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Up Front

MPAA Rating
PUBLISHED
September 19, 2011
Writer
Paul Asay
To Worship the Web

To Worship the Web

There's a new religion in the world. Adherents call it Googlism.

It's a small sect. It only has 16,000 or so Facebook likes. It's lacking some of the rituals and philosophical underpinnings most other religions have. But it does have a place of worship (online, naturally, at thechurchofgoogle.org), a set of commandments (which includes "Thou shalt not hotlink") and a semi-rigorous stricture of apologetics, outlining various "proofs" as to why Google is a goddess.

"Not only is Google the closest known entity to being Omniscient," the site reads, "but She also sorts through this vast amount of knowledge using Her patented PageRank technology, organizing said data and making it easily accessible to us mere mortals."

It's a joke, of course—or at least I think it is. It's highly doubtful that Matt MacPherson, the founder of Googlism, truly embraces the innate spirituality of search engines. But his Googlism lark still taps into a wider, far more serious meme: The idea that the Internet has, somehow, become God, or at least a god. That it sees all, knows all.

We pay homage to it at work and home, after all. We supplicate it with digital offerings (emails, blog posts, tweets, MP3 hymns, camera phone images) and ply it with requests (searches). In response it teaches us, guides us and even, to some extent, controls us. In a world filled with people desperate for spirituality but often separated from faith, the Internet seems like just as good a god as any for some—a benevolent force that borders on the divine. And while "Googlists" may use the "Internet as God" shtick as a satirical poke in the eye, others are very serious indeed.

Byte-Sized Omnipotence
In the summer of 2011, Jim Gilliam gave a presentation in front of the Personal Democracy Forum. His title: "The Internet Is My Religion." During his speech, Gilliam discussed how he went to church three times a week and attended college at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. He related how his faith had been stripped away when he and his mother both contracted cancer: "I survived," he said. "My mom didn't." He talked about how the disease came back again, and then again—and how the Internet, through its teeming masses of friends and well-wishers, made possible a life-saving lung transplant.

"And that's when I truly found God," he proclaimed. "God is just what happens when humanity is connected."

Interestingly, Gilliam's concept of god is not particularly revolutionary. For hundreds of years, critics of traditional faith have begged us to turn away from "superstition" and pointed to humankind—individually or collectively—as the closest we can really get to divinity. Many a society, collective and club has been founded on this premise, and many in turn have been swept away by the tides of time.

But in the Internet age, the idea holds a new sense of relevance.

"Not everyone has access to The Internet or judges it favourably," writes Frank Den on theinternetisgod.org (a site that uses the Internet as a metaphor for God, but doesn't necessarily equate the two). "But we see the central importance that it already holds in many people's lives—an importance akin perhaps to that of The Church in the Middle Ages—when it is temporarily unavailable. People are suddenly rootless; without their God."

Indeed, there are similarities between religious adherence and the way some people feel about online tech. We know that the Internet provides the same sense of community that folks often find in church. It can connect you to new, challenging ways of looking at the world. And most of us probably know people who have a certain evangelical fervor, if you will, when it comes to the promise of this technology.

Our God is utterly omniscient. But historically, gods have only needed to be more knowing than man for them to be worshipped. And the Internet certainly measures up on that score. Wisegeek.com references Google CEO Eric Schmidt's estimation that, globally, the Internet consists of 5 million terabytes of data—the approximate amount of information that could be recorded if you cut down 250 billion trees, turned them all into paper and printed text on every sheet. Or, to put it another way: 5 million terabytes can encapsulate the entire Library of Congress—500,000 times. And it's worth noting that Google itself, which seems to know everything there is to know about all that data, only catalogues about 200 terabytes—.004% of the whole.

On a less technical level: When we need to know something, where do most of us turn for answers? The Internet, naturally.

A god would also be required to be powerful. Need I illustrate how mighty the Internet is these days? How many governments it has helped topple? How many men and women it has alternately made and broken? How it's changed the way we work, play, even talk with one another?

Christians view God as merciful. But Gilliam argues that the Internet is more so—that when he felt like God had forsaken him, the Internet had not. In his mind, it healed him when God wouldn't. It performed a miracle when God couldn't. "Each one of us is a creator," he said, "but together we are The Creator."

And when one compares the Internet with God, it presents to us something He does not: tangibility. We may not be able to touch it directly, but through its countless pages we can see it. Through its myriad clips we can hear it. When we converse with it, it consistently responds. And for those of us who prayerfully try to discern the will of our mysterious, enigmatic Lord, the idea of such easy communication can be … tempting. If only God worked like the Internet, we might be inclined say. If only we could type in a search to see the way before us.

But if we could—if such a thing was possible—what would we learn?

The Earth Is the Lord's and Everything in It
Google "What is the meaning of life, love and everything?" and you're guaranteed to stumble upon the number 42. Query "Why is there suffering?" and you'll encounter answers from bible.org right alongside the Friendly Atheist's. Ask "What should I do next?" and you might find yourself reading about a girl who's been wondering whether or not the "really hot guy" who stares at her a lot in driver's ed class wants to be more than friends.

Truly the Internet has a dizzying amount of information stored within its digital realms. But it has no real answers for us. It has knowledge but no wisdom. It has ubiquity without understanding. And if we look at the true character of God, we see that the Internet actually has very little in common with Him.

God creates; the Internet consumes. God is immutable and eternal; the Internet changes microsecond to microsecond. God is all-powerful; the Internet is as fragile as a power outage. God is everywhere; the Internet can't escape its servers and screens.

And those are only the most superficial characteristics of God. Delve deeper, and the differences don't just become more stark; they become laughable.

Is the Internet holy like God? "Your eyes are too pure to look on evil," wrote the prophet Habakkuk, "you cannot tolerate wrong." The Internet, meanwhile, seems like it's about half porn. Is it merciful like God? As Rebecca Black or Justin Bieber or anyone who scans the comments sections on blogs can attest, it is not. Is it honest? Is it trustworthy? Is it filled with love? If you say that it is, then I'm sure you've already uninstalled your virus protection software and posted your Social Security number on Facebook.

With due respect proffered to Gilliam and others who've found a source of hope and inspiration online, the Internet isn't God. It isn't even a goddess.

It's just us.

It's a gangly and gregarious manifestation of all our best and worst traits—our love, our compassion, our pettiness, our failings. We love it because it confirms what we can be. We hate it because it shows us what we often are. Sure, as Gilliam states, humans can do some pretty amazing things when we work together. But we can be horrible sometimes too … pulled down by our very human natures.

"We are the leaders of this new religion," Gilliam exhorted at the end of his speech. "We have faith that people connected can create a new world."

The fact that the Internet can create a new world isn't up for discussion. It already has. The real question is this: Is it a better world? Is it kinder? Purer? More just? More merciful?

Of course not. Cyberspace cannot create for us such a world, any more than we could construct it ourselves. The history of humanity overflows with our own bold and boastful failings, from when we decide that it is we, not He, who know what's best for us.

The Internet is a great and grand tool. I used it at least a couple dozen times while I was writing this article. My editor checked my spelling with it.

Just be careful not to genuflect to your monitor or pay homage to your smartphone. Or even pay too much for the privilege of using it. The Internet is just as much under the sovereignty of another Master as we are.

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