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The Internet as Social-Spiritual Space

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Abstract

The Internet means different things t o different people. According to Annette Markham (1998)~ individuals can conceive of the Internet as a tool, a place or a state of mind. This spectrum of conceptions provides a helpful starting point to describe ways the Internet is seen and used by individuals. It also encapsulates the diversity of approaches in Computer-mediated Communications (CMC) research in the past two decades. CMC, according to John December (1997)~ is 'a process of human communication via com-puters, involving people, situated in particular contexts, engaging in processes to shape media for a variety of purposes'. It is an interdisciplinary area of study considering questions related to psychology, communications, sociology and even philosophy. In the I ~ ~ O S , studies of the social side of computers began to emerge such as investigating how the Internet influences personal identity and social structures. This raised awareness that the Internet is not simply used for utilitarian or information-based pursuits. By the mid-~:ggos, research began to show the Internet was being integrated into numerous social and even religious pursuits. The Internet increasingly functions as a social and spiritual place for many people, as information technology 208 I N T E R N E T AS S O C I A L -S P I R I T U A L SPACE 209 intersects with awakened postmodern spiritual desires and a search for meaning in an information age. The purpose of this chapter is to highlight and explore social and spiritual facets of the Internet. This is done by investigating how this conception and perspective of study has emerged in CMC research in the past decade. First, the Internet is contextualised by considering specific aspects of its roots and history. Then several conceptions of the Internet are outlined, presenting the different facets of how the Internet has been conceived and utilised. Next, how the Internet can function as a social-spiritual space is outlined through describing 'The Internet as sacramental space'. This conception unpacks how and why the Internet is being employed in a variety of spiritual pursuits.
The Internet as
Social-Spiritual Space
Heidi Campbell
The Internet means different things to different people.
According
to
Annette Markham
(1998)~
individuals can
conceive of the Internet as a tool,
a
place or a state
of
mind.
This spectrum of conceptions provides a helpful starting
point to describe ways the Internet is seen and used by
individuals.
It
also encapsulates the diversity of approaches
in Computer-mediated Communications (CMC) research
in
the past
two
decades. CMC, according to John December
(1997)~
is ‘a process of human communication via com-
puters, involving people, situated in particular contexts,
engaging in processes to shape media for
a
variety of
purposes’. It is an interdisciplinary area of study considering
questions related to psychology, communications, sociology
and even philosophy. In the
I~~OS,
studies
of
the social
side of computers began to emerge such as investigating
how the Internet influences personal identity
and
social
structures. This raised awareness that the Internet is not
simply used for utilitarian or information-based pursuits.
By
the mid-~:ggos, research began to show the Internet was
being integrated into numerous social and even religious
pursuits. The Internet increasingly functions as
a
social and
spiritual place for many people, as information technology
208
INTERNET AS SOCIAL-SPIRITUAL SPACE
209
intersects with awakened postmodern spiritual desires and
a search for meaning in an information age.
The purpose of this chapter is to highlight and explore
social and spiritual facets
of
the Internet. This is done
by investigating how this conception and perspective of
study has emerged in
CMC
research in the past decade.
First, the Internet is contextualised by considering specific
aspects
of
its roots and history. Then several conceptions
of the Internet are outlined, presenting the different facets
of
how the Internet has been conceived and utilised. Next,
how the Internet can function as a social-spiritual space is
outlined through describing ‘The Internet as sacramental
space’. This conception unpacks how and why
the
Internet
is being employed in
a
variety of spiritual pursuits.
Contextualising
the
Internet
In order to understand how the Internet is conceived
of
as
a
new social-spiritual space,
it
is important to highlight
the roots
of
this information technology. The beliefs that
underlie the Internet’s history have affected how and why
this technology has been used for distinct purposes.
Through a historical analysis of the emergence
of
the
InternetI two key themes emerge which characterised this
technology: fear and promise. Beginning in the
1960s
cold war’s culture of suspicion, Internet technology
and
ARPANET
were created in response to the fear of looming
devastation produced by the advent of nuclear technology
(Sardar
199
6).
Created to sustain communication in the
midst of catastrophe, the Internet from its inception came
out of an underlying current
of
alarm and mistrust. Yet,
the Internet’s development and expansion in the
1980s
and
1990s
also illustrate the belief in
a
positive view
of
progress,
universal rights to access and promotion of freedom
of
information. The Internet was presented as a new land
of
opportunity and a ‘wonderful pluralistic world’ opening
210
NETTING CITIZENS
society up to new potential ways of governing, relating and
being (Dyson et al. 1996: 28).
This tension between fear and promise within computer
and Internet technology is also seen when exploring the idea
of cyberspace and its roots in science fiction. Cyberspace
is
a metaphoric image of an imaginary world existing
beyond the computer screen.z In science fiction, cyberspace
illustrates
a
desire for humans and technology to merge.
It
is
a
virtual space offering the opportunity to create a
new reality, where the virtual world presents escape from
the real world. Yet, cyberspace also presents a dichotomy.
Technology is portrayed as offering both hope for the future
and a dark dystopia, as the technological world oppresses
and exerts control over humanity. Many advocates and
critics
of
the technology have used this dichotomy to
support claims that the Internet is either utopia or dystopia
(Wellman 1997b). The roots and rhetoric of the Internet
highlight the possible extreme responses towards this
technology. The Internet is either criticised as potentially
destructive or lauded as potential saviour.
It
is presented
as
a tool
or
place that creates
a
distinctly helpful or harmful
technological environment.
Yet the Internet is not
a
medium that can be branded
as simply good or evil. When studying the Internet as a
social phenomenon, increasing numbers of people engaging
in social interaction on-line, we find both strengths and
weakness manifest in the technology, Here the Internet
blurs the boundaries
of
what is real and virtual, as
technology which both unifies and alienates. Therefore,
a different and more balanced approach is necessary to
understanding the complexity of the Internet. Nardi and
O’Day use the label of ‘critical friend’ as an alternative
response for evaluating technology and investigating
its outcomes (Nardi and O’Day 1999: 27). Emerging
somewhere between technophobe and technophile per-
spectives, critical friends consider both positive and
INTERNET
AS
SOCIAL-SPIRITUAL SPACE
211
negative effects of the Internet. They focus on identifying
how a given technology operates and suggest individuals
embrace technology with caution. This is characterised by
the Technorealist Manifesto
c
www.technorealism.org
>
which seeks ‘neither to champion nor dismiss technology,
but rather
to
understand it, and apply it in
a
manner more
consistent with basic human values’.
The critical friend is similar
to
the position of ‘prophetic
resistance’ promoted by Clifford Christians in
Responsible
Technology
as
a
Christian-based response to the ‘technicistic
worldview’. Prophetic resistance advocates revealing
weaknesses of other positions and resisting oversimplified
prejudices, while not rejecting outright the technology itself.
Therefore the prophet does not rail against the existence of
the technology. Technology only becomes a problem when
it becomes sacralised or when it seduces our language
and being.
To
bring ‘prophetic witness into the existing
technological order’ Christians claims it must first be raised
in the Christian community and then brought to the larger
human community.
As
the prophetic witness addresses the
human tendency to allow technology to serve the interest
of power, ‘our technological activity can be freed at last and
inspired to follow the biblical path
of
loving God above
all and our neighbour as ourselves’ (Christians et al.
1986:
221).
Identifying this perspective is important as a religious
or
spiritual response to technology extends this evaluation
to consider how Internet technology affects and shapes the
soul. The history of and reaction towards the Internet are
laden with distinct beliefs about the technology of Internet
choices. These underlying assumptions inform how people
approach the Internet and to what ends they use
it.
Conceptions
of
the Internet
There are many different approaches to the Internet. Along
with Markham, one of the first attempts to describe how
212
NETTING CITIZENS
individuals operate on-line was presented by Phi1 Agre in
his article ‘The Internet and Public Discourse’ (Agre
1998).
In it he presents several conceptions of the Internet and
ways they influence life on-line.
He
describes the Internet
as a communications medium, a computer system,
a
discourse and a set of standards. While Agre’s models are
helpful, and will be noted in this section, essentially they
do
a
better job of addressing legal and political concerns
than looking
at
the Internet as
a
social phenomenon.
Markham
-
who characterised the Internet as a tool, a
place or a
state
of mind
-
sought to describe general user
approaches to the Internet (Markham
1998).
By combining
the ideas of Markham and Agre with reflection based on
a
recently completed study
of
on-line communities, several
other models or conceptions emerge that seek
to
highlight
a particular use and study of the on-line context. Here
the Internet will be identified as: information space, a
common mental geography, an ‘identity workshop’,
a
social space and
a
sacramental space. These descriptions
seek to capture people’s perceived and actual use of the
Internet. This spectrum shows the Internet can be seen as
being utilitarian, conceptual, experimental, social or even
spiritual by users. Discussing these particular conceptions
also helps to introduce various trends in
CMC
research
relevant to these discussions of the Internet.
The
Internet
as
Information
Space
The Internet as information space highlights information
exchange occurring on-line. The Internet allows individuals
to utilise a variety of software and technologies to interact
with data. Here the Internet is often referred to as the realm
of pure information and the World Wide Web is seen as
its holding house. The Internet exists for the utilitarian
purpose
of
transferring messages or data. Individuals
use
the Internet as
a
tool to locate their desired data.
INTERNET AS SOCIAL-SPIRITUAL SPACE
213
One of the unique aspects of the Internet is that it allows
each netizen simultaneously to be ‘a publisher as well as
a consumer
of
information’ (Rheingold
I
9
93
:
9
7).
With
minimal resources, in comparison to public access television
or pirate radio, individuals can publish their own website or
start an email list on their preferred topic. Thus, people on-
line often focus on generating and discovering information
of personal interest. Internet technology is valued for its
ability to retrieve and store data.
The CMC studies began by focusing on users’ interactions
on texts. These studies can be traced to the
I~~OS,
when
CMC focused primarily on the technological capabilities of
computers by exploring how particular technical, economic
and ergonomic characteristics
of
computers affected
organisational efficiency and effectiveness (Kiesler, Siege1
and McGuire
1984).
In the early
1980s,
while research
grew into the context of computer interaction,
it
still had
an informational focus
on
organisational communication
on-line, and how individuals exchanged information and
developed informational networks. Studying the net as an
information space is still prevalent within discussion of
copyright, navigation of information spaces and cyber-
law.
According to Spears and Lea, ‘CMC reflects a shift of
the attentional focus to the content and context of the
message’
(1992:
40).
The attention is on the message
over the producer, the textual creation instead of the text
creator. These texts focus individuals on representations
of reality. Importance is placed on conceptions
of
what
they
are interacting with on-line, over what is behind the
words. Numes argues in the virtual world of the Internet,
‘our words are our bodies’ (Numes
1995: 326),
where
people become known by their words or their taglines. The
texts presented become the defining factor of who one is
in cyberspace and what one does. Through text, readers
construct mental images
of
the other. Information space
214
NETTING CITIZENS
dictates that individuals become known as data producers.
Texts produced are seen as representing the totality of the
particular producer, limiting interpersonal engagement with
them
at
a deeper level. Information becomes abstracted
from its author or creator; the focus becomes gathering
data.
This conception highlights a negative tendency towards
de-personalising those who generate the
text.
Roszak in
The
Cult of Information
argues that this occurs as those
in the information society mistake access
to
information
for knowledge. He states that society is now based on an
‘information economy’; those who control information are
the new power brokers (Roszak
1986:
91).
This is often
central to debates on the ‘Digital Divide’ where discussion
of the Internet is framed in terms of the ‘information rich’
versus the ‘information poor’. The focus is utilitarian,
promoting the most access
to
the most information for the
most people.
The Internet as
Common
Mental Geography
The Internet as common mental geography, views the
Internet as providing more than
a
tool for communication,
but
a
structure for individuals to construct a common
world-view. Computers are meant
to
supply standardised
methods of processing data. These processes are meant to
link computer operators to a common platform of language
and interactions.
This platform provides a common mental geography,
a
way to describe how the real world functions using
computer-ese and technological imagery; the machine is
used to understand humanity, This can be associated with
‘technobabble’, where the ‘human condition is frequently
explained in terms of technological metaphors’ (Barry 1993;
xiii). Technobabble involves using mechanistic language to
describe human processes. This has connotations outside the
INTERNET AS SOCIAL-SPIRITUAL SPACE
215
realms
of
computing as individuals use anthropomorphic
ideas, attributing human characteristics to material objects,
to describe computers and their processes.
By merging technobabble with cyber-philosophy the
Internet becomes a distinct way
of
viewing reality, the
physical world interpreted through the screen. Research
such as the work of Sherry Turkle on hacker culture
at
MIT
(Turkle
1985)
and philosophical writings in the early
I~~OS,
such as Michael Benedikt in
Cyberspace:
First
Steps
(1992),
characterised investigations
of
this sort. This ran
alongside studies of
CMC
in the areas
of:
group norms
and social identity, social identity within communities
of users (Lea
1992).
Developments in digital art and
cyber-literature also utilise the Internet as a new space
for creativity. Cyberspace creates
a
digital canvas for new
artistic and technological expressions, from interactive
poetry
to
3-D
game imaging. Merging technology and
human creativity has also spawned dialogue on cyborg
philosophy and posthuman discourses, which encourage
a new philosophical framework, and language has been
used to describe and frame the innovations of cyberspace
(Haraway
1991).
This conception brings together elements of science fiction
fantasy with computer networking images. Cyberspace can
be seen as an environment shaped as much by story and
myth as
it
is by networked computers. Here cyberspace can
be seen as a real place, the place where people see them-
selves while ‘surfing the net’, Yet cyberspace is a simulated
territory; it is a metaphor and media image that does not
truly represent the actual computer network architecture
of computer connections and telephone lines. However,
some users chose to let fantasy inform their reality. This
extreme can be seen in the lives
of
computer hackers.
Turkle describes hackers as individuals obsessed with their
computers whose chief aim is to engage the world through
computers and technology.
As
one hacker, whom Turkle
INTERNET
AS
SOCIAL-SPIRITUAL SPACE
217
is seen are words on
a
screen with which individuals can
construct both themselves and the ‘bodies’ or presence of
others with whom they
are
communicating,
One discussion area in
CMC
research attempts to
distinguish real from the virtual identity on-line by
exploring the question
of
‘embodiment’, what the body
is in cyberspace. How Internet users identify their body
on-line can influence how they see themselves and com-
municate with other net users. This perspective was the
focus of much
CMC
research in the mid-1990s as focus
turned
to
various facets
of
on-line communities, ranging
from describing patterns
of
life found on
MUDs
or
MOOS
such as described by Bruckman and Resnick (1995) and
Mnookin (1996), to the development of community on
Usenet and IRC systems done
by
individuals such as Reid
(1995). Many researchers were drawn to investigate these
groups because they included a unique mixing of aspects
of
the ‘real’ social world with a computer-created ‘virtual’
world. This intersection creates what some have referred
to as an ‘identity workshop’ (Parks and Floyd 1996:
83),
an opportunity for individuals to create new personas and
relationships utilising options often unavailable to them in
their embodied social context.
In cyberspace, people are seen as ‘disembodied’,
detached or freed from the constraints of the physical.
On-
line bodies are constructed through words. People present
their bodies by the words they select. The Internet gives
individuals the ability to recreate their personal identities.
Some see the Internet as a mecca
of
‘multi-personality
possibilities’ where the Internet unties the mind from the
body offering new ways
of
expression and opportunities
for equality. This not only allows for experimentation,
such as gender swapping, but also creates a space in
which prejudices can be eliminated (Stone 1995). People
are judged on the basis
of
their text response, not their
Status or appearance.
21
8
NETTING CITIZENS
For example, on email lists individuals receive all
postings made by other members
of
that group. They
select
a
message and open it, coming face-to-screen with
a piece of text, most likely generated by an individual
they have never met. Typically they have
no
access to
a visual image of the individual. Social and non-verbal
cues for the most part are absent. In email, individuals
are portrayed as standardised computer block letters,
the type-written word; it is up
to
the reader to construct
the body of the persona they are communicating with.
Also, individuals who are primarily written rather than
oral communicators often thrive in interactions on-line,
finding it
a
medium conducive to their communication
style (Myers
1987).
While options for anonymity and the absence of social
cues on-line allow individuals a sense
of
freedom, they
also create some unpleasant by-products, The dissolution
of boundaries can result in de-individualisation where
there is a ‘loss of identity and weakening of social norms
and constraints associated with submergence in a group
or a crowd’ (Spears and Lea
1992:
38).
Thus, the on-line
anonymity, which promotes equal participation within a
group, can also lead to reduced self-regulation and promote
uninhibited behaviour.
Disembodiment creating freedom on-line can also lead
individuals to confusion, dishonesty and deception. This
is expressed by Dibble’s classic account
of
‘A
Rape
in
Cyberspace’ where a character in a Multi-User Dungeon
(MUD)
hacked into another character’s person to ‘virtually’
assault her. The incident received significant media
attention and showed how involvement in a fantasy-based
on-line environment can have real world psychological
and sociological effects
on
participants (Dibble
199
6).
Positively, it centres on freedom and potential, wherein
people are not bound by social class or physical appearance.
Negatively, it creates a very egocentric view
of
the Internet,
\
I
I
\
INTERNET AS SOCIAL-SPIRITUAL SPACE
221
practice as
it
is brought on-line. Using the Internet as
a
sacramental space involves the adaptation of symbols,
rituals and practices as technology is used in spiritual
pursuits. While contemporary society often feels isolated
and disconnected, the Internet has come to represent an
other-worldly space allowing people to re-engage with
issues of spirituality. Margaret Wertheim, in
The
Pearly
Gates
of
Cyberspace,
argues that cyberspace allows people
once again
to
engage spiritual yearnings, silenced in a world
where science has dominated religion:
The ‘spiritual’ appeal of cyberspace lies precisely in this
paradox: It is
a
repackaging
of
the old idea of Heaven, but
in a secular, technologically sanctioned format.
The
perfect
realm awaits
us,
we are told, not behind the pearly gates but
the electronic gateways labelled .corn and .net. and .edu.
(Wertheim
1999:
21)
Locating themselves in the seemingly timeless, boundless
realm
of
computers, a new breed of spiritual pilgrim has
emerged. Some choose to seek out traditional forms of
religious expression from the
20
million religious websites
said to exist on-line. On their own terms and in the privacy
of their own homes, they can visit cyber-cathedrals or
temples. Others experiment with newer forms
of
religious
expression: combinations of ancient beliefs altered and
adapted for this technologically mediated environment
(Brasher 2oor).
As
in the off-line world, there is no unified spiritual
belief on-line,
The
Internet functions as a marketplace
of
religions. Every major ideology and religious system
existing in the real world is likely to be represented on some
website or discussion group. From Islam (Bunt
2000)
and
Christianity (Veith and Stamper
2000)
to Zoroastrianism
(Chama
19961,
most traditional religions have some form
of representation in cyberspace (Zaleski
~997).
Also
new
religions unique to the Internet such as Technopaganism,
222
NETTING CITIZENS
neo-paganism adapted and celebrated in a technological
context, have also been birthed on-line (Davis
1998).
While different schools of spiritual thought can be found
in the digital world, all have one thing in common
-
digital
technology is seen to provide tools allowing the user to
engage in spiritual activities on-line in
a
variety
of
ways.
Cyber-religion also allows spiritual seekers the oppor-
tunity to explore diverse religions with variable ease. Brenda
Brasher surveys a spectrum of new religious expressions
on-line from cyber-pilgrimages through virtual shrines to
cyber-seders helping people reconnect with their Jewish
faith. By invigorating concepts
of
sacred time, presence
and spiritual experience cyber-religion is ‘a crucial contem-
porary cultural outlet for our meaning heritage from the
past’ and can ‘make a unique contribution to global
fellowship’ and inter-religious understanding (Brasher
2001:
6).
Exploring the characterisation of the Internet as sacra-
mental space is central to this study.
It
highlights this new
uses
of
the Internet and the fact that it can creates space for
spiritual reflection. The idea
of
taking religious practice on-
line challenges many people’s conceptions
of
religion and
religious ritual, as well as what religious community should
look like. The Internet as sacramental space involves both
social interactions between people of faith and spiritual
engagement through technology. Therefore understanding
the Internet as a social sphere that can encourage religious
networking and spiritual engagement needs to be further
unpacked.
The
Internet
as
a
Social-Spiritual Network
For many
signing
on
to
the
Internet
is
a
transformative
act.
In
their
eyes
the web
is
more than
just
a
global tapestry
of
personal computers.
It
is
a
vast
cathedral
of
the
mind,
a
place where ideas about God and religion can resonate,
INTERNET
AS
SOCIAL-SPIRITUAL SPACE
223
where faith
can
be shaped and defined
by
a
collective
spirit.
(Chama
1996:
57)
While contemporary society often feels isolated and dis-
connected, the Internet has come to represent
a
place
of
connection enabling the forging of relationships, as well as
an other-worldly space allowing people
to
re-engage with
spiritual pursuits.
How the Internet can be perceived as
a
new model
of
human social interaction has been addressed. Internet
technology allows humans to transcend boundaries
of time, space and the body to form communicative
relationships with others. In the past decade many
CMC
researchers have focused on studying this new social sphere.
Cyberspace or the Internet studied as primarily a social
space allows people to see on-line relationships in new
and innovative ways. The rise
of
social network analysis
research acknowledges that in modern society people are
not wrapped in traditionally densely knit, tightly bound
communities, but are floating in sparse, loosely bound,
frequently changing networks. Community ties are seen as
narrow, specialised relationships. Relations and emerging
patterns become the focus
of
study. This understanding
of community as social network has been readily applied
to the study
of
on-line social relationships.
As
Wellman
states,
When
a
computer
network
connects people
it
is
a
social
network, Just
as
a
coniputer
network
is
a
set
of
machines
connected
by
a
set
of
cables,
a
social
network
is
a
set
of
people
(or
organisation
or other social
networks)
connected
by
a
set
of
socially meaningful relationships. (Wellman
=997a:
179)
Studying computer-mediated communication as a social
technology means recognising that these social networks
are not simply ‘virtual’ but are also embedded in the real
NETTING CITIZENS
224
world. On-line and off-line community cannot be neatly
separated from each other. People’s engagement in face-
to-face communities is often linked to their participation
in on-line communities. Katz and Rice’s Synoptia Project
found being an Internet user involved in on-line social
interaction was positively associated with being a member
of
a
community or religious organisation (Katz and Rice
2002:
155).
Pew’s study
of
religious use
of
the Internet
too affirmed that most active religious surfers are also off-
line participants in their faith (Larsen
2001).
While the
technology may force the communities, especially religious
ones, to restructure their forms of interaction they often
represent consciously imported off-line styles of interaction
or interest on-line (Campbell
2001).
While religion is one area that has readily been imported
on-line, trying to summarise and categorise cyber-spirituality
can be challenging. Michael Bauwens identifies three
conceptions of spiritual engagement on-line. He describes
these as the ‘Electric Gaia’ where technology is seen ‘as a
necessary adjunct to make improvements in consciousness
possible’, ‘The God Project’ in which technology becomes
a
‘crude substitute for spiritual powers’ or enables a
search for
a
literal ‘Machine-God, Deus
Ex
Machina’ and
‘Sacramental Cyberspace’ in which the Internet is seen as
a place to further the aims of various religions or even
to serve as a tool for ‘transmission
of
spiritual energy’
(Bauwens
1996).
Christopher Helland also provides two
helpful classifications of how people use the Internet for
spiritual purposes: religion on-line and on-line religion
(Helland
2000:
214-20).
Religion on-line occurs when
religion transports traditional forms
of
communication
of
a one-to-many fashion into the on-line environment, such
as through establishing a religious organisational website.
On-line religion refers
to
how religion adapts itself to
create new forms of communication through many-to-
many networked interaction, such as on-line prayer
or
I
INTERNET AS SOCIAL-SPIRITUAL SPACE
225
worship services. Both Bauwens and Helland agree that
on-line religion gives religious practitioners the ability to
re-present their beliefs and practices on-line leading either
to religious innovation or repackaging.
In the mid-IggOS,
a
focused exploration of religious
aspects of CMC began to emerge. Research that inves-
tigated the Internet as
a
spiritual space has taken many
different approaches. These include looking
at
the general
phenomenon
of
cyber-religion (Brasher
~OOI),
religious
ethics and
VR
(Houston 1998), how technology reconnects
people with spiritual beliefs (Cobb
1998;
and Wertheim
199
p),
adaptations
of
traditional religious practices on-line
(Bunt
2000;
and Zaleski
I
9
97) and new religious expression
(Davis 199
8).
A
range of Christian critiques of the Internet
has been produced from strong critiques (Brooke
I
9
9
7) and
enthusiastic advocacy (Dixon 19
9
7; and Wilson
2000)
to a
critically friendly approach of addressing both the benefits
and weaknesses
of
Internet technology (Schultze
2002).
At
the beginning of the twenty-first century, religious CMC
research has begun to be considered as
a
serious field of
inquiry.
J.
K.
Hadden and
D.
E.
Cowan’s
Religion
on
the
Internet: Research Prospects and Promise
(2000)
was the
first noteworthy academic attempt
to
survey and address
different theoretical approaches
to
studying religion on-line.
Focused investigations
of
issues such
as
identity, community
and social consequences of religious use of the Internet are
increasing and raising the profile of the religious use
of
the
Internet
for
both practitioners and academic researchers
(Campbell
2003).
Other recent research such as Dawson
and Cowan’s
Religion Online
(2004)
continues to probe the
myriad religious rituals and expressions appearing on-line
as well as the general phenomenon.
While information-gathering is a prime motivator for
many using the net, this does not devalue the Internet’s
potential for facilitating other forms
of
interaction.
Exploring the Internet as sacramental space demonstrates
226
NETTING CITIZENS
how this technology offers both social and spiritual
dimensions. In this respect, the Internet can be a place
where social relations are cultivated, as well as spiritual
encounters pursued or enhanced. Social network analysis
offers
a
viable way of understanding relationships formed
through on-line interaction. This approach presents an
image of an underlying network of loosely bounded
relationships which encourages fluid interactions. This
dynamic structure translates well into a spiritual context,
where encounters with meaning and transcendence are also
seen as malleable and experiential. Social network analysis
combined with a sacramental view
of
the Internet opens
up
new possibilities as the Internet is recognised as a social-
spiritual network.
The Internet can be seen as both
a
humanly constructed,
social space and
a
spiritual space capable of facilitating
transcendent engagement.
As
a public sphere, the Internet is
a
gathering place for people and their stories, In the process
of seeking connections with like minds, people can be drawn
into communities of faith, spaces of religious interaction
and even spiritual encounters on-line. Investigating the
Internet as sacramental space argues that cyberspace
can aid humanity’s spiritual progression, described as an
important way station’ on humanity’s journey towards
a
greater spiritual evolution (Cobb
1998:
97).
While more
study needs to be given
to
the implications and effects of
on-line spirituality and socialisation within a networked
society, this chapter has sought to outline current discussions
concerning social and spiritual dimensions
of
the Internet.
It also offers a framework for categorising and evaluating
other forms
of
Internet use and engagement.
6.
INTERNET AS SOCIAL-SPIRITUAL SPACE
227
Notes
I.
An
ideological and historical analysis of the Internet is best sum-
marised by Roy Rosenzweig, ‘Wizards, Bureaucrats, Warriors
and Hackers: Writing the History of the Internet’,
American
Historical
Review,
103
(5)
(December
1998)~
pp.
1530-52.
2.
For an introduction to the concept of cyberspace, see William
Gibson,
Neuromancer
(New York: Ace Book,
1984).
For
discussion of science fiction and virtual reality and their
intersection with
the
Internet, see Rushkoff
(1994).
3.
Metaphoric image taken from Benedikt
(1992)~
p.
2.
4.
Terminology attributed to Amy Bruckman’s study ‘Identity
Workshop: Emergent social and psychological phenomena
in text-based virtual reality’ found at: http://media.mit.edu/
pub/MediaMOO/Chapters/identity-workshop/
(accessed June
1998).
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