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Online U-Topia: Cyberspace and the Mythology of Placelessness

TitleOnline U-Topia: Cyberspace and the Mythology of Placelessness
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2005
AuthorsCowan, DE
JournalJournal for the Scientific Study of Religion

The World Wide Web. The Information Superhighway. Cyberspace. Powerful metaphors that have infused our culture with a sense of its own technological prowess and superiority. According to some of its most ardent enthusiasts, in cyberspace we can go anywhere, do anything, be anyone we choose. We slip in and out of virtual identities as easily as we change our clothes. With the knowledge of the ages available to us at the click of a mouse, learning becomes little more than a process of searching and downloading. Using the Internet to spackle over any unfortunate gaps in our knowledge, we become "instant experts" on virtually any topic (Wright 2000). Online, we can "visit" remote places: check the weather on the Ross Ice Shelf, make a virtual pilgrimage up Ireland's Croagh Patrick (MacWilliams 2004), or marvel at the wonders observed through the Hubble Telescope. Not surprisingly, the World Wide Web is replete with religion-from simple congregational websites to fully orbed Wiccan cybercovens, from virtual puja (Dawson and Cowan 2004) to virtual hajj (Bunt 2000), and from Internet libraries designed to "crack" the Sumerian code (Cassidy 2002) to what some observers regard as the online revival of a populist Marian mysticism (Apolito 2005). According to one sociologist, the Internet "is the most portentous development for the future of religion to come out of the twentieth century" (Brasher 2001:17). And indeed, for some, the Internet has even become a metaphor for God (Turkle 1995; Henderson 2000). While both these latter claims may seriously overstate the reality of the situation, that religion and the Internet have become intimately and integrally linked is beyond dispute. In little more than a decade, a powerful set of interrelated mythologies has arisen about "life on the 'net"'-whatever we take that to mean ultimately-that challenges many of our heretofore accepted notions of society, culture, community, and the self (Rheingold 1993; Turkle 1995; Barlow [1996] 2001; for less utopian views, see Kroker and Weinstein 1994; Roszak 1994; Slouka 1995; Stoll 1995; Kroker and Kroker 1996; Wynn and Katz 1997). However useful computer-mediated communications have become, though, in many ways the World Wide Web represents at least as much the triumph of hyperbole and marketing as it does the next step in technological evolution. Often used as though its meaning is entirely transparent, the concept of "cyberspace" has traveled like a meme through the cultural consciousness since its introduction in the mid-1980s (Gibson 1984), an ambitious and ambiguous metonym that encompasses what popularly passes for the experiential totality of the Internet. The question, though, in terms of this Forum, is where do we go when we are online? Where is the "place" in cyberspace?