The Internet and the Protestant Ethic

When I was younger I had a Sunday school teacher who insisted, long after cable internet became the standard, on keeping her AOL dial-up account. I asked her why. She told me that she would use the time of the slow loading screens to pray, and felt that upgrading her internet would therefore shortchange God. For the rest of that year I was in her class, my mind would drift off toward imagining her whittled down British accent mumbling the Sh’ma over the screeching dial tone as the little hour glass icon would fill and tip over again and again…

The mythologies of technology and of magic have had a long intertwining dialectic. Their terminologies and means of dreaming their futures have made with the hostilely witty repartee of the man and woman in a screwball romantic comedy for some time now. Science fiction’s relation to the longer history of allegorical literature is that of a reversal; the deus ex machina becomes the deus as machina.The radical unexplained narrative shifts that at one time were the defining characteristic of lazy writing become the new social realism. Where looking at a culture’s “low” objects was once the anthropologist’s condescending lens toward understanding the root beliefs of an unfamiliar society, this lens has been turned back on us with a vengeance as critic after critic attempts, sometimes with incredible effectiveness, to search for the underlying identity of America in its most disposable cultural products. We have been, as McLuhan put it, brought into a new tribal relation with ourselves.

The angry Old Testament God is replaced by the feeling of totalistic paranoia that a thing is punishing us for our hubris that’s felt far beyond the more obvious spheres of the anarcho-primitivists and neo-luddites. In those whose economic well-being has been made through the medium of the computer, the internet is more frequently posited as the thing that replaces God in rewarding or punishing those who maintain the Protestant work ethic. These are both manifestations of the logic of old religious folk tales going back to Job and earlier; the narrative discontinuity that favors us is the favor of God, that which cripples us His retribution. That the shift of history now seems to work in continuous radical discontinuities, this societal function of the God figure is no longer necessary; like a Twitter feed, a rapid pronouncement of judgement from an unknowable ether updates itself in “real time”.

The internet revolution is Protestant in character; the great texts are made easily and readily available to the layman while the justifications of an elite’s claims to power grow more circular in their logic; those that follow the logic of the machine are amply rewarded, those that falter are rightfully punished; those that seem to follow the strictures of the internet but struggle must not actually be following its will, those that willfully don’t are idlers who deserve their lot. Internet trolls’ earliest justifications for cruelties like putting a rapidly blinking gif on an epilepsy forum was that the forum users should have had safeguards in place to stop them. Given the seeming novelty of the case at the time, this logic was seen rightly as horrific; however, how different is it from the rationale that undergirds the economic marginalizing of a vast majority of the population as being inherently disposable, the logic of the 1%, the logic of endless attacks on single mothers and the most marginalized and exploited among us-the Mexican immigrant-as the thing “destroying the country”, the Protestant shaming of the person who sits outside the predetermined boundaries of what constitute “usefulness” or success in this warped society?

That what the internet has become is so predominantly Protestant is of course not a thing made so because of anything “inherent” or “essential” in it beyond that it was developed and propagated within the strictures of a capitalism that was already Protestant. So long as we still exist within the framework of capitalism, any mass dump/”redistribution” of “power” such as the internet is still largely controlled by where the money in its various streams was situated before its arrival and takes a position in the popular mythology simply as a means of shaming the larger populace for their impotence in converting it into money. So long as capital continues to accumulate to a smaller and smaller group at the top, any game short of outright revolution is still ultimately the old one on the playground wherein the larger kid grabs the smaller kid’s hand and mockingly slaps him in the face with it while saying “Stop hitting yourself! Stop hitting yourself!”

The internet, like the Christian pretexts to imperialism, was dreamed as a great tool of decentralized raising of an uninformed populace. And like the Christian missionary project, this liberation is rapidly being repurposed for fear it won’t being coming strictly from the top down; for fear, as Zizek might put it, that the principles and dreams that the internet was founded on might be taken more seriously and literally by the user than the Steve Jobs’ with their cynically laughable claims to having “revolutionized” something larger than a technology. For the moment, the internet is simply as the Ipad was to the Iphone; a larger vessel for the same old thing to operate in. But as we learn from Marx, within this new form sit the contradictions that make possible its overthrow.

As the internet revolutionizes society in a distorted repetition of how industrialization did, so we need a new book that can lay out the internal contradictions of this new paradigm in the manner Capital did in the prior epoch. Marx has already helpfully laid out some useful terms in a gift basket from beyond the grave; “fictitious capital” for one. But we must do the rest of the work to bring about the new manifestation of the communist Idea.

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3 comments

  1. Nothing new under the sun, as the saying goes. The internet is another way of doing the same thing, something we’ve always been doing and always having done to us: trying to spread influence. As you say, capitalism holds most of the cards here.

    Another concise and succinct piece, thanks.

  2. I finally got a copy of Ted Nelson’s “Computer Lib” today. I want to fully explore the implications of what was passed up and come to a theory of what the communist internet would look like. Stay tuned.

  3. American suburbia is basically a society governed by Zombie Presbyterianism. Some towns are among the “elect.” Other’s are among the “damned.” Crime, education, the maintenance of the houses in the rich towns, all of these things reflect the difference between “the grace of the capitalist god” and “the shining city on a hill” and “those cast into darkness.

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