Playing God

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Yahoo! Internet Life on 1 December 2001

I saw a bumper sticker on a minivan in Wisconsin last week that read: “In case of rapture, this car will be empty!” I suppose that means that my car shall remain occupied. But I am less troubled by the supposed inevitability of my damnation than the delight with which those Milwaukee passengers seemed to be anticipating Armageddon. They’re looking forward to the apocalypse!

This is what happens when people take the stories their religions offer a bit too literally. Sure enough, the narratives of the Bible, like those of many other religious texts, tell a version of the history of the human race-from God’s creation of the universe, through the life and death of a messiah, right on to the end of everything and the tallying of the score. In that paradigm, if you subscribe to the right story and follow the rules, all you have to do is hang in there and wait for the ending, and you’ll be saved. Best of all, the real quandaries of human existence-questions such as where do we come from, what is the right way to live, and where do we go when we die-are all preordained. A closed book.

But these kinds of stories were developed back before the days of interactive media. When you’re part of a captive, passive audience without keyboards or even joysticks, the only way out of a story is to wait. You have to accept the storyteller’s solution because it’s the only one being told in your tribe-either that, or reject the story altogether and risk damnation. This was the sad fate of poor infidels like me until pretty recently. Thanks to the Internet, we now have a way out of the story: We can write our own endings.

The interactive medium is, at its core, an invitation to talk back. The online world is one in which we are entitled to voice our own opinions, however much they might contradict the status quo. We are challenged to reflect on the stories we’re being told, even create our own versions-and our own sacred truths.

What a terrific weapon the Internet gives us against extreme fundamentalism. And just in time. We’re now facing religion’s darkest implications, violence done by true believers blindly following the unilateral decrees of their leaders. For fundamentalists are simply people who insist that their religion’s narrative become everyone else’s literal truth.

Interactive media tends to loosen up those fixed narratives by allowing users to contribute their own ideas to the story. Try giving a sermon in an AOL chatroom or a list of commandments on the Yahoo! Internet Life bulletin boards. The people you’re preaching to won’t remain silent-at all. The ministers I know who have taken their messages online have had to reassess their roles as mediators of faith and accept new ones as partners in spiritual learning. When religion is practiced on the Internet, participants quickly realize that we’re all in this together.

The Internet undermines the blind obedience of fundamentalism by offering alternative points of view, promoting pluralism, and encouraging feedback. Not that this concept is all that new. While the fundamentalist priests of ancient Israel sacrificed animals on the altar, those interested in hypertext were sitting around a table arguing together as they wrote the Talmud. While fundamentalist Muslims were declaring their first holy wars, liberals in old Baghdad were sharing wine and finding common ground with similarly inclined Christians and Jews.

Today the Internet deconstructs the narratives that religions use to explain the world, while inviting people from every race and culture to participate in the conversation. No wonder fundamentalists are upset.

Holy Ghost in the Machine

In this context, the entire personal computing revolution starts to look like a new sort of spiritual movement. Is it coincidental that these technologies were developed in California’s Bay Area, the breeding ground for alternative spiritual practices? Or that the first easily networkable personal computer was conceived by a practicing Buddhist, Steve Jobs? And Jobs didn’t call it an Apple for nothing. The personal computer was the forbidden fruit-a way of accessing the Tree of Knowledge, and an affront to those who would sequester any information from the formerly little people. Thanks to the geek, the meek would indeed inherit the earth.

In the beginning, however, darkness was on the face of the water. The realms of computing and, even more so, networking were unfamiliar turf. They were hard to navigate, and harder still to design. It’s no wonder that many Silicon Valley firms were forced to rely on the skills of many strange young members of the counterculture, rebels who-like Moses, Buddha, Jesus, and the Prophet Mohammed-saw a new and radically different way of bringing people together to understand the world.

Those of us lucky enough to get online in the early years were struck by how plastic, fluid, and malleable the digital world could be. Online communities have no real form-they are the ever-changing consensus reality of their members. One’s value in an interactive conversation is not his or her ability to listen and obey, but the capacity to hear, process, and then express. The interactive universe does not exist without the active participation of its people-and this participation is the ongoing act of creation itself. Talk about playing God.

From Evolution to Emergence

There are a few faiths in which congregants are invited to participate in the creation and interpretation of the underlying narrative. Certain Jewish sects spurn answers in favor of more questions and interpretation; Quakers enjoy a dogma-free, town-meeting-style Sabbath. Most religious traditions, though, simply treat their believers as a “mass” who must depend on priests or ministers for access to the “story.” But just as the Internet has led patients to information about alternative medical treatments (often against doctor’s orders), it has given congregants something in the spiritual realm that is very rare-the ability to find alternative stories about who we are, who made us, and why.

More important than any one story we may have discovered or written, the experience of sifting through them all and writing our own has changed our relationship to religion, perhaps forever. The Internet is anathema to unitary narrative. If you want to understand life only as a story etched in stone, you had better stay away.

Every early culture composed stories-myths-to explain the basic facts of existence. For centuries, we have understood our world-even our sciences-as being somehow authored: that things were set in motion by someone or something. We cling to the belief that our existence proceeds by design. That’s why Darwin’s theory of evolution was such a threat to our narrative understanding of the world, and why creationists resist its implications to this day. But even those of us who believe in evolution have been able to impose a kind of narrative on top of it in which we imagine matter and life to be groping steadily and consciously toward complexity, with evolution itself as the agent of that grand authorial entity we dearly hope exists.

Now our computers are forcing us to entertain new, even less linear models for why things happen. One of these models, described in Steven Johnson’s new book, Emergence, explores the way everything from ant colonies to ancient cities finds its order. It turns out that queen ants issue no decrees, and ancient cities still in existence today had no official planners. The necessary preconditions must exist, but it now appears that life, organisms, communities, and order arise-emerge, in other words-from the bottom up. There is no central story, yet there is radical change and something that, if it isn’t intelligence, has often been mistaken for it.

And what is the chief prerequisite for emergence to occur? You guessed it: networking. Interconnectivity is what allows an “it” to become a “they.” Instead of acting on its own, each atom, molecule, cell, organism, or community can act as part of a larger complex-a networked being.

From Sheep to Shepherds

Almost anyone who has been online has seen evidence of emergent behavior. Just watch the way communities form around reviewers on, or the way opinions pile on to discussions at Slashdot, or the way fan Web sites spring up about the latest sci-fi movie.

Consider what the Net has done to television. The current TV season is littered with so-called reality shows. We’re fed up with authored stories; we’d rather see programs that are authored by their participants: real people (for the most part) in unscripted (for the most part) situations.

This is because we no longer think of ourselves as actors working from a script, but as cocreators, responsible for the collective development of our world. The experience of democracy, free markets, free speech, and an interactive media space has made us reluctant to live by decree. Fundamentalism-the notion that our world is completely ordained, and that our job is simply to follow the rules-does not jibe with our newfound experience of collective will.

This doesn’t mean that God needn’t exist-just that we may be more partnered with the Almighty than we at first presumed. Narrative is not the enemy, as long as we understand that any given narrative is not more important than any other. Thanks to the interconnected nature of the Net, that doesn’t mean all narratives are equally obscure, but rather that all narratives are equally vital. We live in a universe where a butterfly’s wing-flaps can cause a hurricane halfway around the world, a universe where a couple of loose cannons in the Middle East can create two of the world’s most practiced religions. Every time we participate in the ongoing reality creation of the Net, we shape our world in ways we can’t begin to understand.

The Internet teaches us to see the value of diversity and plurality. All the opinions of all the people matter. Fundamentalism teaches that there is only one path, one story, and one author. Whether they are attacking the free market, women’s rights activists, civil libertarians, or homosexuals, and whether they are using purchased airwaves or hijacked airplanes, such fundamentalists are fighting a losing battle.

For we are the network, and we will include them-which is how we will win.