"Has it changed your life yet?"
When was the last time you looked around the world, and noticed its difference? When was the last time you visited Barnes & Noble, and were surprised by the new additions to their magazine racks? And when was the last time you checked out your kids, only to discover that they had left behind all their toys to sit attentively before a colorful monitor screen?
Welcome to the digital age! Of course, you have been anticipating it all your life; but suddenly, almost without notice, it has silently, yet forcefully, broken into your bedroom. Maybe you don't even need me to remind you. Probably you have been "on-line" for sometime, and are ready to exchange "email addresses" with me. Or perhaps, you have just become a "cyber-a-holic" by the time you read this article... And even if you have never laid your fingers on a computer keyboard, you must have heard, or overheard, the year 1995 being declared "the Year of the Internet". Or if you are a financial investor yourself, then you truly have no excuse not to remember the historical date when Netscape hit the stock market.
The digital age has dawned, and it is spreading fast. Those who ignore it would inevitably be left behind, though they too will be mercilessly devoured by its gigantic power. How should Christians respond to this extraordinary phenomenon? Is there a place for eternal word of God in the fast-changing digital world? Surely, Christians can choose to stay in their comfortable homes and ignore the changing scene; but they can only do so in the peril of their own souls, and the souls of the generations to come. No doubt, if we choose to sit back and relax, a great price shall soon be demanded of our negligence.
Almost anyone who has got on the "Net" has been overwhelming by its seemingly boundless dominion, and the amount of information it contains. Given this, it is virtually impossible to do a comprehensive review and evaluation of Cyberspace. In fact, any research with respect to Cyberspace will be quite a daunting task. This is especially so when things on the Net are evolving and expanding exponentially each day. Acknowledging such limitation, we must keep in mind that the study we are conducting is by no means exhaustive. Rather, it should be deemed to be a study from selective "perspectives".
In the next section, you will be introduced to the Life on Cyberspace. We will quickly run through the history of the Internet, before beginning our discussion on its culture and influence. Section III will lead us into A Closer Look at Cyberculture, where we will critically evaluate Cyberspace from four major perspectives. Section IV, titled Christian Reflection & Critique, builds on force of Section III to provide an outlook of Christian faith in Cyberspace, again based on the four major themes developed in Section III. Following that, Section V will attempt to portray anew The Gospel in Cyberspace, as how the Christian Gospel should be contextualized in view of the new culture, new context.
Readers will soon discover that the this paper is moving along "a less traveled path." Not only are we going to penetrate deep into some of the presuppositions behind this technological invention, we will also take a pretty hard, even harsh, look at Cyberspace. This is not to say that the Internet is an utterly evil invention, neither do we conclude condemnation for all involved in the current trend. Rather, as one Christian critic rightfully comments, "Given the present tendency to worship technology, some negativity is necessary in order to bring some balance."
On the other hand, as Christians, we are often tempted to see the pagan worldviews as distortions of and rebellions against the eternal truth. While this is no doubt a correct conclusion, may we also see in Cyberspace an unfulfilled yearning for the truth yet unfound. Just like a glass bottle partially filled with water. One man came by and said, "It is half empty." Another came and remarked, "It is half full." We need to be reminded that there was never a gold age nor an ideal situation when and where the preaching of the gospel was easier. Yet our time and place have always presented us with a special opportunity. This is so because we do not preach ourselves, but the gospel of Jesus Christ (2Corinthians 4:5), which was, is, and will continue to be the power of God unto salvation (1Corinthians 1:18).
The bottom line is that we should keep in mind that The Gospel in Cyberspace is a ministry by the redeemed men toward other men, men in flesh and blood, with pain and sorrow, emptiness and yearning. Thus it is nothing short of a ministry of love. Our audience are none other than "souls created in the image of God, however distorted."
Life on Cyberspace
"Cyberspace is not a surrealistic future that we confront, it is already upon us... Moreover, Cyberspace is not an
abstraction --- simply expressed, it is the culture and society of people who are individually empowered by digital
Few within the computer industry will forget the "infamous joke" originated from IBM. Believe it or not, once upon a time, IBM believed that there was perhaps a global demand for only five computers! And then, only tens of years later, the whole world is flooded with computers. It is true that computers has transformed much of our life; yet, it is the concept of networking that brings forth another quantum-leap for the computer age.
The term Cyberspace was originally coined by science fiction author William Gibson. For our purpose, Cyberspace refers to one global network of computers together with the whole range of information resources available through it. Theoretically speaking, Cyberspace can exist "everywhere there are telephone wires, coaxial cables, fiber-optic lines or electromagnetic waves." In other words, it can turn everywhere and anywhere on earth into its dominion, and will surely do so in the near future.
Before the term Cyberspace was made popular, the original network was generally known as the Internet; and it is still a very popular, and well-accepted term today. In the 1960's, the U.S. Department of Defense attempted to institute a computer network, the ARPANET, designed to function in the event of a disaster, such as a nuclear war. The ARPANET, which linked U.S. scientific and academic researchers, later became the forerunner of the Internet. Since then, the Internet has had a relatively brief but explosive history.
In 1985, a new series of networks for research and education communication, the NSFNET, was created by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The NSFNET, which was based on the ARPANET protocols, soon became the national "backbone" service, provided free to any U.S. research and educational institution. At the meantime, regional networks were beginning to link electronic traffic from individual institutions to the national backbone service.
Since then, the NSFNET has grown rapidly as people discovered its potential and as access to it was made easier through new computer applications. Meanwhile, large corporations, especially the phone companies, began to build their own networks, which eventually linked up to the NSFNET. Over the years, NSF gradually withdrew from the backbone business as commercial firms and other regional network providers took over the operation of the major Internet arteries. By the beginning of the 1990's, the infrastructure of Cyberspace has been well established.
Another technological breakthrough, or perhaps more appropriately "conceptual breakthrough", came, at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland. In 1990, the HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP) was created, and the World Wide Web (WWW) was born. In general, you can think of the WWW as a worldwide collection of text and multimedia files. Users of the WWW can then access the information through a computer software commonly known as "web-browser". Information transmitted is mostly in the form of text and graphics; but recent development has facilitated also the transfer of audio and video. The WWW is now a truly multi-media environment. The invention of HTTP, and thus the birth of WWW, has greatly enhanced the sharing of information internationally, instantly, and inexpensively.
In the past 3.5 years, the WWW has multiplied over 5,000 times, and is still growing at an astonishing rate. The commercial presence has also augmented from a negligible 1.5% in June 1993 to a major 62.6% in January 1997. Overall speaking, Cyberspace is believed to be the home to over 10 million computers. Cyber-communities are formed daily, and number of new entries each year is astronomical.
The Internet access providers today will advertise to you, "There is no limit to the Net. Its potential is without bound, and the things you can do with it is endless." While this statement contains much commercial flavor, it is nevertheless not too far from the truth. The great advantage of the Internet lies in its simplicity. You don't have to be a computer expert in order to be part of it, neither do you need to purchase expensive equipment. All you need to have is a computer and a modem. Subscribe to one of your local Internet access providers, then you are on your way to the "most thrilling experience" of your life.
Before the creation and popularization of the WWW in early 1990s, the Internet was mostly used for emailing. "Email" stands for "electronic mail" and is transmitted from one party to another in the form of digital signal. Both parties need to have their respective "email addresses", serving as mail-boxes. The greatest advantage of email is its speed. To send emails from one end of the world, say the U.S., to the other end, say China, takes just minutes. Moreover, there is no additional cost to both the sender and the recipient apart from the Internet services they subscribe to. Email has proven to be extremely useful amidst urgent situations, in places where postal mails are inconvenient, and when political powers exercise tight-control over information distribution. Today, email remains the most popular and integral component of the Internet users.
Electronic bulletin board systems (BBSs), on the other hand, represent the simplest form of virtual communities. All BBSs are essentially interest-specific. A BBS user will dial up a certain telephone number and access the BBS through his computer screen. There he can interact with other users, raise questions, provide solutions to others, or simply contribute to the increasing "information archive" on some specific topics. One can easily sense the idea of an "collective mind" behind the concept of BBS. On the Internet, BBSs take the form of Usenet, interest-specific "newsgroups", which allows users to post questions, opinions, articles etc. As of today, there are thousands of newsgroups, and the number is still increasing each day.
The disadvantage of Usenet, however, was that it is not interactive; there remains no "live" interaction among its users. The technical problems however were soon resolved. Internet Relay Chat (IRC) was subsequently born. IRC allows users from all over the world to enter into one common "electronic chat room". Again, the "chatting" is usually interest-specific. Individuals have absolute control over IRC "entry" and "exit". IRC is immensely popular, and though it has since been further technically refined into other Internet programs, such as Multi-User Dialogues (MUDs) and MOOs (Object-Oriented MUDs), the basic notions of bringing the world together and interest-specific interaction remain the same.
Still, the most significant milestone in the history of the Internet is no doubt the emergence and expansion of the WWW. Basically, the WWW is consisted of a wide range of informational "pages" stored inside the computer servers all around the world. It then takes advantage of the existing super-structure of the Internet, i.e. networking of computers all around the world, and makes available access to information all around the world. The opening up of the WWW to the general public has led to two important outcomes: (a) the commercialization of Cyberspace, and (b) the growing number of personal "webpages".
Between the mid-year 1993 to early 1997, the percentage of commercial websites on Cyberspace increased from a mere 1.5% to over 60%. In fact, since early 1990s, commercial companies have been the driving force behind the expansion of the Internet. Their reasons are easy to understand: the more people there are on the Internet, the more exposure will they receive for their products, and therefore the greater potential for their sales. On the other hand, due to the simplicity of the HTML computer programming language developed for creating webpages, many users have begun to create their own "homepages". The homepages become not just a place to express oneself, but also a place for the propagation and/or defense of political stances, personal philosophies, and religious beliefs etc.
One important aspect to note is that unlike information within the local domains, information flow on the Internet is almost impossible to control. Until today, there is still no single agreement reached for a comprehensive control among the 100-plus countries that are involved. This has led to the persistent exploitation by the sex industry, as well as the existence of radical political, ethical, religious views of all kinds. Another notable trend is the continuous segmentation of Cyberspace. In fact, the interest-driven character of newsgroups and formation of "mini-Nets" within the Internet has become a distinct feature of Cyberspace. At the first glance, segmentation serves as a "catalog" that provides users with proper guidance amidst the vast amount of information. Yet gradually and subtly, this departmentalization has led to a sense of "free-choice", with which a user makes his decisions according to his preferences. This theme will be further developed in Section III and IV.
Follow me to Yahoo!, one of the most popular and powerful "Internet Search Machines", and see for yourself! Go under the category "Society and Culture", and behold, you see not only American, Chinese, European, Korean... but also Cyberculture! What is so great about Cyberspace that they even create a separate culture for it? And what kind of culture it is, and will be? Go with me to yet another website at University of Maryland. See what you get there? The Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies! Now you should know that they are serious about it. Watch out, get ready for the new wave of culture --- cyberculture!
The Internet has been heralded as "the most important cultural development of the decade, if not the century," and rightfully so. Given this, it is crucial for Christians to look deeper into the nature of cyberculture. This is because we now live in the cyber-age, and our ministry is one within Cyberspace, and one that deals with people living in Cyberspace. In order to establish a more biblical stand, to understand our task better, and to be faithful to our calling, we cannot help but to become the "children of Issachar", who demonstrated "understanding of the times." (1Chronicles 12:32)
Douglas Groothuis begins his recent book The Soul in Cyberspace with an investigation into the interaction among technology, philosophy, and culture. He writes, "The introduction of new technologies reflects previous philosophical trends, reinforces these trends in novel ways, and sparks the creation of new ideas and patterns of culture." While no one, including Christians, will deny the convenience and benefits we receive from the Internet, it needs to be warned that "the initial exuberance over a new technology often masks the problems that come to be known only later, oftentimes when it is too late to make important corrections." Taking on new technology is often like trying out a new pair of contact lenses. At first, one is very conscious of their presence, but soon, without notice, the lenses become part of the person, that he no longer remembers that he is seeing with a pair of lenses. And we see the same warning being portrayed in Proverbs 14:12, "There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way to death." Thus we as Christians must be careful to discern.
In his book The Sacred Canopy, sociologist Peter Berger opens the discussion on society with a thought-provoking statement: "Society is a dialectic phenomenon in that it is a human product, and nothing but a human product, that yet continuously acts upon its producer." He then goes on to introduce what he believes to be the three steps of the fundamental dialectic process of society. They are externalization, objectivation, and internalization. Externalization refers to the continuous outpouring of human into the world in which he lives. This, according to Berger, is an anthropological necessity. In this sense, society becomes a product of man. Subsequently, externalization develops into objectivation, as the outpouring of man into his surrounding world evolves to form an objective norm. This we refer to as the formation of a culture. Thus it is "through objectivation that society becomes a reality sui generis." And such "cultural world is not only collectively produced, but it remains real by virtue of collective recognition." Now we need to recognize that this objective norm, i.e. culture, is not mere static in its nature. Individuals who are nurtured within a particular society not only absorb its objectivated meanings, but are also shaped by them. Internalization is therefore the reappropriation by men, or transposition, of the objective reality into subjective consciousness. In this way, man becomes a product of society.
We conclude from the Section 1.3 that we are constantly being influenced by the society we live in. No societies are neutral in the sense that they allow us to freely develop our worldviews. Rather the societies that we live in affect us profoundly and in the most fundamental way. Children who are brought up under the communist rule differ considerably in their worldviews from those being brought up in the free West. Every society with its culture offers its children an unique education. In the same way, Cyberspace maintains a special mission of its own, though it is often unknown to the outside world. The "creators" of Cyberspace brought into Cyberspace one particular worldview. This worldview, once objectivated, brings influence to countless of those entering the cyber-dominion. This leads us to the study of the "hackers", as one cyber-writer suggests, "The culture and society of Cyberspace may be best understood by viewing 'hackers' as the first inhabitants of Cyberspace."
The word "hack" first originated from the two prestigious technological institutions in the U.S., namely Caltech and MIT. It carries an initial meaning of "an appropriate application of ingenuity", and a secondary meaning of "a creative practical joke". In the more recent years, the hackers are commonly understood to be computer-enthusiasts, technically sophisticated users "who enjoy exploring computer systems and programs, sometimes to the point of obsession." In the earlier age of the Internet era, the hackers were infamous intruders of security-guarded computer systems, including that of the NASA. But not all hackers are law-breakers or "system-terminators". Apart from some of their mischievous acts, they have contributed immensely to the formation of Cyberspace. Today, they continue to work behind the scene, developing new technologies, shaping the future of the cyber-world.
Some time ago, a survey was carried out on the Usenet about "hackerdom". The survey aimed to uncover the general characteristics and specific worldviews of the hackers. The results were published under a series of webpages titled A Portrait of J. Random Hacker. The following is a summary of the results:
A Closer Look at Cyberculture
"[...] But listen, sometimes it's like this,
In many aspects, Cyberspace marks the realization of a digital world. The dawn of the digital age bring to us a new set of terminology as well as new foci. Since almost everything on the Internet is digitized, the fundamental unit of communication is no longer words, or even letters /characters, as in the written medium, but bits of information. Cyber-engineers focus much of their attention on the transfer of information, in particular the speed and quantity of information transfer. In other words, the substance of information is now of lesser importance compared to how fast and how much the Internet can handle information
Perhaps the invasion of information can be traced back to the invention of radio. In his profound work The World of Silence, the German poet and writer Max Picard lamented at the loss of silence resulting from the popularization of radio. If radio has caused us damage, depriving us of our precious and much-needed silence, the emergence of television must have sealed the fate of human being. Of course, today, Cyberspace has brought us ever closer to a world of pure data.
One interesting observation comes from the much-heralded cyber-technology known as the hypertext. Hypertext makes use of the HTTP standard, mentioned earlier, and allows its users to jump from one document to another by clicking on some specific texts. The prefix hyper implies an additional dimension that is not known to the old written, printed texts. More importantly, hypertext documents carry a sense of, what I will now call, "digital immortality". While physical books are perishable, digital books, consisted of digital data, can be kept forever. [Ironically, digital data are also the easiest to destroy and manipulated.] Thus to some cyber-enthusiasts, hypertext seems to have marked the ultimate fulfillment of Matthew 5:18, "... until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law...". Since the Bible has been digitized, it can now remain forever!
More significantly, hypertext introduces a new concept of information-absorption: browsing. Reva Basch, a cybrarian, i.e. cyber librarian, spent hours and hours browsing, i.e. reading information from the computer screen. She observed that gradually she has lost her ability for book reading. "I just can't keep my eyes still. I have to remind myself to slow down and say, 'Hey, you're reading for style, not content, stop browsing, start reading.'" Indeed, unless we are cautious of the powerful influence of hypertext, we too shall soon give in to "browsing, data-surfing, and skimming" in place of "analysis, reflection, and discourse."
It will not be too far from the truth to say that the future of Cyberspace belongs to VR technology. VR stands for virtual reality, "computer simulations of real-world environments that use 3-D graphics and external devices like a dataglove or helmet to allow users to interact with the simulation." Perhaps it is more appropriate to speak of virtual realities, since they can be easily reproduced, erased, or even customized. Although the VR technology is still not mature enough to be implemented widely, the central idea of a virtual world, consisted of virtual communities, has been around for many years. It should not be long before people around the world can truly interact in a 3-D "realistic" environment.
Now, one of the main attractions of a virtual community lies in the anonymity of its users. People who enter into the virtual world can take on whatever characters they desire; and they can remain anonymous as long as they wish. That unfortunately has encouraged the wide-spreading of "virtual crimes". Debra Michals, a journalist for Ms, a feminist magazine, wrote about one of her experiences on the Internet. One night in 1995, she was checking out some "chat-rooms" on the American Online's, and was shocked to find one titled "Rape Fantasy". Out of curiosity, she decided to enter the chat-room. There she "witnessed" a group of men "gang-raping a young girl". It was to her an horrifying experience.
Of course, the rape never really took place. What actually happened was only a sequence of texts depicting an incident of gang-rape, totally out of imagination. But to say "only" is to undermine the seriousness of such "crime". Many others, mostly women, have had horrible encounters with these sex-explicit chat-rooms. And at times, the assault can go beyond mere verbal. For instance, Vonnie Cesar, a 27-year-old nurse, once entered into a chat-room, posting as a 15-year-old girl. She was asked to enter into a private-room with a man. Then seven or eight other men also entered and started sending her "pictures of women who had been beaten and raped." Such stories are disturbing to say the least.
It should not be hard for observant readers to predict the future of the virtual world. With the maturing of VR technology, the on-line crimes will come closer and closer to the real world. And you don't have to be a psychologist or criminal expert to tell it is just a matter of time before the virtual crimes overflow into the real world. Simply from the angle of social order and justice, we have every reason to be cautious of the wide-spreading of virtual reality.
Philip R. Meadows, in his insightful article The Gospel in Cyberspace: Reflections on Virtual Reality, traces the emergence of VR to the creation of cartoons, or non-human characters in general. He uses the movie Who framed Roger Rabbit? to illustrate that "the toons in Roger Rabbit were generally treated as second class citizens in this hybrid society. They could be exploited and abused because of their virtuality..." In other words, the existence of a virtual world has given rise to the possibility of "temporal suspension of morality and consequences". The future development of VR, if left unchecked, will no doubt bring us serious consequences.
One of the fundamental ideals of Cyberspace is to bring the whole world together as one community. However, some have criticized Cyberspace as a discriminating community, since only the elite can have the economic resources and intellectual ability to become cyber-residents. While these critics may have rightfully pointed out some discriminating characters of Cyberspace, I would still maintain that the fundamental nature of Cyberspace remains undiscriminating. On this, my arguments come chiefly from the economic aspect.
Recall that in recent years, commercial companies have become the major driving of cyber-expansion. From the perspective of a commercial company, their major objective on the Internet is to expand their customer-base, i.e. the potential demand for their products. Now there are two way to achieve that goal: (a) to increase exposure of their products on the Internet, and (b) to increase the number of cyber-residents. Based on the simple economic principle of "more is better", it is hard to imagine why any company would attempt to limit new entrants into Cyberspace. Rather, their best strategy would be to draw as many new entrants as possible; and they would do so by helping to remove hindrances for cyber-entry, such as lowering the cost of Internet access and introducing more user-friendly browsing software.
Now, it is no easy task to manage differences and conflicts within a multi-cultural environment such as the Internet. In order to attract people of all races and all cultures to enter to one common world and to enable them to "live" harmoniously, there needs to be some good strategies. What Cyberspace has chosen to do in this aspect is very similar to what the Americans have done: stressing the importance of tolerance. And given that the diversity in Cyberspace is even greater than that of any country, the extent of tolerance must also be proportionally enlarged.
Departmentalization is another strategy that aims to resolve or minimize conflicts. Users of the Internet are guaranteed "control" of their destiny. The choices will always be on the individuals. No one can, and should, impose his views on another. Users remain autonomous individuals, who hold rights of equality among all other cyber-residents. In addition, anonymity, a characteristic feature of Cyberspace, provides extra "protection" for individuals.
It should be noticed that both departmentalization and anonymity serve essential commercial purposes. By departmentalizing, commercial companies are building short-cuts for their prospective customers to reach them. In this way, their advertising efforts will be guaranteed efficient and effective. Anonymity on the other hand works extremely well for companies whose customers may perhaps, under a real world situation, refrain from purchasing due to social pressure or legal restrictions. One good example is the success of the on-line sex-companies, whose customer-base now includes many underaged teenagers. Again, in the growing commercialization of Cyberspace, one needs to ponder carefully where this "all men, all things, all seasons" kind of consumerism will eventually lead us to.
Try filling in the blanks for the following quotation:
"______ offers the soundest basis for world peace that has yet been presented. Peace must be created on the bulwark of understanding. International ______ will knit together the peoples of the world in bonds of mutual respect; its possibilities are vast, indeed."
That was a quotation from Norman D. Walter, president of the American Television Association, in 1944. And the confident answer he offered for world peace is none other than television. You may find this to be strange, but consider yet another quotation:
It is a "complete planetary memory of all mankind." With it, "the whole human memory can be... made accessible to every individual." Knowledge will no longer be destroyed, because information is not "concentrated in any one single place", rather it "can be reproduced exactly and fully, in Peru, China, Iceland, Central Africa, or wherever else... It can have at once the concentration of a craniate animal and the diffused vitality of an amoebae."
The above statement was made by H. G. Wells in 1937, not about the dawning of the computer age, but on the invention of microfilm! Now, I would not blame you if you find this laughable; but do pause and wonder, "What the heck is going on here? Were these people nuts or what?" Surely they were not crazy, and they were not even stupid. Rather, these apparently absurd remarks can be best summarized by the "technological optimism" that dominates the Western world since the Enlightenment. If there is any means and hope for an utopia, we believe it is through science and technology. In fact, we almost want to believe that technology can help us do all things, solving all our nagging problems, at present and in the future.
How is this "technological optimism" embedded and reflected in man's vision of Cyberspace? Here is what we have been hearing:
"Everyday we hear of promises of Cyberspace, the possibilities of the Internet, and break-throughs in all manner of computer technologies. This new medium will at once create community, break down prejudices, revolutionize business, make the world more of a global village than ever before, and possibly trigger a religious revival."
If you think these are merely childish dreams drawn from some naive people on the street, then you are wrong. On 26 May 1994, in Brussels, a detailed report titled Europe and the global information society: Recommendations to the European Council was presented to the European Council by a group of prominent information experts on the future developmental strategy of the Internet. Here is a short list of "What we can expect for...":
Christian Reflection & Critique
"The endless cycle of idea and action,
The Triumph of Information marks the fading of meaning in Cyberspace. French philosopher Jean Baudrillard states it concisely, "We live in a world where there is more and more information and less and less meaning." While we continue to receive and absorb information at the computer's breakneck pace, we are no longer able to ponder, reflect, and contemplate meanings. The significance of a piece of news lies not in its content, but its size, the number of bits --- units of information in Cyberspace. Furthermore, the rapid pace of information transfer has dealt a great blow to the status of truth. Everyday, incredible amount of new information is added to Cyberspace. At the meantime, old information is constantly updated or discarded. The massive, endless, expeditious updating on the Internet makes the idea of an unchanging truth almost heretical. "Everything changes but change itself." There is simply no place for a static truth in Cyberspace.
Another warning comes from the nature of information in Cyberspace. David Aikman, senior correspondent for foreign affairs for Times magazine, spoke recently at the Conference on Contemporary Issues held at Westminster Theological Seminary. On his keynote address, he criticized on the "(dis)proportion of truth" in mass media today. His conclusion was that as a result of being constantly fed with tabloid-sort of news, the American society had lost the sense of importance. Our television, "which tells you that there was a rape in New York and then it tells you there was an earthquake in Chile and then it tells you that the Mets beat the Cardinals," [and then they repeat the same sequence millions of times,] has virtually disarmed from us the essential human ability to discern true significance.
Now if this fading of meaning and significance is true for television, how much more damaging will Cyberspace be, to us and the Christian message in particular? All we receive from the million and million of webpages is but a pseudo-sense of abundance. In reality, most of the webpages contain "junk" information that is akin to tabloid-sort of news on TV. Not only so, the inclusiveness, or non-selectivity, of information in Cyberspace exercises intense pressure to force truth into a relative position. The "meaning of life" found in Cyberspace "is nothing more than a pastiche of the serious, the cynical, and the idiotic." Data and information are meaning-blind. To a person whose chief concern is information, rather than meaning, a gospel story on the Internet is practically no different from a pornographic picture of the same size. They both occupy the same space, and therefore same significance, in Cyberspace!
The Horror of Virtual Realities warns us of the potential sociological consequences of an uncontrolled world apart from the true reality. But what should be even more disturbing to Christians is the underlying idea of "a world without God". Lawlessness is the precept of the virtual world. It is a man-made place, governed by man, sustained and ordered by man. Inside the virtual world, there is no higher authority than the human creator himself, whoever he may be. In other words, the man becomes god in his self-created world. Thus the quest for virtual realities can be seen as a conscious effort of man to escape God, and become pseudo-creator of his pseudo-world. In this, the ultimate ambition of the sinful man, i.e. to be like God, is virtually fulfilled in his virtual sphere.
Perhaps the most powerful element of this VR-concept needs to be emphasized. Earlier, we mentioned briefly about the reproduction and customization of the virtual realities. The combined idea of these two, I believe, is the most potent weapon of VR. Recall the Second Commandment from the Decalogue, "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image." The temptation of idols has always been with man. Idols not only provide man with physical images to behold, they are appealing mostly because they are manipulate-able. They can be made and re-made according to the desires of man.
Now the main character of virtual realities resembles that of idols. Because virtual realities can be easily reproduced, man can create or duplicate as many virtual realities as he pleases. Not only so, customization actually allows each of them to be gods individually within his own sphere. Such concept legitimizes and promotes relativism, and make each and every VR-creator a lawful sovereign of his own. From thence, there will be no more absolute truth, no more external law and authority, but that of the evil self from within.
"All Men, All Things, All Season" signifies the new world we find in Cyberspace. Yet, such world cannot have come without the "lubrication" of tolerance. In this aspect, what the operation of the cyber-communities is not much different from the American concepts of political correctness and anti-discrimination. Ironically, the only thing that is intolerable is the lack of tolerance. Such ideas no doubt have given rise to modern relativism. The Christian message has encountered much pressure and criticism under the current atmosphere; and things will certainly not turn for the better in Cyberspace... unless the Christian faith is willing to settle as just "one of the many religious ideas" existing on the Internet. Christians must be reminded that cyberculture is never neutral by itself. Rather, it is, and will continue to be, hostile to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
KayPro was a computer manufacturer, which produced PCs with CP/M as their operating system, in the early 1980s. However, within a few years, KayPro was found to be out of business. Why? Because CP/M failed to become an industry standard. The story of KayPro illustrates a fundamental, but vital, aspect of the computer industry --- the significance of standard. What makes Microsoft the software giant? What makes Bill Gates a billionaire? What makes Netscape an overnight success story? Industry Standard. The computer industry is totally standard-driven. If you fail to be the standard, or fail to be compatible with the standard, then you are out.
Now, what is true for the computer industry is also true for Cyberspace. After all, Cyberspace is but an product of the computer industry. Besides the technical standards, users who enter Cyberspace must also keep the standard of cyberculture. Cyberculture is aggressive, in the very sense that it does not wait for you to explore it; but it will be "out to get you" before you know. And if you are not "compatible" to the cyber-world, if you refuse to be conformed to cyberculture, then soon, you shall be rejected, just like KayPro.
Once of the greatest challenges offered by Cyberspace is the enormous pressure to "conform to the pattern of this world (Romans 12:2)," exactly what the Apostle Paul warned of the Christians in Rome. The dawn of the digital age has always come to us in a threatening manner. It has never kindly asked us if we would want our printed books to be converted into electronic form; rather, it came with the fierce assertion that "any data that is not digitized and stored in electronic form will be destroyed; if you don't follow our way, you will not become one of us." Indeed, such is the declaration of war from a hostile world.
The Messianic Hope elevates Cyberspace into the highest plain. In a way, Cyberspace has ceased to be a mere invention. Much more to that, it has been anointed to attempt the unattained goal of breaking down all barriers, of uniting all men, and of bringing lasting peace and prosperity to the global community. In other words, Cyberspace has come alive. Readers who have interacted with Cyberspace should be able to echo my experience. Over the years on the Internet, I have grown to feel that I am no longer interacting with a machine, or a network of machines, but a living being. What is more, this being at times appears to be as an intimate companion, while other times, it will turn to be a giant that is much beyond my reach and control.
If my experience is not unique, then it is possible that Cyberspace possesses qualities akin to that of the Christian God, namely immanence and transcendence. But we must quickly return and label those qualities as mere counterfeit, as pseudo-divine. Nevertheless, these observations should lead us to wonder if the making of Cyberspace is a mere technological advancement. In reality, Cyberspace represents a collective work of man to create a new, peaceful, beautiful, global... community, but also a world without God. This concept, as we have mentioned earlier, shares the same root as the Tower of Babel in Genesis. And once the work is finished, it is made an object of worship, a god-substitute.
A closer look at cyberculture reveals striking parallels with the Christian faith:
The Gospel in the Cyberspace
"When everything is moving at once, nothing appears to be moving, as on board ship. When everyone is moving
toward depravity, no one seems to be moving, but if someone stops he shows up the others who are rushing on, by acting
as a fixed point."
In the beginning of his Confessions, St. Augustine prays, "... You have made us for Yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in You." The Fading of Absolute creates in the heart of man a vacuum no man can fill. Instead of seeking God, man turns to the endless diversions and stimulation of cyber-media. Pascal once remarks, "If our condition were truly happy we should feel no need to divert ourselves from thinking about it." And if restlessness is ever a sign of unhappiness, then Cyberspace is a miserable place indeed. Stephen Talbot, a computer analyst by profession, wisely observes, "Human life can be sustained only within a sea of meaning, not a network of information."
Thus, the invasion of cyberculture gives rise to an acute, unresolved tension within man's heart. On one hand, meaning is being deprived, leaving behind what is mere data; on the other hand, the absence of meaning creates a vacuum that induces an even greater longing for fulfillment. What then is the meaning of life? Where is the home for our souls? The answers to these questions, we believe, can only be found in the Bible, the revelation of God.
|"I believe in God the Father Almighty, who created the world, all things visible and invisible, from nothing.
And out of His overflowing love, He created man, male and female, after His own image, in knowledge, righteousness,
and holiness. God brought man into life, established fellowship with him, and grant him dominion over His creation.|
I believe the chief end of man is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever. God has made man for Himself, and man's heart is restless until it rests in Him. Only in fellowship and communion with God does man find true meaning and purpose."
Lawlessness is a true reflection of our state. No Christians should be surprised by man's desire for A World Without God. The attempt for a virtual world is an attempt to escape the holy God, who has set His law within man's heart. In fact, the very act of escaping God is a strong proof of man's knowledge of Him. God reveals to us through Apostle Paul, "The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them." (Roman 1:18-19) Man is therefore without excuse before the holy God, for he knows Him in his heart.
The making virtual realities exposes the problem of guilt within man's heart. Think about it: why are evil deeds more "open" and prevailing in the virtual world? Surely, first of all, it is because there are no laws and order to restrict them. But more importantly, I believe, it is because man knows his own wickedness and is fearful to be exposed. In other words, he is guilty and shameful of his own sins, just as Adam and Eve were after the Fall. Virtual realities may provide him with a pseudo-security, as long as he remains anonymous; yet they are helpless in resolving the guilt man constantly faces because of his knowledge of God.
|"I believe our first parents, Adam and Eve, in the freedom of their own will, transgressed against God; being
guilty and shameful, they fell into the state of sin and misery. Through Adam, sin entered into the world; and every man
since Adam was born under the power of sin and darkness. For although man knows God, he suppresses the truth in
unrighteousness. The sinful man is under the wrath and curse of God, and is subject to eternal death.|
I believe, despite man's rebellion against Him, God out of His boundless grace and mercy so purposed and carried out a redemptive plan through His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, who, in the fullness of time, entered into the historical world in the flesh of man. He was rejected, suffered, was crucified and dead; but on the third day, He rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven. Upon His resurrection, the sting of death and the power of sin were broken.
I believe Jesus Christ died to atone for all my sins. He paid a debt He did not owe to satisfy a debt I could not pay. And that any man who confesses his sins, repents, and puts his trust in Jesus Christ is justified before God. He is no longer under the power of sin, but is reconciled to God. He is a child of God, and is in fellowship with Him through eternity."
The Conformity of All Beings forces every cyber-resident into the pre-determined "mold" of cyberculture. This pressure to conform, which is by itself a severe form of oppression, is often carried out in the name of tolerance. The resulted relativism leaves man with no anchor to hold on to, so "every man did as he saw fit." (Judges 21:25)
But man has always lived within an orderly world; for he lives in God's world, and God has created the world according to His eternal decrees. Even in the fallen world, our societies have always sensed the importance of order. This sense of an objective order implies an objective truth, which, as Christians, we believe can only be found in God.
Another problem arises from the widespread misuse of anonymity. This device which is intended to protect individual rights within a multi-cultural, multi-worldview setting has virtually made void the building of community, for community is impossible apart from personal trust. Moreover, authentic human relationship requires human presence. Thus, "Cyberspace can only mimic or mirror these things (however convincingly); it cannot create them."
There is a powerful scene in the movie Powder. "Powder" was an albino, growing up in isolation from the rest of his town. When he was eventually discovered by others, they put him back to school, and assigned him a social worker. However, being constantly ridiculed, he was never able to lead a normal life. His science teacher later took interest in him because of his special ability. Yet when he realized his pain, he offered him friendship, and touched him. Ironically, it is also the first time anyone ever dared to touch him. And Powder, feeling the power of human touch, broke down in tears. This, I think, is also what Cyberspace is yearning for.
|"I believe Jesus Christ is the only way to God. In Him there is life, apart from Him there is no life. He Himself is
the one and only eternal truth. Christ came to the world, walked and talked with man, feeling his pain, and rescuing him from
misery and death. By laying His life on the Cross, He reconciled sinful man unto God, that man may again have communion
I believe the Church is the body of Jesus Christ, the universal community of believers, purchased by the blood of Christ. It was established in the love and truth of Christ, united for the service of God. In Christ, there is no difference among believers. Believers are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens and members of the household of God. They are to serve one another in love and humility."
The Religious Counterfeit signifies man's acknowledgment of his current imperfect state. The idea of an utopia has been around as long as the human history. Man sees his problems, and has been searching for answers ever since he first realized them. Nevertheless, he does not really know his problem, which is spiritual, and has been seeking solutions from the wrong sources. Thus he sees, but does not know; for he has fallen. Unless the Mighty comes to reveal Himself, the finite cannot comprehend the Infinite.
The digital age is no kingdom of God. It is only a matter of time before man realizes it. By then, it will become another collection of disappointment and sorrows. Yet, in spite of this, man will continue to create new inventions, to suggest new solutions, and to crown new Messiahs. To break this endless chain of deceit, we must again turn to the eternal word of God.
|"I believe Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who ascended into heaven and lives eternally, will come again in glory
for judgment and redemption. To him who trusts in Christ, it shall be given him eternal life; but to him who does not believe,
he shall face eternal damnation.|
I believe the world will be renewed in Jesus Christ's coming. Upon that day, God will gather for Himself a people from every nation, every race, every tribe, and every tongue on earth. And He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor pain. And the people of God will reign with Him forever and forever."
"You have riches and freedom here but I feel no sense of faith or direction. You have so many computers, why
don't you use them in the search for love?"
It has been a long road since we first began our cyber-journey, though The Road Ahead can be even farther and more difficult. I hope you have found this journey worthwhile. Perhaps, the value of this paper lies not so much in the exploration of cyberculture; but rather on discovery of the penetrating relevance of the God's eternal truth in a technological world that is lost.
|"For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart." --- Hebrew 4:12|
Christians are often tempted to confine the Gospel to be "a thing of the past". In an age which is obsessed with scientific investigations and technological breakthroughs, the Christian faith is often relegated to the plane of primitive myth. Yet, this, I believe, is precisely when the power of God is to be shown, and His glory manifested. "Have faith in God," Jesus says to His disciples (Mark 11:12). "Didn't I not say to you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?" (John 11:40) Today, our faith is continuously being challenged by His calling!
The Cyber Creed
|I believe in God the Father Almighty, who created the world, all things visible and invisible, from nothing. And out of
His overflowing love, He created man, male and female, after His own image, in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness.
God brought man into life, established fellowship with him, and grant him dominion over His creation.|
I believe the chief end of man is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever. God has made man for Himself, and man's heart is restless until it rests in Him. Only in fellowship and communion with God does man find true meaning and purpose.
I believe our first parents, Adam and Eve, in the freedom of their own will, transgressed against God; being guilty and shameful, they fell into the state of sin and misery. Through Adam, sin entered into the world; and every man since Adam was born under the power of sin and darkness. For although man knows God, he suppresses the truth in unrighteousness. The sinful man is under the wrath and curse of God, and is subject to eternal death.
I believe, despite man's rebellion against Him, God out of His boundless grace and mercy so purposed and carried out a redemptive plan through His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, who, in the fullness of time, entered into the historical world in the flesh of man. He was rejected, suffered, was crucified and dead; but on the third day, He rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven. Upon His resurrection, the sting of death and the power of sin were broken.
I believe Jesus Christ died to atone for all my sins. He paid a debt He did not owe to satisfy a debt I could not pay. And that any man who confesses his sins, repents, and puts his trust in Jesus Christ is justified before God. He is no longer under the power of sin, but is reconciled to God. He is a child of God, and is in fellowship with Him through eternity.
I believe Jesus Christ is the only way to God. In Him there is life, apart from Him there is no life. He Himself is the one and only eternal truth. Christ came to the world, walked and talked with man, feeling his pain, and rescuing him from misery and death. By laying His life on the Cross, He reconciled sinful man unto God, that man may again have communion with Him.
I believe the Church is the body of Jesus Christ, the universal community of believers, purchased by the blood of Christ. It was established in the love and truth of Christ, united for the service of God. In Christ, there is no difference among believers. Believers are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens and members of the household of God. They are to serve one another in love and humility.
I believe Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who ascended into heaven and lives eternally, will come again in glory for judgment and redemption. To him who trusts in Christ, it shall be given him eternal life; but to him who does not believe, he shall face eternal damnation.
I believe the world will be renewed in Jesus Christ's coming. Upon that day, God will gather for Himself a people from every nation, every race, every tribe, and every tongue on earth. And He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor pain. And the people of God will reign with Him forever and forever.