Friday, June 20, 2008

Masechet Cyberspace #10: Seeking God in Cyberspace

As we break for the summer, Masechet Cyberspace will continue to develop and grow. I welcome your ideas. Meanwhile, I sign off with some passages from my prior writings on the subject of spirituality and cyberspace:

“I’ve found sanctity online. I've also found God in my VCR instruction manual. And in my home videos, my cell phone, my beeper, my remote control, my cable box and television screen. I've encountered God in the Hubbell telescope and the space shuttle, in my microwave oven and in a cloned sheep called Dolly. How I see God in these other technological phenomena is the subject for a more broad-based book; yet in some sense, a deep search for God on the Internet, the subject of this study, is a microcosm of the larger issue. And it is necessary to spend some time dealing with the general question of God and technology before we enter sacred cyberspace. Through my search for God on-line, I've discovered danger signals along the journey. God can be found on the Internet, but God can also be lost there.”

“If we look for God only in the usual places, we are sure to miss the mark. It is only when we seek God outside the sanctuary and beyond the prayer book that we have the best chance of succeeding. And technology is the terrain we all inhabit right now. That's where the path of our searching must lead. Pope Pius XII said it in his Christmas message in 1953, and these words resonate even more today: "The Church welcomes technological progress and receives it with love, for it is an indubitable fact that technological progress comes from God and, therefore, can and must lead to Him."

“We find God on the Internet through the redemptive power of the written word.

On the Internet, God lives not exactly in the "written" word, because the words we see on the screen aren't really written. Like God, they are real, but can't be touched; they stand clearly in front of us, yet are primarily a product of the imagination, as our eye fills in the spaces between the lines and creates the impression of permanence.

It is against Jewish law to erase the name of God. That is why the Hebrew name of God (the Tetragrammaton, as it is called, which consists of the letters yod-heh-vav-heh), is rarely spelled out in Jewish texts and most often seen in an abbreviated form. Some even shorten the English appellation, using G-D rather than God. Yet God's name is all over the Internet, in all forms. Why? Because as the name appears on the screen, it is not in fixed, permanent form. It can be compared to writing one's name with one's finger on a frosty window.
A leading Orthodox rabbi recently ruled that the word “God” may be erased from a computer screen or disk, because the pixels do not constitute real letters. Rabbi Moshe Shaul Klein published his ruling in an Israeli computer magazine aimed at Orthodox Jews, “Mahsheva Tova” “The letters on a computer screen are an assemblage of pixels, dots of light, what have you,'” the rabbi's assistant, Yossef Hayad explained to a reporter for the Associated Press. “Even when you save it to disk, it's not like you're throwing anything more than a sequence of ones and zeroes. It's there, but it really isn't.”

So the name of God isn't really being erased, because it never was really there in the first place. Or was it?

The words are virtual, just as the on-line relationships are virtual. Just as our relationship with God appears virtual, cloaked in metaphor. But it all feels so real -- because it is.

Through the word, we have come to a new understanding of reality. For the Internet is a medium of the word. True, there are graphics too, and now increasing capacity to communicate via audio and video images. But when the medium was created in the late '60s by two UCLA professors and introduced in 1969, its goal was to connect computers in their language so that academicians could communicate in ours -- and ours happens to be words. The medium was intended originally as a depositary of massive amounts of recorded data. When Tim Berners-Lee first proposed the World Wide Web near Geneva in 1989, his intent was to make scientific papers available on the Internet to other scientists. Graphic images were then added to words, but in the beginning, it was all about words. And that is still how we primarily know it.

So now we live in a world where billions of invisible words are out there, massive virtual libraries, information on almost everything imaginable, real yet untouchable, at our fingertips, yet, without a computer impossible to fathom. Try explaining the Internet to those who have never experienced it -- it's almost as impossible as explaining the Red Sea splitting to those who slept through it.”

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