Towards a Theology of Internet

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Underneath the flashy websites and amazing apps, the Internet is turbo-charged by content delivery networks (CDNs), which most people are quite unaware. CDNs are the third party providers who host digital content of images and videos on behalf of leading Internet giants like Facebook, Twitter, Apple.com and much more. Akamai.com is the pioneer of this technology and the largest CDN provider that handles a staggering 20% of total Internet traffic in the world. So if you see akamaihd or its variants flashing in the bottom tab of your web browser as you click some official websites, you don’t need to panic with the prospect of a virus attack or a dodgy popup. Actually those websites are redirecting their traffic to Akamai CDN.

On 13th of March 2013, Akamai reported a little tremor in its digital landscape. There was a spike of more than 32% of the normal internet traffic[1] on that day and it was caused by a little white smoke emerged from the Sistine chapel in Vatican. It was Pope Francis landing on the digital landscape of Internet with a bang. As I was frequently looking at the control panel of aussiepopealarm.com on my iPad, I could feel its ripples even in Australia.

Aussiepopealarm.com was launched on the eve of conclave by the Media Office of Australian Catholic Bishops Conference. Its intentions were simple – to fire an SMS message to subscribing mobile phones as the white smoke emerges out of the chimney at the Sistine chapel and most importantly to capture a share of excitement of “Habemus Papam” for Aussie audience. It was set up at a record time of 30 hours or less and was expecting a moderate response of about 300 registrations. But it went viral and within the first three hours of its launch it went past our expectations. We had to unleash the power of cloud computing to keep up with the demand by migrating this web application to a medium sized Amazon cloud server, on the run. By the time we pulled the trigger at the white smoke after nearly 30 hours of its launch, it had attracted more than 3000 subscribers. It really felt like a ripple even though one third of our SMSes failed as we ran out of credit with our SMS provider! In spite of those accounting glitches, Aussiepopealarm.com proved one thing for us – the digital landscape of Internet is ready and fertile for Christ and his Church.

Pope Benedict XVI identified social networks as the new “agora” and therefore new spaces for evangelization[2], in his message on World Communications Day in 2012. Reflecting on his apostolic letter, Bishop Anthony Fisher commented on his Facebook page that the Pope discovered a “new continent” called “digital environment”. He posted:

B16 just called social media “new spaces for evangelisation” and the digital environment “a ‘continent’ where the Church must be present and where believers must share with others the deepest source of their joy and hope, Jesus Christ.[3]”

The Internet is the landscape of this new continent; the digital networks are its super highways and the digital content, its resources. Netizens are its citizens and its new “agoras” – the social networks – have turned in to super cities or nations. Facebook had 1.06 billion monthly active users as of December 31, 2012[4] making it the 3rd largest nation on earth after China and India, and holds more information about its netizens than any other nation state about its citizens. This new world is definitely a continent.

Whenever we discovered a continent in the past, the Church always sent its missionaries. The mission of those missionaries was to venture into those unseen lands to risk formidable challenges to spread the good news of Jesus, with great courage and faith. This will be true to this newly “discovered” continent of “digital environment”. There is a need for missionaries and missionary expeditions into this new continent. What should be the style of mission work in this new landscape? We can only look up to Jesus, as we always do, in search of an answer. So the question can be rephrased as “What would Jesus do in this new holy land? ”

He would have gone to Capernaum.

Capernaum was the “agora”, Jesus chose to be in. There was a special significance and intent in choosing Capernaum as the major field of Jesus’ public ministry where he spent at least 18 months – half of his public ministry – after his expulsion from his hometown Nazareth. It was almost premeditated, and of course according to the Divine plan. Biblical scholars would agree that it was the major connecting town on the Jericho route between Galilee and Jerusalem. The greatest roads of ancient world – including Via Maris (the Way of the Sea, Matt. 4/15) – passed through it. It had the largest synagogue in the region and a Roman military garrison. Jesus chose to heal the servant of the synagogue official and the daughter of the centurion at the garrison. He chose to stay at one of the largest houses in that vibrant city – of that of Peter’s mother-in-law. Jesus would have imagined that the connectivity of Capernaum would simply ensure the proliferation of His good news to reach up to the ends of the world – to Jerusalem, to Rome and beyond. The important thing was to be at the crossroads and to sow the good news, just like the sower sowing the mustard seed leaving the Divine Providence to do the nurturing (Mt 13/31-32).

Jesus’ Capernaum strategy shall be the style of missionaries into this new networked continent of digital environment. The important thing is to be there at the crossroads, doing the right things, influencing its immediate and accessible surroundings in this digital land. The rest will be taken care of by the Divine Providence, as happened throughout the history in commissioning new missions in every newly “discovered” continents and islands. It would involve strong presence at the Internet interface level with more accessible websites or apps for the regional, diocesan or parish agencies, bringing up robust parish and diocesan administrative softwares in the middleware level and the formulation of computing and IT standards for core church services in the most abstract level.

This could also be the new Areopagus of St Paul, where we need to re-interpret the “unknown gods” remain latent in the information explosion within those networks and to manifest its real goodness to the netizens of this continent. There is a need to further develop this new Theology of Internet to address the challenges of this new continent of digital environment. As always in the past the cloud of Elijah – Mother Mary – shall guide our ways to manoeuvre carefully through these uncharted territories to produce good fruits for the kingdom of God.

(Book chapter on “Word Made Flesh and ‘Shared’ Among Us”, Published by Communications Office, Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Pages 66-69, 2013).

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