Cyberpilgrimage15 December 2009
I suspect there are many who would find it odd that religion and the Internet appear in the same sentence, let alone the same word. Yet I’m sure most would agree that the Internet is having profound effects on the world and that we are only just seeing the start of it. To remind ourselves of why the Internet might have more relevance to religion than we might otherwise first think let’s begin by looking back to the other great paradigm shifts in media technology.
Walter Ong and Jack Goody argue that even the technologies of orality and literacy dramatically effected the way humans thought and lived. Perhaps obviously the very fact of structured language and speech provides unprecedented and powerful tools for the transmission of knowledge, even before writing, memory served as a worthy vehicle for trans-cultural and trans-temporal communication. Then with literacy we have books — artifacts that, I think, uncoincidentally play pivotal roles in all the major world religions. And penultimately we have the printing press, let me quote Clay Shirky from his inspiring TED talk, Institutions Versus Collaboration,
“The printing press precipitated 200 years of chaos, moving from a world where the Catholic Church was […] an organising political force, to the Treaty of Westphalia when we finally knew what the new unit was, the nation state.”
Essentially what Shirky is saying is that the printing press was central to the precedent of governance that separated church from state and provided the religious freedoms that so many of us take for granted today. Therefore here we have, not only an evolution in the character of religion, but also in the organisational principles within which most of the world’s nations are contained.
Of course, this is a very brief overview of our media epochs, but you get the picture. Hopefully this might have perked your interest for a sight of religion’s and the Internet’s crossing of paths. However, for myself, being in the process of forging a career from making websites and thus entrusting my very livelihood to the Internet, articles like Cyberpilgrimage: A Study of Authenticity, Presence and Meaning in Online Pilgrimage Experiences_ _by fellow alumni and friend from Lampeter University Connie Hill-Smith, doubly prick my ears.
One of the first issues that Connie (it’s just too weird referring to a friend by their surname!) tackles in her article is the lack of scholarship, and perhaps even reluctance, pertaining to pilgrimage’s relationship with the Internet. In fact the article’s remit is very much an attempt at an initial step towards counteracting any inertia that might, as Connie fears, “undermine serious engagement with the subject and indeed, with the Internet as a religiously experiential, and not just _ expressive_, medium”. Her first, and perhaps most important appeal, is towards the idea of pilgrimage as metaphor; an already accepted notion that ‘real’, physical pilgrimage is as much about an internal journey as an external one. If the classical stages of pilgrimage; getting there, arriving and returning, each posses a corresponding internal state of mind then we can begin to see how carefully thought out and creative multimedia experiences like Youth For Christ’s Online Labyrinth might offer something of the sacred journey.
This internalisation of pilgrimage’s centre of gravity really gets me thinking about how we commonly perceive the average user interacting with the Internet, therefore; the solitary viewer locked into a transfixed embrace with a keyboard and screen. Is this image actually accurate? Because if one considers the recent data from the International Telecommunications Union, then the answer is very much no, as the number of mobile devices capable of connecting to the Internet surpassed the number of desktop devices in mid 2008. Which raises the tantilising prospect of also being able to appeal to the external_isation of the Internet _as well as the internalisation of pilgrimage as a means of highlighting the common ground that is cyberpilgrimage.
An example. Earlier this year comedian Eddie Izzard undertook 43 marathons in 51 days circumnavigating the British Isles, raising over £300, 000 for the charity Sports Relief. With his iPhone strapped to his shoulder for the duration, he shared his adventure using Twitter; keeping the world (including me) constantly up to date with 140 character tweets, pictures, video and GPS co-ordinates such as this. Apart from being deeply inspired by Eddie’s sincere effort, dedication and fitness, the experience was for me surprisingly participatory. Being a full time web developer means spending much of my time hooked up to the Internet and so I was able to watch his progress as it happened. But I wasn’t just participating in Eddie’s run, but equally in the community of thousands that were also following his fortunes. For every tweet of Eddie’s there’d be many more in response, so that one very much felt included in a multi-directional conversation, reminisent in both feedback and also in pace of the real face to face world. When Eddie mentioned the name of a village he was passing through or uploaded a worthy panoramic, there’d always be someone that said ‘I know that place!’, or ‘that’s where I live’. People would come out to meet him waving banners and even jog a while with him. Everyday was different, sometimes he’d find it really hard and tweet pictures of his blisters, whilst other days were easier, perhaps some charismatic celebrity had been running with him that day.
If you’re thinking, “but that’s not a bonafide pilgrimage”, I would for a start disagree, but also point you to similar interactions carried out on the more archetypal pilgrimage of the Camino De Santiago by Damian Corrigan or Christina Santos. What’s apparent here, I hope, is the way in which, by virtue of the Internet, an unarguably external journey, whilst remaining essentially true to its original form, is tangibly evolved into something new. Significantly, allowing a loosening of the common understanding of how we interact with the Internet, returns the possibilities of using existing pilgrimage theories and frameworks, such as communitas and liminality, without substantial alterations. And so now the really interesting question is; does Twitter enhance the pilgrim’s experience or dilute it? But I think that’s a discussion for anther time.
Going back to the more conventional view of Internet usage there are two more concepts in Connie’s article that intrigue me; co-location and physicalisation. Co-location is essentially the circumstance of being aware that one is doing something at the same time as someone else yet in a separate location, clearly this is pertinent to such activities as ritual and worship. Physicalisation is the making physical of otherwise abstract words, thoughts, pictures and so on, for example if you tweet a prayer to @theKotel, he will print it out and place it on the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Both concepts work towards highlighting the ability of the Internet to effect a more palpable sense of presence, that one is not merely interacting with an inert machine but that the machine is actually facilitating real engagement with the real world and real people. This ‘real engagement’ strikes me as being very similar in description to the principles of the so-called Web2.0. Roughly speaking Web2.0 refers to the user-centred shift that has occurred in recent years following the ‘Dotcom Bubble’ — Internet content is increasingly social (think Facebook, MySpace and Twitter) and increasingly user-created (think Youtube, Wikipedia and Blogs). Where social corresponds to co-location and user-created corresponds to physicalisation.
Though not directly related to pilgrimage, a remarkable and romantic example of the possibilities opened up by Web2.0 comes from the photo sharing site Flickr. On the 21st of January 2009, Michael David Murphy asked members of Flickr whether they had, by some stroke of coincedence, managed to capture an image of him proposing to his fiancée amongst the crowds of the inauguration ceremony of Barack Obama. Quite incredibly some days later Flickr user egoody had indeed caught the moment on camera and had posted the shot on the site. Now this is quite an unusual achievement for a Web2.0 site, I wouldn’t want to give the impression otherwise, but what I want to bring to attention is how the previously mentioned factors of co-location and physicalisation work together with a subject matter as sensitive and as worthy of dignity as anything sacred.
When you consider the prominence of Web2.0 sites and the accompanying shift that their approach is bringing to the Internet as a whole, you can see how concepts such as co-location and physicalisation are becoming more and more fundamental ingredients rather than occasional edge cases. And as such we can see how the Internet is increasingly becoming a place towards which people are entrusting more of that which they consider most precious. This coupled with the Mobile Internet and ubiquitous connection provides a convincing argument for the significance that the Internet might play in pilgrimage and religious affairs as a whole.
Which reminds me that the future isn’t always where you think it is, I’ll end with Clay Shirky again;
“Meet Up is a service founded so that users can find people in their local area who share their interests and affinities and actually have real world meetings offline in a cafe or a pub or what have you. When Scott Heiferman founded Meet Up he thought it would be used by trainspotters or cat-fanciers, classic affinity groups; the inventors don’t know what their invention is. Number one group on Meet Up right now? Most chapters, in most cities with the most active members? Stay at home moms. In the suburbanised, dual income United States stay at home moms are actually missing the social infrastructure that comes from extended family and local small scale neighborhoods. So they’re reinventing it using these tools. Meet Up is the platform but the value here is the social infrastructure. If you want to know what technology is going to change the world don’t pay attention to 13 year old boys, pay attention to young mothers, because they haven’t got an ounce of support for technology that does not materially make their lives better. This is so much more important than XBox but it’s a lot less glitzy. I think this is a revolution.”