, and world, it is beset by deeply entrenched institutionalizing interests: multinational corporations and governments the world over. These institutionalizing agencies are not only trying to control the medium, but also what can be said on it, and how it is said. That is, what is permissible to see and imagine is being threatened as is evidenced by the recent ratification of the Communications Decency Act. The symbolic meaning is clear, the institutionalizing agencies want to censor freedom of speech. But, the practical application of such legislation is completely absurd. How can the US government claim to have authority in a world without geographical borders, inhabited by people lived in all parts of the world? I'm actually very surprised by the relative lack of response the Communications Decency Act. It would be a simple matter of organizing a number of people outside the US to send questionable e-mail to all relevant government addresses to show the American government exactly how naive this attempt to censor the Net really is.

The question remains, however, as to why is this occurring? In my estimation it amounts to more than struggles over power and corporate virtual land-grabs but is a direct challenge to everybody's Second Amendment rights. It is a corporate attempt to control the symbolic field as well as the infrastructure. In Culture Inc., Herbert Schiller outlines the sinister rise of the corporation to a legal level of a person granted increasing levels of free speech since the second world war. More than merely being given protection against slander and the like, corporations now have more right to freedom of speech than anyone of us, individually. And, most multinational corporations are really interested in one thing only: the profit margin. They have deemed that information is profitable and this is creating an environment in which "information issues that deeply affect the quality of national cultural life are decided by commercial, mostly corporate, considerations." (72) Schiller goes on to note that the goal of information access is altered from an egalitarian to a privileged condition by making information a commodity. The consequence of this is that "the essential underpinning of a democratic order is seriously, if not fatally, damaged." (75) This is in direct opposition to the fantasy of the Internet providing the infrastructure for a true, participatory democracy. The timeless struggle between individual ideals and institutional goals continues to be fought in virtuality - who or what is next in line for crucifixion?

Other links about religion
Last updated: April 12, 1996

Copyright © 1996 Marc Fonda. All rights reserved.
First Presented to the Spring 1996 Eastern International Regional Conference for
the American Academy of Religion, at Lemoyne College, Lemoyne, N.Y.