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How Many Computers Do We Need?

By Paul Chaffee


We’ve come a long way since 1958 when Tom Watson, then IBM chairman, infamously said: “I think there is a world market for about five computers.”  Indeed, computers and the World Wide Web have been so absorbed into our lives today that they’ve become like water is to fish – ubiquitous, all around us, and quite taken for granted. They’ve changed the way we live, how we think and what we think about, how we’re entertained and how we plan for the future. Also, how we worship, what we believe, and how we practice spirituality and treat one another.

The gateway issue in addressing all of this is the vast terrain of the internet, where anyone at an internet café can create a case, take a stand, provide something interesting, engaging, brilliant or perverse, with the possibility that it will go viral, with many millions paying attention. It puts us all into ‘one boat,’ just as the Earth is the one boat carrying us all. Finding your way around the boat is crucial for your safety. Since its inception three years ago, TIO has been offering suggestions about where to access good information about religion, spirituality, and interfaith culture. Needles in the haystack.

Diana Eck at Harvard University was one of the first to understand the power and possibilities computers and databases can provide to the aggregate interreligious communities of the world. Working with her students, Professor Eck founded The Pluralism Project in 1991, whose mission is “to help Americans engage with the realities of religious diversity through research, outreach, and the active dissemination of resources.” Harvard is an ongoing influence on American culture, of course, including religion. But with the digital resources Pluralism provides on the web, by download and DVD, that influence has been huge and immense. At the start it was fueled by the Chicago 100th Centennial Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1993, an event some see as the beginning of the modern interfaith movement. The Pluralism website prominently publishes their definition of pluralism.

  1. Pluralism is not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with diversity

  2. Pluralism is not tolerance, but the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference

  3. Pluralism is not relativism, but the encounter of commitments

  4. Pluralism is based on dialogue.

Since then the religiously related (including humanists and atheists) internet has become a vast tub filled to the brim and overflowing. You tend to find what you are looking for, so getting clear about your search is critical. Then it is a discovery process. Tiny communities, congregations, clergy of all sorts, seminaries, denominations, virtual communities, interfaith groups, these and so many other are using the internet. Typically this is useful in ways we could all list.

Some particularly creative projects are profiled in this issue – State of Formation, Project Interfaith, and Tzu Chi, and Spirituality & Practice. In very different ways these sites are doing wondrous work through the web. Another particularly fruitful arena has been social media, particularly Facebook, as the profile of Greg Harder here demonstrates.

Paul Raushenbush ponders banning books (and by implication, certain websites), before concluding that it would be a catastrophe. Tom Mahon will make you rethink everything you thought you knew about technology, its genius and its degradation.

The academic study of digital religion has emerged over the past two decades, largely led by Professor Heidi Campbell. Claire Davis reviews Campbell’s Digital Religion here this month, and Heidi wrote the Tzu Chi profile. The Network for New Media, Religion and Digital Culture, which she founded, is also surveyed - required reading if this is your passion.

It seemed important to provide some background on the recent debate about whether the internet is detrimental to religion, creating a lot of hubdub. (Don’t miss the remarkable embedded video at the end of the article.) Suzy Lamoreaux’s take on the ‘internet and religion’ debate in the TIO Special Edition for Religions for Peace-USA, provides some helpful context for this discussion.

At least the discussion has begun. But I leave you with this note. The wisest, most experienced person I talked to tried to get me interested in spirituality and robots. It took a while, but he made a strong case.

“The technology is going faster than any of us realize. Soon ‘robots’ will be driving our cars, cooking our meals, even caring for us. In Japan robots are replacing nurses in senior care facilities because they are more reliable. Already jobs are diminishing as robots take over what human beings used to do, fueling income inequality.

“No one is thinking about the spiritual implications of these changes, changes going by faster than we know. I’m not trying to paint disaster, just to point out that we need to pay attention and consider our choices, study them and their implications.”

Consider this month's TIO a first jump into the digital interfaith culture. This is only the beginning.