What is Cyberspace?

I wrote this essay for a dictionary a few years ago. Despite all the changes in the Internet world, I think it is still pertinent. We need to understand our technological times and do what pleases God and blesses his creation.

The term cyberspace typically refers to the whole gamut of computer-mediated modes of communication that are permeating and transforming society in numerous ways. The prefix “cyber” comes from the discipline of cybernetics, the study of self-regulating systems (usually computer systems). Cyberspace is the space or place where humans and computers interact and connect in manifold ways. This neologism was coined by novelist William Gibson after reflecting on a teenager’s immersion in a video game. The boy was situated both in literal space (before a screen) and in the virtual space of the computer game. In this sense, one “enters” cyberspace mentally and imaginatively. To use concepts from philosopher Michael Polanyi, one’s “focal awareness” is in cyberspace (whether it is a video game, chat room, web page, or full-fledged virtual reality) while one’s “subsidiary awareness” is on the keyboard, the controls, or the computer screen. This parallels a surgeon’s use of a probe to explore portions of the human body not otherwise accessible and visible. Her “focal awareness” is on the region made visible by the probe; her “subsidiary awareness” is on the moving of the probe itself.

The pertinence of cyberspace to apologetics is at least threefold. First, some cyberspace enthusiasts hail cyberspace as a realm of exhilarating freedom where one can leave the body and attain transcendence through technological means. Some extol virtual reality technologies as opening up an alternative world free of conventional morality and the frustrating limits of physical objects (or “meat space”). Although these technologies are still in their early stages, they allow (or will allow) percipients to immerse themselves in a simulated and convincing cyberspace environment to one degree or another. This is accomplished by means of a bodysuit equipped with sensory modalities such as sight, sound, and touch. One may “interact” with some wholly computer-generated settings or entities or with other body-suited participants (or some combination thereof). Even beyond this scenario, some have claimed that human consciousness itself can be duplicated through software and loaded directly into cyberspace. This was explored in the horror, science-fiction film, “Lawnmower Man.” This utopian vision represents a kind of techno-gnosticism: one escapes the perils of the living organism (flesh) by immersion into the mechanism of cyberspace (silicon). The “soul” is freed by being digitized and injected into cyberspace. (Naturally, a crash or corruption of the hardware would ensure one’s digital oblivion.)

According to a Christian worldview, these far-flung claims—in addition to their technological implausibility—present a counterfeit soteriology and are riddled with philosophical conundrums. Whatever benefits cyberspace may offer for the rapid transference of information or for some simulations, it remains a human artifact, not a source of salvation. Redemption is only available from outside the cursed and fallen environs of a world east of Eden and still awaiting its final liberation (Romans 8:18-25).

On this front, the Christian apologist should marshal two related arguments. First, the physical world, while fallen, should not be fled as inherently evil. The Scriptures affirm the created goodness of the universe (Genesis 1; 1 Timothy 4:1-4), and the Incarnation (John 1:1-3; 14) ratifies that goodness in the person of Jesus, who is truly human as well as truly divine. The attempt to escape the body into an amoral realm of unlimited potential is both to betray our created purpose as God’s image bearers (Genesis 1:26-28) and to replay the ancient error of seeking self deification when we are but finite and fallen mortals (Genesis 3:5; Ezekiel 28:1-10). The second apologetic argument is that, while we are physical creatures who may await a glorious resurrection of the body if we follow the risen Christ (1 Corinthians 15), we are not merely physical beings. Jesus and the apostles taught that there is an immaterial element to the human person that interacts with, but is not reducible to, physical states. In addition to the unified biblical witness, contemporary philosophers such as J.P. Moreland and Richard Swinburne have convincingly made this case. If the mind or soul is a substance distinct from the body, the notion of transferring human consciousness (understood as reducible to brain function) into physical software is inherently impossible. For the same reason, the claim that sophisticated computers will eventually attain consciousness is wrongheaded. (One philosopher has predicted that computers will so transcend human abilities that they will retain us only as pets.) Matter cannot generate consciousness. Although artificial intelligence (AI) is capable of tremendous computational power, it is not sentient.

Second, the Internet as a source of information on diverse religions, worldviews, and cults affords the apologist with both opportunities and dangers. Quality control on the Internet is minimal; anyone with a web page can post anything. In his research, the apologist must develop a good sense for what is trustworthy information (such as official web pages for new religious groups) and what is not (hoaxes and amateur apologetics sites). Moreover, one should not substitute on-line research at the expense of pertinent printed materials, such as standard reference works, which have had more editorial filtering and are more legitimate.

 

Third, as Quentin Schultze has argued convincingly, the conditions of cyberspace, if engaged in uncritically, tend to undermine a life of virtue. With its emphasis on information over wisdom, efficiency over moral character, spin over authenticity, the present over received tradition, and virtual realities over the physical realities that provide the ambiance for communion and community, cyberspace poses a threat to the kind of Christian character that is essential to authentic apologetic endeavors. Since winsome apologetics demands both solid arguments and a humble and wise demeanor, apologists should be on guard that their cyberspace activities do not short-circuit the fruit of the Spirit in their lives (Galatians 6:16-26). For example, although email makes it easy to engage in heated, rapid, and thoughtless disputes (sometimes called “flame wars”), the representative of Christ should flee such temptations to impatience and anger in order to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15; see also 2 Timothy 2:24-26).

Furthermore, many high-powered and popular video games trade on heinous violence (such as shooting innocent elderly people) and graphic sexual scenes. Some “first-person shooter” games employ the same technologies used in computer simulations by the US military to break down a soldier’s reluctance to kill on the battlefield. Evidence indicates that some teenage murderers, influenced by these games, adopted this mentality in their homicides. Since Jesus warned that sins of anger, lust, and violence begin in the mind (Matthew 5:21-30), such video game simulations should be rejected as irreconcilable with the life that God blesses. Apologists should recommend wholesome and wise recreations in their place.

 

References:

  1. Groothuis, Douglas. The Soul in Cyberspace. 1997; Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock reprint, 2001.
  2. Grossman, Dave, Gloria DeGaetano. Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill: A Call to Action Against TV, Movies, and Video Game Violence. New York: Crown Publishers, 1999.
  3. Heim, Michael. Virtual Realism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998
  4. Houston, Graham. Virtual Morality. Leicester, UK: Apollos/InterVarsity, 1998.
  5. Schultze, Quentin. Habits of the High-Tech Heart: Living Virtuously in the Information Age. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2002.

Brief Social Commentary: Radio Lab

Public radio has a program called Radio Lab. Today, they took up artificial intelligence. But the form of the program is odd, interruptive. Speakers are often interrupted by other voices. The interjected comments may be parenthetical or substantial.

Call me peevish, but I loathe being interrupted when I speak, even if it is an accident. I try hard to never interrupt anyone else—unless that is the only way to say anything to them. This program often does not allow speakers to complete their own sentences—or at least much of the time.

If this is the new normal, I want to stay abnormal—one voice sentences. Why do they do this anyway? Perhaps because we are an interruptive, conversationally impatient, and rude culture.

The audio technology allows these interruptions to be seamless, which almost sounds like a contradiction. No voice is talking over another voice, at least I don’t think so. I did not–could not–listen to the whole program, even though the topic, artificial intelligence, was fascinating.

These digital interjections depersonalize those “interviewed,” if we could call it that. Sound data is collected and manipulated by Radio Lab. If they ask me for my sound data, I shall decline. I will sometimes even pause to start or finish a sentence correctly. And I don’t want my voice completing someone else’s sentence.

Philosophy of Technology in Six Ideas

As I prowl around bookstores, I find a gaggle of books on managing technology overload. One after another fall of the presses and make their way on the shelves and into my hands. Some, I buy; most, I pass over. Often, I think, “I noticed that twenty years ago.” I did not predict Google or Facebook or Wikipedia, of course; but in my unread book, The Soul in Cyberspace, I did exegete the medium qua medium, noted some of the internet’s strengths, but warned of ways it could diminish the good life that God wants us to live. Here are six words that capture some of the insights I find repeated again and again in these new books.

  1. More is often less. Humans can profitably interact only with a limited amount of data and sensory stimulation. We must limit our exposure to internet (and all) electronic media because, unless we are careful, it will addle and unravel us. It may even stupefy us, even as we twitch and click away.
  2. The medium is the message. As Marshall McLuhan wrote 50 years ago, each communications media shapes its message according to the dictates of the form of communication. An image communicates differently than the spoken word, the spoken word, differently than the written word, and so it goes. Attending a worship service cannot be translated truthfully by watching it on line.
  3. Efficiency is overrated and may be dangerous. Many good things come slowly, such as strong and vibrant relationships, handcrafted furniture, and skill in playing a musical instrument. All too often, modern technology accelerates without regard to quality. Downloading a PDF of a book can be done quickly; but perhaps finding a hard copy and enjoying its un-electrified slowness is what you should do. It is more efficient to use a program to put comments on students’ papers. However, writing with pen and ink is more personal and embodied. Yes, it is slower—and better (if you have the time).
  4. Resist quantification over qualitative concerns. Technologies trade on numbers. How many likes did your Facebook post receive? People may like it for the wrong reasons. How many people follow your tweets? How can you maximize exposure to your blog? What is left behind, too often, is the quality–the objective nature–of what is available online. What might God think of your essay, your poem, or your cartoon? Does what you put on line contribute to human flourishing.
  5. Virtuous engagement online requires abstention. We often give too much of our time to the on line world. Our very souls are shaped by its speed, its fragmentation, its instantism. Thus, we are wise to retreat, to unplug, to desist, to desert it. Leave your phone in the car when you go shopping or when you meet a friend at a coffee shop. Designate hours and days when you are off line entirely. You will gain a new perspective on your on line life by going off line. You will notice what slipped into the background: friends, pets, nature, the Bible, prayer needs, and more.
  6. Every new communication technology gives and takes away. There is no sheer advantage. The telephone and radio extend the voice, but take away the physical presence. Early users of telephones were rattled by a disembodied voice coming from far away. The internet opens up the world to us, but may separate us from the people in our midst. Hence, “the absent presence” of much of life today. How can someone listen to you when they are texting someone elsewhere? Electronic music files make music available nearly anywhere, but the sound quality is worse than a record. And when you can listen to music through your ear buds in public, you will not be as aware of the world around you. You may not see the tears in a stranger’s eyes or hear a sound of distress in your midst.

My miniature essay fails to address the evil algorithms out there, the good and evil of big data, and other empirical matters worthy of concern. Nevertheless, my six ideas cover much of what is being written about today, twenty years after I warned about the down side of technologies. My inspiration was and is thinkers such as Neil Postman, Marshall McLuhan, Malcolm Muggerridge, and Jacques Ellul. Take some time away from Facebook, Instagram, et al, and read them, please.

 

Looking Back to an Old Typewriter

What difference might a typewriter make on one’s writing style; might it even affect one’s thinking itself? We are what we write, and how we write is shaped by the device on which we write. Consider Nicholas Carr’s reflections on Nietzsche’s use of a primitive typewriter.

Sometime in 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche bought a typewriter—a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, to be precise. His vision was failing, and keeping his eyes focused on a page had become exhausting and painful, often bringing on crushing headaches. He had been forced to curtail his writing, and he feared that he would soon have to give it up. The typewriter rescued him, at least for a time. Once he had mastered touch-typing, he was able to write with his eyes closed, using only the tips of his fingers. Words could once again flow from his mind to the page.

But the machine had a subtler effect on his work. One of Nietzsche’s friends, a composer, noticed a change in the style of his writing. His already terse prose had become even tighter, more telegraphic. “Perhaps you will through this instrument even take to a new idiom,” the friend wrote in a letter, noting that, in his own work, his “‘thoughts’ in music and language often depend on the quality of pen and paper.”

“You are right,” Nietzsche replied, “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.” Under the sway of the machine, writes the German media scholar Friedrich A. Kittler, Nietzsche’s prose “changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style.” (The Atlantic, July/August 2008).

            Selectric is the name of an IBM electronic typewriter that awkwardly sits on a table in what should be the dining room. When I type, I hear the sounds of inscription. I see the words appear in front of me on a real sheet of paper. The touch is lighter than on a manual typewriter, but it is percussive. It pounds the letters into place and moves on. It is like playing drums and writing at the same time, although there is no steady beat. Maybe it is more like avant-garde drumming.

Machines like this are not easily portable. They are connected to nothing outside of their power cord. They are not made anymore, like the Hammond B-3 organ. Every major jazz organist plays a B-3. How many writers use an electric typewriter? Some still use manual models, which I learned from the delightful film, “California Typewriter.”

The Selectric was famous for being a dependable and correctible typewriter. A little key allowed you to backspace to a mistake and then strike the errant letter, which was (somewhat) erased. Then you typed the proper letter. Bad typists like me appreciated that.

Unmasking the New Age (1986), my first book, was half written on an early computer and half written on a Selectric that someone had rented for me. I wrote several other articles and reviews on the Selectric as well. But after getting my now extinct Kay-pro, the great beast was forgotten and all was written on computer—until I spotted a garage sale in my neighborhood. That is when the Selectric came back into my life.

Kaiser-Permanente will likely be stunned when they receive a typewritten letter from me protesting their decision not to cover a medical test. But mostly, I sidle up to the hulking black box to write letters to friends. So far, no recipients have complained. Some have applauded. None have typewritten back.

The Selectric selects the way I write. Corrections are not easily made. So, I think more before I write. Deleting a whole sentence is not easily done. I have not returned to the world of white out, a substance with which I never made piece. I think some of it from decades ago is still under my finger nail. If I must delete a lot, I strike through with dashes. That is ugly, but gritty. Tom Hanks types this way on his manuals; so I can, too. Knowing that I can resort to grittiness frees me from fear of error. Typing forbids you to move text around—something that is second nature to us now. You are committed to a sequence. If I want to return to a topic from several topics ago, I have to bring it up again. This is a little more like a conversation than typing on a computer, where cutting and pasting (to hark back to a literal practice) is simple.

My Selectric also has sentimental value. The muscle memory comes back. I think of typing out my lecture outlines for my class, “The Twilight of Western Thought,” when I worked in campus ministry from 1979-84 at the University of Oregon. I think of short essays I wrote to my fiancé, Becky Merrill, one of which was on the ontology of kissing. That has, tragically, been lost to history (I think).

I won’t be sending publishers any hard copy written on a typewriter. My black beauty does not have spell check. Nor can it insert links. Adding footnotes would be annoying. I remember those dark days. I won’t lug my typewriter into the office and then back home again. It is more of a fixture and part of my house. However, I would gladly have one in my office if could procure another good one at a decent price.

Perhaps I gave hypergraphia—at least a mild case—but I don’t suffer from it. I live it. When a colleague mentioned my productivity amidst the misery of living through my wife’s dementia, I replied, “I write in order to survive.” I write about many topics on various devices. Each device—computer, typewriter, pen and ink—shapes how I write. Perhaps that is worth pondering, since words will last forever and cannot finally be taken back.

 

 

7 Principles of Technogesis

“If you want to know what water is, don’t ask a fish.” So goes the Chinese proverb. By extension, if you want to understand the strengths and weakness of American culture do not ask an America. Why is this? To walk through life, we must take some things for granted, such as driving on the right side of the road or standing in line at the grocery store. However, God calls us to be discerning citizens of heaven and earth. Worldliness is a constant danger. To paraphrase David Wells, worldliness makes the godly look odd and the ungodly seem normal. The way of the fallen world is the way of the unregenerate flesh and its works. Paul warns us to avoid the works of the flesh by being filled with the Spirit.

The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God (Galatians 5:19-21).

Acts of the flesh can become habitual patterns of life and so recede into the background. They seem normal. Everyone does them. For example, selfish ambition is often seen as the engine of success: sell yourself, put yourself first. The humble are the losers. They do not inherit the earth.

Worldliness may also throw its invisible net around us through the uncritical use of technologies, particularly communications media. Facebook, for example, might make us jealous or feed illicit erotic desires. The sinful may become normal for us.

Media may dull our senses to things divine and may enmesh and ensnare us in habits of the heart and mind that are earthbound. Marshall McLuhan, the media theorist (trained in rhetoric and literary criticism), wrote that “We become what we behold.” Or, as Scripture says, we resemble the idols we worship or we resemble the God we worship.

To avoid worldliness and to embrace godless, we ought rightly to evaluate the cultural givens, testing them for truth-worthiness and asking how they may be used for human flourishing and the expansion of God’s Kingdom. Technological awareness also makes life more interesting and is another fun way to annoy your friends. Consider several principles of interpreting technologies in light of Christian character and Christian mission. I call this technogesis.

  1. Every technologies both extends and contracts human communication. The telephone extends the voice over distances far greater than a shout or even the stentorian capacities of a George Whitfield or L. Dwight Moody. However, the visual presence is removed. Thus, all nonverbal aspects of communication vanish. Skype allows us to protect our images around the world, but it still cannot bring the whole person with it.

In light of this, consider what the best form of media may be for particular kinds of communication. Hearing a sermon with other Christians in a church involves the whole person. Hearing the sermon on the radio or a podcast does not—useful as that may be.  You should not only send a text when you should shed a tear with someone who is suffering.

  1. Each medium has biases and prejudges. The text message or tweet has a bias toward speed and brevity. It is prejudiced against developed exposition and argument. Donald Trump releases may of his ideas and even policies on tweets. Had he lived to see it, this would have even shocked Neil Postman. The printed page has a bias toward recording thoughts through words in a linear fashion. Of course, the page can be fill with incoherence and randomness, but those values are better served by the Internet.

 

  1. With the development of technologies, there are always winners and losers. The carriage industry suffered with the advent of the automobile, as did the blacksmith. The original radios were large and took a central place in the home. They were well-crafted pieces of furniture. Now they are relicts, and how many families gather around a radio to listen to news and entertainment. Ear buds have radically individualized and miniaturized entertainment. With the coming of computer writing, typewriters become relics, whatever their virtues may have been. I wrote half of my first book on an IBM Selectric, the King of automatic typewriters in the 1980s. I could feel and hear the impressions of the letters on the paper. I could see most of the workings of the machine. It was not the black box, about which I could know nothing about its inner workings. What did I lose when I stopped writing on typewriters (as I did for all my many undergraduate papers) and switched to a computer?

 

  1. Technologies cater to extant assumptions and help reinforce them. Since Americans like to take technology with them, cell phones became smaller and more portable. However, that boomeranged when they became too small to manipulate. Now they are larger and some opt for even larger tablets for most of their communication. Since Americans love screens, technologies have put them everywhere—even on phones and watches. Many years ago, there was a cartoon called Dick Tracy, who sported a small screen on his wristwatch!

 

  1. Technological innovation is always a tradeoff. Consider e-books. What is gained in portability is lost in presence and heft. A book is a discrete object in the world. It has a history it carries with it. I have the first copy of Francis Schaeffer’s The God Who is There, which I purchased from the University of Oregon book store in the fall of 1976. I have the same information in other token of the type of this book. Yet there is only one artifact that carries the meaning of this book. E-books are electronically searchable, a great boon to research. You can add notes. And yet…the book possesses virtues untranslatable into digital forms.

 

  1. Many media encourage the passive consumption of its content as opposed to the creative engagement of culture. Amazon video gives me access to myriad films and television programs. Watching (some of) these may be relaxing or touching. Some of the films may be great art. Because of my wife’s dementia, watching video and some old TV shows is one of a small number of activities we can share. Since Becky’s mental abilities are decaying, she cannot create or engage very much. She used to read, write, edit, sing, and more. I am grateful for the availability of this entertainment. It also makes me weep when I see her sitting in front of the screen by herself. Has it come to this? Yes, it has, although we search for others activities.

In Culture Making, Andy Crouch argues that we should try to create more culture than we consume. Play catch with a kid instead of buying him a video game. Enjoy no-tech meals with your family, paying attention to the preparation of food and the setting of the meal. Write a personal card instead of posting factoids on Facebook.

  1. Communication technologies encourage using culture instead of receiving it. According to C.S. Lewis in An Experiment in Criticism, to use a book or an image or a song is merely functional and utilitarian. One may read to “kill time,” God help them. Contrariwise, to receive a book or an image or a song means to submit to it, to consider it for what it is in itself. You pay your respects to a cultural artefact, such as a Mark Rothko painting in The Denver Art Museum. You linger at leisure. The Internet has a prejudice against receiving anything—although it is possible, say if you are watching a masterful jazz performance by Pat Martino.

My seven reflections are more suggestive than detailed. There are, doubtless, other principles for technogesis. These, however, should serve us well as we try to be in the world, but not of it.

Recommended reading

  1. Sven Birkerts, The Guttenberg Elegies.
  2. Andy Crouch, Culture Making and The Tech-wise Family
  3. Douglas Groothuis, The Soul in Cyberspace. First Christian critique of the Internet—which no one read.
  4. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism.
  5. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death and Technopoly.
  6. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: Extensions of Man.
  7. Jacques Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word, The Technological Bluff.
  8. Lassie: The First Fifty Years (1993).

The Book That No One Read

As the editor of a series of cultural critiques on compelling issues, Os Guinness wanted my work The Soul in Cyberspace to be “a shot across the bow.” I earnestly took up the challenge. At the time, Thomas Moore’s The Care of the Soul was a bestseller, and publishers were offering a proliferation of books on the Internet. Published in 1997, my book combined these two themes. My hope was that the book would sell well and help the church be more discerning.

The book was a flop. My success publishing essays from it in various periodicals and an interview in Christianity Today notwithstanding, it was dead after one small printing. As David Hume wrongly referred to A Treatise on Human Nature, it fell “stillborn from the press.” (For literary archaeologists, the book is available as a reprint from Wipf and Stock Publishers, and used copies of the original print can be found on Amazon.)

Why, then, did the book fail to engage the Evangelical world? Are there any lessons from it that apply to us today, especially given my last twenty years participating in the churning and ever-changing world of cyberspace?

First, it may have not been a good book. Perhaps it was written too quickly (as one reviewer put it) and/or without adequate research and nuance. God knows. I don’t remember any bad reviews; but there weren’t many reviews at all.

Second, it was written by a young curmudgeon, a social critic who did not (and does not) typically look on the bright side of things. In the middle 1990s, most Evangelicals (and everyone else) were agog with the teeming and wondrous possibilities of “life on the screen,” as Sherri Turkle put it. (She is now more nuanced and worried in her approach, as seen in her recent books, such as Alone Together and Reclaiming Conversation.) Since Evangelicals yearn to reach as many people as possible with the gospel, we usually fall in love with whatever technology seems to have the broadest reach. Thus, we embraced radio to broadcast sermons, for example. I never denied the benefits of global connectivity—as much as I could glimpse of that in 1997. However, I pondered the unintended consequences that flowed from the nature of the medium itself, getting my chops and taking my cues mostly from Neil Postman, Jacques Ellul, and Marshall McLuhan. So, I was more of a nay-sayer than a cheer-leader. But, I was partly right. Let me explain.

All communication technologies amplify some human abilities and diminish others. They are, as McLuhan wrote, “extensions of man.” The radio and telephone extend the reach of the voice, but removes the embodied human presence from which the voice comes. It favors sound over image. Television extends and favors image over sound and rational discourse. Vinyl sounds better than digital, but is less portable. And on it goes. Trades-offs in meaning and knowledge are inevitable, but usually neglected or forgotten. Christians, of all people, should know this. God coming in the flesh in the person of Jesus Christ is the consummate communication of God to humanity, improving on (but not negating) all previous forms of revelation.

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word (Hebrews 1:1-3a).

The Apostles Paul (Romans 1:11-12) and John lamented that they could not visit the recipients of their Epistles.

I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete (2 John 1:12; see also 3 John 1:13-14).

A 1993 cartoon in The New Yorker cartoon showed one dog saying to another, “On the Internet, nobody knows you are a dog.” Being-there was endangered by novel and prodigious forms of high-tech mediation. Fakery was easier, authenticity harder. You could craft a web page to make you look other than you were, and gain much attention in doing so, given the novelty of the form.

I also warned of the cyborg, the human machine combinations beginning to find identities. How far might enter cyberspace? Might we thereby become less human?

If I was partly right in warning of the depersonalizing aspects of the Internet and right in advocating unmediated personal relationships in friendship and teaching and in the church, what did I miss?

Even the savviest techno-wizards would be stunned by many of the cyberspace eruptions from the last two decades. When I wrote in 1997, personal computers were tethered to desks or put on laps. Cell phones were new, bulky, expensive, and alien to the fledgling internet. There was no “Cyber Monday” and no texting. My attention is drawn to only two giants, who emerged in cyberspace since I wrote The Soul in Cyberspace—Facebook and Amazon. Space does not permit me to expound on three of their giant siblings—Google, Wikipedia, and the omnipresent smart phone (which often outsmarts us).

Facebook did not exist in 1997 and no one knew of Mark Zuckerman, who was then thirteen-years-old. The social nature of the internet was largely exhausted by chat rooms, emails, rather static web pages, and discussion boards. I flirted with Facebook for a few years, and even spoke out against it on a BBC radio program. I now find myself a dedicated citizen of this digital place, which I find vexing, annoying, and nearly indispensable.

Like all electronic media, Facebook is not unmediated face-to-face communication; and, it should never substitute for it. (Although it tries hard through video calls). It should it become an obsession or addiction, which it easily can. Often, we denizens of Facebook are better off reading books rather than our newsfeeds. (I must get to that new translation of St. Augustine’s Confessions!) Our posted selfies may reveal less than virtuous selves. Self-promotion takes on new dimensions on Facebook and it is easy to forget what Proverbs counsels: Let someone else praise you, and not your own mouth; an outsider, and not your own lips” (Proverbs 27:2). I could go on. I hope you could you, too.

I did not know in 1997 that cyberspace might become, in some of its regions, a meaningful medium for insight, exhortation, commiseration, and prayer; yet, it can, indeed, carry existential weight. I have lamented on line, much of it on Facebook. Since my wife Becky was diagnosed with an uncommon and uncommonly cruel form of dementia in March of 2014, I have shared much of my grief before my Facebook “friends.” One long essay, written at the end of 2014, I called, “The Year of Learning Things I did not Want to Know.” The response was voluminous and heartening; it became a chapter in Walking through Twilight: A Wife’s Illness—A Philosopher’s Lament. Many offered prayer, Scripture, general concern, and tangible help for me and Becky. A friend set up a Go Fund Me account. I try to do the same for my siblings in suffering by posting my reflections on our journey into the darkness of primary progressive aphasia. No one can serve my wife communion on Facebook. That requires being there with her. But this social medium may be used as a conduit for genuine love and service. For that, I am grateful to God.

The Soul in Cyberspace said little about commerce in cyberspace. Amazon.com came into existence in 1994, selling mostly books and CDs. I went on line in 1995 and had not used Amazon until 1999, two years after I wrote the book. Like many, I was at first reluctant to buy anything on line. It was too dangerous, I thought. Amazon has made shopping quick, easy, and, all-to-often, irresistible. It eliminates the middle man of a physical store. The shopping is done on line; the ordering is done at home. The selection is vast and ever-increasing. Like Facebook, it is a staple of my life. But what should we make of this behemoth with “the largest inventory on earth,” as it says?

Customers of Amazon can become critics of Amazon through its rating system. This feature of customer evaluation was dubbed Internet 2.0 a few years ago. This, for me, has become a literary template for my hundreds of my comments, mostly on books and music. There are the obligatory stars (which are too reductionist), the headline, and the discursive comments, which may become essays. I have found essays worthy of academic publication—along with the emotive drivel, grammatical chaos, and sheer inanity. Nevertheless, the customer’s words can add understanding to the product. They can do more. My reviews usually contain an apologetic undercurrent. Granted, this is not like publishing in The New Yorker, and I do not have a category on my academic resume for “Amazon Essays.” Still, some souls might benefit from them and I benefit from some of the reviews. Moreover, those suffering from, or enjoying, hypographia (a form of literary hypomania) have their outlet. (You can write reviews on YouTube as well, but most comments are more sewage than salt, and it may not be worth the wading through.)

The arms of Amazon reach further and further into the world. The most ominous development is the Amazon Echo, called Alexa, the digital version of the ancient mystical oracle. This personal assistant (a title we once used for mere humans only) uses voice recognition to answer questions, order items from Amazon, and more.  Amazon advertises its magic.

Just ask Alexa to check your calendar, weather, traffic, and sports scores, manage to-do and shopping lists, control your compatible smart lights, thermostats, garage doors, sprinklers, and more

Alexa is always getting smarter and adding new features and skills. Just ask Alexa to control your TV, request an Uber, order a pizza, and more.

Your interactions are recorded and kept somewhere in the Cloud. To that, I say that the convenience is not worth the possible surveillance. And might we talk more to a machine than to the mortals in our midst?

There are many more souls in cyberspace today than when I wrote The Soul in Cyberspace. It is heartening to see a good number of serious evaluations of this medium appear in the last ten years. Nevertheless, we ought to be diligent in asking how cyberspace affects our minds, manners, and morals. Therefore, we must test the medium and how it affects us. As Paul said, “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil” (I Thessalonians 5:19-22).