Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Discipleship and evangelism for the Web

From Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Graphing the RT blog homepage.
(Courtesy of http://www.aharef.info/static/htmlgraph/)
Yesterday I focused on creationist debates over the Internet. My argument there was, in brief: It's impossible to avoid the constraining reality of the nation-state and its interlocking projects in the creation and maintenance of the Internet, and Christian pacifists should not miss this fact.

Continuing this line of thought, I was drawn to another thought-provoking article: Web Literacies: What is the 'Web' Anyway? by Doug Belshaw.

As Belshaw points out, the World Wide Web is a system which makes use of the Internet for its "plumbing." And it is precisely this relationship of the Web to the Internet that makes some of the his claims quite intriguing (and problematic).

I admire Belshaw for being deeply committed to his work, as a read through his about.me profile will illustrate. He obviously wants to make a difference in the world. He is a man of conviction. (He even characterizes some of his work as "evangelising!")

Now note some of Belshaw's lofty language used to describe what the Web is and what it's for:
  • Telos/goal: The open standards of the web, which he fights for, are "for the good of mankind."
  • Euangelion/gospel/"good news": Quoting a colleague who says that the web is "one of the greatest drivers of human prosperity and happiness the world has ever seen." (I've heard a friend attribute similar things to free market capitalism...more on that below.)
  • Altar call/kingdom building: "The idea (of the tool's he's promoting and the assumptions that underwrite them) isn’t to make everyone a ‘programmer’ but instead give people an insight into how the web is made and, most important of all, show them that they too can contribute to it."
I don't want to come off as sounding entirely negative on this guy. His insistence on the inherently social nature of the web, and warning against commodification/consumerization, is spot on. I'm right there with him. But this warning is where I start to see some tension between the free, open, innovative, social environment that Belshaw envisions and the commercial interests upon which this digital environment is built.

In another article linked in the first, he offers a caution against the recent Apple's App Store and Facebook revolutions, which have constructed hugely lucrative "walled gardens" on the Internet. Such walled gardens stifle openness and innovation, Belshaw rightly warns. Contra this trend, he claims that "(t)he Web wants to be open. The Web wants to be free. The Web wants us to connect to collaborate to make awesome things together." (Wait...now the Web itself has volition and social, creative desires?!)

Without attributing sentience to the Web, I'm actually agreeing with Belshaw on this point because I too favor open standards as well as open software and hardware platforms. But while his claim is that the internet is "built upon open standards" is true in a sense...those open standards (abstractions) have to hit the ground running in concrete, material, contingent, and constrained realities: most immediately on an incomprehensibly complex global infrastructure of manufactured silicon, metals, plastics, and fiber, and a vast decentralized army of people to keep it ticking. These set the extreme limits, the "horizon of possibility," around the lofty aspirations of open standards.

So while Belshaw decries the commodification of the web (and again, I'm sympathetic) - in a deep and unavoidable sense, it's already happened and there's no "getting behind" or "beyond" that commodification. The digital revolution was built on big iron. This seems to be an unavoidable tension. And the companies - big and small - that rely on the Web to conduct business aren't primarily interested in "the good of mankind," but rather "the good of the shareholders." Hence Belshaw's "good fight."

Now back to the nation-state. Yes, the Internet and Web are global in scope. But the playing field is tipped heavily, as the Global Internet Map helps visualize. Not only is bandwidth most accessible in North America and Europe (also Korea), but most companies that manufacture and sell the hardware, software, and networking equipment that make the Web "go" are North American or European. So there are tremendous national interests at stake for countries in these regions. Given the monopoly of legitimate violence the nation-state arrogates to itself, and the U.S.'s recent predilection for militaristic adventurism, it remains problematic to me as how the Web - seen in light of the constraints I've pointed out here - can indeed be "one of the greatest drivers of human prosperity the world has ever seen."

(Of course I have a theological rebuttal but that's for another time...)

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