God in the Information Age

In his landmark 1954 work The Technological Society, French writer Jacques Ellul argued that a feature of the modern world is the increasing centralization of control in the hands of an oppressive, bureaucratic, and all-powerful state through the use of technology. While this decidedly pessimistic vision of the future may have accurately described state politics during the Cold War, there is some reason to believe that certain forms of technology may actually be decentralizing power and questioning any absolute definition of state sovereignty.

An example of this is the staggering growth of the Internet. Originally created by the U.S. military as a sprawling, decentralized communications network capable of keeping various military facilities in contact during a nuclear war (and therefore, a perfect example of Ellul’s thesis), the tool of the Army has been hammered into a plowshare for—well, if not for peace, then for the (relatively) peaceful conquest of the world by multinational corporations.

But the fact that the Web is sustained on standard phone lines, coupled with the increasing affordability of entry-level computers, has made it very difficult for a single actor to control its content or development. Nowadays, all you need is a keyboard, a modem, and the "truth" to access what the average concerned citizen or small NGO could never have imagined a decade ago: a personal printing press and global distribution system. All of this is perhaps just another way of saying that not all technology is created equal, nor does it necessarily contain within it the way in which it is to be used.

Witness, for example, the newly revised Salt of the Earth Web site (www.claret.org/~salt). Founded in 1981 by the Claretian Order, Salt was published as a print magazine focusing on justice issues such as welfare reform, capital punishment, and homelessness, always attempting to bring in the perspective of the average lay Christian rather than the career activist.

Then last summer, mainly for economic reasons, the publishers of Salt decided to give up the ghost on the magazine rack in order to become a ghost in the machine. Calling itself "The online resource for social justice," Salt offers a full archive of recent and past issues, as well as a helpful ordering of material into topical issues such as "Legislative Advocacy" and "Parish Ministry." Another department, dealing with "Social Justice News," provides many useful and interesting links to other religious organizations on the Web.

THE DESIGN OF THE Web page itself is understated but well organized. I’ve come to appreciate sites that provide a stable index along the margin to keep you from getting lost in the labyrinth of hypertext links—actually, the experience is more like falling down a well. Anyway, Salt’s index keeps you firmly tethered to your electronic surfboard with a continual reminder of all the options available to you.

Another helpful service provided by this page is a connection to several other Claretian products on the Web: U.S. Catholic, Context, Nuestra Parroquia, El Momento Catolica, Amigos de Jesus, Catholic Wisdom, and—my favorite—the Busy Christian’s Guide to Catholic Social Teaching. (Didn’t Max Weber say it was the Protestants who were too busy?)

The "Message Pad" page, where readers are able to offer their thoughts and interact on what they’ve found on the site and elsewhere, is a very innovative section. The "Stat House" page provides enough fascinating material to keep you popular at cocktail parties. And while a few sections—notably, some topic areas in the archive section—may still be a little skimpy, Salt provides a great jumping-off point for your online justice work, and a great model for any organization thinking of starting up its own home page. It’s also important to mention that while Salt is funded by a Catholic order the site is very ecumenical in focus.

What would dear old Jacques Ellul have made of all this had he lived to see it? Would he have changed his mind?

At the opposite end of cyberspace is Rev. Charles Henderson. He recently spoke on the topic "How good is the Internet as a metaphor for God?" at a recent conference titled "From Printing Press to Computer: The Future of Faith Communities in the Information Age." Henderson argues, "If in the past, God was perceived to be an all-powerful monarch, in the Information Age God is increasingly visible in the commonplace and the ordinary. If in the age of hierarchical government, God communicated by issuing commands from on high, in a networked world God is relational, speaking from within the events that constitute daily life....[I]n the Information Age, God will be perceived as being present in and through that network which connects us with each other and with the world. That network is the Internet."

Maybe that’s going a bit far. Even so, it’s interesting to ponder how much Henderson’s description of God in the past mirrors Ellul’s description of the state in the future.

BRETT GRAINGER, formerly a Sojourners intern, is a free-lance writer living in Toronto.

Salt of the Earth. Kevin Clarke, Web Master. Web Address: http://www.claret.org/~salt. Claretian Publications, 1997.

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