When my dad was in town for the wedding, he asked me a question about Prague. I didn’t know the answer. So, I said, “let me look on my all-knowing phone.” I googled the question, found a reliable website and told him what it said.
I used to only mention the qualifier all-knowing, or omniscient, in relation to theology, often in discussions of theodicy: who is the divine in the midst of evil and suffering? If we presume that G-d is all-knowing, does that mean that the divine has competition? Perhaps that is a crass remark, but I also think there is a measure of truth to the idea. In reality, the phone is not a divine competitor, but the internet might be. And, maybe, then the phone is our intermediary or our way to access the divine. Computers belong to this distinction as well.
This concept of technology taking the place of the divine is not new. The television set has been accused of being an altar. That is clearly not a compliment.
Some humans have accused other humans of playing G-d. For example, technology allows us to prevent conception. Medicine offers cures and treatments for illnesses and diseases.
The internet is comparable. In as much as the internet unlocks information, furthers understanding and knowledge as well as connects us to each other, the internet is not without its flaws. First, not everything we read is true. In fact, one has to learn how to deem information reliable. Fake news and misinformation do exist, but not the way some are convinced it does. Likewise, the internet is rife with misogyny, sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, the glorification of materialism, etc. Second, the cult of celebrity and fame is widespread and is perpetuating the myth of the American Dream and the promise of capitalism. Anyone who can garner enough likes, followers or subscribers can make it big. Or, we too can become instabrands. Third, and related, is the constant stream of happiness one can find on social media. Everything is amazing! We are going somewhere! Everything is sunshine and roses! We look beautiful! Our hair and make-up are perfect! Our kids are going to school and loving it! Our cooking is gourmet! Every sunset we see is perfect! We are the lives of the party! Of course, there is also the opposite. Everything sucks. We need prayers. I hate fill-in-the-blank. And, vague-booking abounds. I know something you don’t know but I want you to know just a hint so that you worry about me or take pity on me or something like that.
Don’t get me wrong. I get sucked in too. I’ve posted many a beautiful sight, celebrated achievements and taken a few (happy 30-somethingth) first-day-of-school selfies. Rather than always using facebook as the good social connector it is, I scroll my news feed multiple times a day whenever I’m bored. That’s not connecting. There are more than a few youtubers I consistently watch. I prefer to text rather than call someone.
I literally cannot do many aspects of my professional life without the internet, including grading, teaching and blogging. However, what I’m realizing more and more is just how much time I spend in front of a screen during my personal or free time. Am I living more of my life online (literally), than off? Can I even take a picture of a beautiful sunset and admire it for what it is or will I be thinking about using it as my new cover photo? Am I living in the moment or am I living to (digitally) capture it? Am I truly connecting with myself? My friends? My family? The world around me?
This is problematic because if you let it, the internet can become your sole focus. It could become your reason to live and your main motivating factor regarding how to organize your life, which, one could argue, is the role many people think religion should have in one’s life. There are many ways to be ordained online, but I digress.
It is when the internet begins to fulfill the role of religion in our lives that I think we’ve gone too far. Rather, we should approach the internet with a balanced, thoughtful and mindful approach. After all, it may be very useful but, surely, it is not divine.
Ivy Helman, Ph.D. is feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University and Anglo-American University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies and Ecofeminist courses. She is an Associate of Merrimack College‘s Center for the Study of Jewish-Christian-Muslim Relations and spent many years there as an Adjunct Lecturer in the Religious and Theological Studies Department.