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Monday, April 26, 2010

Postmodern Cyberspaciality

"Surfing the net is the ultimate postmodern experience."

This post is the beginning of a series of posts in which I will work through The Postmodern God. This is an assembly of essays on the relationship between postmodernism and theology. What I appreciate about this volume, what sets it apart, is that it is a combination of anthology and commentary. It is a collection of writings from major postmodern thinkers, with extended introductions and commentaries. These introductions reflect on the possible relationship between postmodern theory and theology.

It is no easy task to discuss the relationship of postmodernism to theology. To start with, it requires understanding "postmodernism." From my experience most of the popular Christian literature and discussion on postmodernism either miss the nuance of various postmodern theorists, at best, or at worst they simply assume general popular stereotypes about "postmodernism."

Graham Ward edited this volume, and he writes an extended introduction. He immediately stimulates the reader with one sentence, to open his essay and to open the book: "Surfing the net is the ultimate postmodern experience."

We will take another post or two to expand some of Graham Ward's thoughts, but I want to focus on this connection between internet technology and the postmodern experience. How does the internet change our way of being? How does online connectivity define us in this postmodern time period?

"Cyberspace is undefined spatiality, like the contours of a perfume, and you are an adventurer, a navigator in unchartered waters, discovering the hero inside yourself. You act anonymously, simply as the unnamed, unidentifiable viewpoint of so many interactive network games, and where an identity is needed, you can construct one."

Our experience of cyberspace is the experience of a postmodern world, and Ward's essay is now nearly 15 years old. Instant connectivity is now available 24-7. With cell phones and internet plans, we can remain constantly connected. Our old notions of time and space are being re-written. Our idea of "reality" is being reconstructed.

To suggest that the "postmodern" is lived out through the experience of the internet and virtual connectivity is to suggest that the questions and issues of postmodernity are not a passing fad, but that they are being lived out through the developing technology. Theoretical discussions of the postmodern, then, are living themselves out through our every experience of text-messaging, Facebooking, emailing, online shopping, internet porn, and blogging, to name a few.

"The drug of the ever new, instant access to a vast sea of endless desire which circulates globally; browsing through hours without commitment on any theme imaginable; dwelling voyeuristically in one location until the pull of other possibilities reasserts the essentially nomadic lifestyle of the net-surfer: these are the characteristic experiences of living in cyberspace."

While all of this remains true of the internet experience, what has evolved since Ward's essay is that technology has also funneled many toward more "localized" or "familiar" online destinations. What I mean by this is social networking, like Facebook. With Facebook, one uses internet technology to connect with many friends and family that one knows "in person." I have interacted with my Auntie Carol in person, but Auntie Carol lives on a small farm in the middle of Oklahoma, a place I seldom travel to. Through Facebook, Auntie Carol and I can dialog, check on each other's status, send messages, or chat on instant messenger.

The same idea applies to cell phones and text-messaging. We can send little bytes of text back and forth. A few words, a few sentences at a time. We stay connected in a virtual way.

Although technology is keeping us connect with real, human people, what is still true is that we are living in a virtual world. We are still living "the essentially nomadic lifestyle of the net-surfer." Our reality is now a combination of "real" and "virtual." Our relationships are both physical and electronic. Our identities are now organic as well as computerized constructions.

"In this land of fantasy and ceaseless journeying, this experience of tasting, sampling, and passing on, truth, knowledge, and facts are all only dots of light on a screen, evanescent, consumable."

Some thinkers, scientists, and philosophers even speculate that we will reach a point at which our minds and consciousness will be downloaded into a mechanized body that will last forever. This is no longer purely the realm of science fiction novels, but is being discussed as a real possibility, given the exponential rate at which technology is expanding.

What are the consequences of living in such a world?

Hybrids are all the rage these days, in the automobile world. We live in a sort of hybrid world: we are both embodied and organic, but we are also virtual and omnipresent. We log in, and when we are online, we can travel anywhere, everywhere. Time stands still.

What are the ramifications of living as a hybrid?

Over the course of our lives, how many millions and billions of web pages will we browse? How many different virtual locations will we visit? How many virtual beings will we friend?

"Surfing the net is the ultimate postmodern experience."


Like a Mustard Seed said...

I really liked how you put your finger on the duality of living with the reality of the internet, where we are "both embodied and organic, but we are also virtual and omnipresent"...

And speaking of possible near-future sci-fi scenarios, I sometimes wonder if things might get to the point where, if we developed the technology to create some kind of contact lens which functions as a computer screen, people truly could live online 24 hours a day... The cell-phone or laptop would become completely obsolete, as one could carry around a device which did all that and so much more, where people would be using internet technology for every imaginable kind of personal or business interaction. How blurred might the lines between reality and virtual reality become, if we could be online while sleeping, driving, eating, or playing golf? What would society look like if everyone was walking around, half-looking at what was physically in front of them, and then half-looking at a dozen different apps that were going on in their line of sight? Every audible conversation with someone could be recorded and saved like your email inbox. Maybe even everything you see could be saved as photos or video. People would probably lose the ability to think, work or have conversations without relying on the vast resources of the "cloud"...

Anyways, kind of rambling, but I think I need to sit down and turn this into a screenplay one of these days... Wouldn't you go to see a movie like that?

Jonathan Erdman said...

I think you are on to something, that's very imaginative. And these days, it seems like there is no idea that is too far fetched.

It definitely seems like the next wave of cutting edge technology is the kind that works along with (and within) our bodies. The medical community already has this kind of technology. And of course researchers are looking for genetic codes and cures.

john doyle said...

Online schooling for 6th-12th graders -- this is the proposal being presented to the school board in Boulder CO where we live. I wrote a post about this yesterday. The program is being called "Boulder Universal," with courses taught by online teachers via a contract with a private educational firm headquartered in Arizona. The Boulder school district is forecasting that at least 75 full-time equivalent students will use this option next year. Suppose the trend accelerates: what will education be like 20 years from now? Will it be postmodern?

Jonathan Erdman said...


You have a concise but informative post. I recommend it. (Here's the link: Universal School)

I am kind of intrigued by this online school idea. I think it has a lot of good potential. Kids could maybe have more freedom and flexibility in their education experience, perhaps even helping to design their own learning courses; it seems like they would certainly have access to a wider variety of courses and learning programs. Also, could students be connected to discussion groups with other peers who have similar interests? For example, when I was in high school, I had an interest in theological discussions and topics, but I didn't really have anyone to discuss it with (which is ironic since I attended a private Christian high school). What if I had access to an expanded range of theological courses, and I could jump into online discussions with other students who were also in these classes. It seems like a good deal of positive dialog might be possible.

john doyle said...

Ironic that you couldn't get good theology discussions at a Christian school. My sense when I went to Trinity seminary was that the students who didn't grow up in the evangelical world were more serious about the content and less concerned about the job training and social aspects.

Maybe you could investigate whether this online educational vendor would be interested in offering theology electives. I'm not sure how it would work for a local public school district: would a course on Sin and Salvation count as s social studies elective? Would the content have to avoid explicitly Christian doctrine? I'm pretty sure that one of the Boulder high schools offers a Bible course as a Language Arts elective, so this might be doable.

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john doyle said...

Here's a discussion of postmodern Christianity at Dead Voles you might get a kick out of.

John L said...

"contact lens which functions as a computer screen." It gets better (or worse, depending..) -- a computer the size of a blood cell, inserted directly into brain. Easily within 30 years, if not sooner.

Jonathan Erdman said...