Cybertheology: Thinking Christianity in the Era of the Internet
by antonio spadaro
fordham, 160 pages, $24
The New Digital Age: Transforming Nations, Businesses, and Our Lives
by eric schmidt and jared cohen
random house, 368 pages, $15.95
To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism
by evgeny morozov
public affairs, 432 pages, $17.99
My wife and I recently decided to read some Joseph Ratzinger together. We were excited. We’d just downloaded a theology library that was searchable, interactive, beautiful, and could be used on all of our Apple devices. So we spent a good hour sitting side by side, scrolling through the many options, enthusing about all the things we could do when we decided which book to read. When we tapped the wrong tiles and slid our fingers in unintended directions, we found our way into still more amazing resources and cool capabilities. The possibilities were endless!
Eventually we chose to reread Introduction to Christianity. We tapped out a plan to read the book in twelve weeks, tested to make sure everything was working, and then closed the apps, feeling both tired and restless, even a little fried. We never actually read anything. As of this writing, I’m days and days behind. Actually, I can know exactly how far behind, in days, pages, and percentiles, because the app features this really well-designed reading-progress graphic that you can just tap.
When it comes to the endless debate over technology’s virtues and vices, the new book by Fr. Antonio Spadaro, S.J., Cybertheology: Thinking Christianity in the Era of the Internet, is a provocative if confused intervention. Best known as the Rome-based editor of the Jesuit magazine Civiltà Cattolica who conducted an international news–making personal interview with Pope Francis in September 2013, Spadaro begins his new book by encouraging us to move past questions about what technology is being used for (online pornography or searchable theology libraries?) so that we can instead engage in a “systematic and theological reflection on the topic.” As welcome as that could be, Spadaro seems to think such an offering amounts to bedazzled mashups of Christian ideas with the terms of digital life. He invites us to consider what it means to think of the human person as a “search engine for God.” He asks what “hacker” culture and ethics can teach us about the Christian view of the world. And he questions the relationship between reality and virtual reality when it comes to the practice of the sacred liturgy and administering of the sacraments.
His answers come as a turgid stew of citations—of McLuhan, Teilhard de Chardin, anodyne papal statements on technology, and abstruse formulations from assorted minor communications theorists and theologians—alongside Spadaro’s own romantic and even mystical speculations about what technology can teach us about God and faith and vice versa, all of which is seasoned with already dated references to the significance of iPods and to momentarily popular Internet crazes.
Throughout the book, Spadaro provides solid affirmations of Church teaching amid much energetic theorizing that can be rather easily read as pushing against this teaching. For instance, in a section entitled “The Mystical and Connective Body,” which typifies Spadaro’s interest in mixing the vocabulary of traditional Catholic theology and culture with the vocabulary of contemporary technology and digital life, he considers the advantages of understanding the life of the Church afresh by conceiving of its structures and purposes in technological terms. Riffing on various communications theorists and cyber-minded theologians, Spadaro invites us to conceive of the Church as “a support structure—a hub, a square—where people can cluster, giving life [in turn] to a cluster of connections.” The members of the Catholic hierarchy can be understood “as a network, as ecologists, people who have the duty to [maintain] the functions of the Web. . . . This vision offers an idea of the Christian community that makes the characteristics of virtual community itself turn into light, without historical constraints, and which is geographically fluid.” He concludes that “this horizontality helps us greatly to understand the Church’s mission, which is to evangelize.”
But does it really? Spadaro’s philo-techno formulations repeatedly challenge basic Catholic truths—from the incarnational reality of God-made-man, which forms Catholicism’s core proposition, to the hierarchical nature of its ecclesiology. Spadaro is certainly mindful of this. Often he ends such enthusiastic musings about technologized church structures and practices—he wonders about the possible real-life effects of your online avatar’s taking part in an online liturgy or receiving an online sacrament, and conceives of bishops and priests as senior-level managers for a Church that operates like an Internet-service provider—by duly acknowledging that, while he’s convinced this exercise enhances the faith’s “connective capacity and witnessing” in and for a digital age, “on the other hand, it seems that the comprehension of the Church as the ‘mystic body’ . . . is diluted into a sort of platform of connections.”
This doesn’t strike me as a worthy tradeoff. Indeed, the very nature of cybertheology seems idealistic and myopic. Spadaro wants us to harvest “the fruit of faith that frees itself from a cognitive impulse at a time when the Web’s logic marks the way of thinking, knowing, communicating, and living.” But the “cognitive impulse” that cybertheology frees us from is the very faculty of reason that complements and finds its fulfillment in faith itself. Spadaro would have faith seek the logic of the Web instead of seeking the understanding imprinted on us in our being made in the image of God. Under the guise of celebrating the Web as a space of liberated and free-flowing thought, he makes faith captive to Google’s algorithms.
Spadaro acknowledges this less roseate view of how the Web is structured and operates, going so far as to worry about the “utopia of totalitarian traits” that a world governed by exclusive technological thinking would create. In fact, this is exactly why he encourages us “to think about the Web and the impact of new technologies on humans [with] categories that only theological thought seems able to furnish.”
If only this book could more capably demonstrate what such thinking could accomplish. Its failure to do soattests to the need for clear and sober religious thinking on digital life. Spadaro’s overexcited efforts in the end have less to do with the Christian theological tradition than with the more-explicit evangelizing that comes out of Silicon Valley these days, from the likes of Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen. Their New Digital Age: Transforming Nations, Businesses, and Our Lives is smart, confident, optimistic, and profoundly unsettling. They treat technology as nothing less than a religion, convinced that it provides the structure of humanity’s ultimate concerns. This means in turn that they believe that “the best thing anyone can do to improve the quality of life around the world is to drive connectivity and technological opportunity.”
No one who takes the life of faith seriously could agree with this declaration, but I wonder if we unknowingly affirm it in our daily, tech-saturated lives. Even what might seem like our most productive online inclinations and actions—to build a cool new catechism app, to curate a Christian-friendly newsfeed, to drive Pope Francis content to where the users are—again and again affirm our investment, dependence, even tacit confidence in technology. We may not consciously affirm that the best thing anyone can do is to promote connectivity, but what if evermore of what we do each day advances that Google-framed good? What if we’re pursuing our citizenship in the City of God too much in the City of Google?
If we are, we’d be only encouraged to more of the same by Schmidt, Cohen, and others who are commanding technology, because they increasingly see their work not in economic, or innovative, or even ethical but, finally, in religious terms. I’m not the first to point out Big Tech’s religiosity: HBO’s new program Silicon Valley makes pointed fun of the higher-order ambitions and frequently messianic self-conceptions of the tech industry’s leaders; Dave Eggers’s novel The Circle (2013) did very much the same by conjuring a cult-like world of young entrepreneurs working for a Google-like tech company who willingly abandon their individuality and privacy and offline lives to be part of an algorithm and data-ruled collective.
Finally, there’s self-described “digital heretic” Evgeny Morozov and his forensic analyses of the religious language and sensibilities that inform the proclaimed ambitions and expectations of Big Tech’s business heads and major thinkers. In identifying the higher-order implications and even terminology they deploy, Morozov aggressively draws our attention to evidence of “the religious zeal with which they embark on and justify their quest to ameliorate the human condition.”
Morozov’s latest work, To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, is driven by his relentless criticism of the Big Tech ethos. He sees in it a solutionist approach to the world that admits of no imperfection that can’t be overcome through more innovation. He amusingly shows how Big Tech leaders are dangerously single-minded in their pursuit of ever greater connectivity and content creation, but Morozov’s approach is finally counterproductive. He uses abundant sarcasm and easy cynicism to represent the digital era’s great proponents as shallow, self-congratulating narcissists adept at transforming their egos and profit motives into impressive-sounding calls to higher-order ethical ideals and morally significant action. It’s fun to read, even funny, but it encourages a shallow dismissal of the digital world.
We may be tempted to fall into the same stance when encountering the rise of popular “God apps” for smartphones, which allow users to create their own (virtual) worlds out of pixelated primordial murk; or a San Francisco–based Craigslist posting seeking collaborators for a “startup religion” founded on Facebook and positing Mark Zuckerberg as God; or the state-recognized Swedish movement known as Kopism, which understands itself as a religion based on free file sharing in support of providing free content and information to all; or Terasem, a new technology-ordered religion that’s seeking eternal life for the interior lives of its followers by turning these “mind files” into digital copies that will live forever in the cloud, making technologically possible, in turn, the resurrection of the earthly dead. The likes of God apps, Terasem, Kopism, and the First Church of Mark Zuckerberg pose little threat to millennia-old institutional religion.
But these are news-friendly surface-level developments compared with the deep religious structures that are being anticipated and advocated for in works such as Schmidt and Cohen’s The New Digital Age, which declares, on its first page, that “the Internet is among the few things humans have built that they don’t truly understand.” Cohen and Schmidt, in turn, want us to understand its capacities and implications as “the largest experiment involving anarchy in history. Hundreds of millions of people are, each minute, creating and consuming an untold amount of digital content in an online world that is not truly bound by terrestrial laws. . . . This is the Internet, the world’s largest ungoverned space.”
In such a place, then, anarchic, unbounded, ungoverned, full of creation and consumption—a kind of advanced primordial space awaiting endless keyboard fiats of creation—there are only two units of meaningful significance: the individual user, and the operating system in which he moves and has his being. According to Schmidt and Cohen, nations, businesses, communities, and institutions have to reorder their sense of purpose and influence to work within these parameters.
And why is this a good? Because, they point out, “while this is hardly the first technology revolution in our history, it is the first that will make it possible for almost everyone to own, develop, and disseminate real-time content without having to rely on intermediaries.” Of course this is just as superficially inspiring to hear as it is manifestly untrue: The intermediaries are the fiber-optic cable and Internet-service providers, the content and platform companies, and the software and hardware makers, all of whom Schmidt and Cohen treat as the unseen and neutral-to-benign forces that provide the shape and structure of what we presume are our individually determined ultimate concerns.
Because many of us are already to some degree captive to this array of forces, we can absolutely agree with theologians like Spadaro, insofar as he rightly recognizes that the Church cannot limit itself to an instrumental engagement of questions about how best to use technology, when, and for what. Unfortunately, his own effort to affirm in ways both new and timeless the Church’s religious propositions for human existence is too much of a piece with the Big Tech gospel. The Church’s propositions need to be affirmed today not merely through the terms of digital technology but also against them. The Christian message cannot help but run counter to the proposition that evermore content and ever greater connectedness form the source, purpose, and summit of human existence. Thank God there’s no app that can do that for us (yet).
Randy Boyagoda is the author of Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square (Image, 2015).