Web 2.0: June 2008 Archives

The Rest of the NMC 2: Religion Online

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I'm a fairly cynical creature, so it's not often that I find a philiosophical presentation mind-blowing, but this one did it. The presentation was innocently title Religion Online, but the speaker, Edward Lamoreux of Bradley University (a practicing ethnographer), raised some questions about the relation of religion and the Internet that would never have occured to me.

I should note that the questions raised are ones that may touch your most cherished assumptions. If the entry offends, it is unintentional, but possible unavoidable.

Potential Hazards of a Media Revolution

First, I applaud him for remembering that other great media revolution - the invention of the Gutenberg printing press in the West. This was the invention that made it practical for more people to have access to key documents such as the Bible...and yes this did have some major consequences such as the Protestant Revolution (one of the debates was whether the Bible should be translated for anyone to read or kept in the original language for trained specialists). As Lamoreaux points out, a major religious schism is not what Gutenberg had in mind when he created a press with Movable Type.

Information vs. Ritual

Back in the 21st century, the main question is whether the Internet can be used as a source of information only or whether actual religuous ritual can happen online. For mainstream religions, the answer seems to be that certain "peripheral" activities are OK online, but there is a hesitation to conduct the most important rituals online.

To take Second Life (or chat room) as an example, it is fairly common for users to meet for Bible study (or Torah study) or for counseling sessions sponsored by religious groups. However, Second Life is less rarely used for weekly services even though there are virtual churches/synogogues available. For instance there is NO sanctioned Catholic mass online. One exception is for some non-mainstream services such as the Church of Elvis or the Church of Linden.

Contemplative Building

Interestingly though, a common activity is for users to build elaborate churches, cathedrals, abbeys or other places of worship. In fact so many graphic designers have built churches that it is difficult to separate non-sanctioned churches from islands sponsored by official religious organizations. However, Lamoreux speculates that the act of building is itself a religious or meditative activity for many people. Even in the secular world, Lamoreaux stated that the most common type of Second Life building was avatars creating a personal space to "chill."

However, it may be that for some people, the building can have an even deeper connection to their spiritual life. To be sure there are many religions in which creating or building a design is considered to be a way to connect to God or a higher plane - the most obvious example is creating sand mandalas in Tibetan buddhism. "Contemplative" art is fairly common in the Internet (e.g. fractal art galleries), but I'm not sure it's something I've seen discussed in a serious manner.

Is the Interet Worth the Risk?

Returning to the "hazards" of new technology, Lamoreaux discusses that for many religious groups, the Internet is a double-edged sword. After all the Internet can expose your group to pornography, alternate theology and the temptations of a secular lifestyle. Having said that though, I think more religious groups are taking advantage of this new outlet than we might think.

Looking back through my personal bookmarks, some interesting sites I have encountered have been:

As you can see it's a varied list, but the sites all have one thing in common. As far as I can tell, they were all built by people who are genuinely devout or at least believe in the importance of spirituality. Clearly, the Internet is being used creatively for spritual outreach.

I should say that we did NOT touch on a notorious use of the Internet and that is as a communication tool for some extremists to plan acts of destruction. Hopefully though, these sites may show that we may be able to co-exist peacefully one day (if nor amicably). Even a cynic sometimes likes to dream.

The Rest of the NMC 1: Maps, iPhone and Games

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My colleagues commented that some of the sessions were mislabelled (see below), but I was actually satisfied with what I got to see - which were some interesting examples of how new technology is playing out in the classroom

Maps & iPhone

Probably the presentation with the newest tech was Columbia's iPhone project for mapping African American historical places in New York City. This was one which has been evolving over time for them. First that added some text, video and images (borrowing heavily from the NY Public Library archives), then they added a Google Map overlay...and then the iPhone. More interestingly, the entire site was built in Movable Type - but they did a lot of clever manipulation of the templates to make less of a blog and even more of a content managment system.

MAAP: Mapping the African American Past

Because iPhone already works well with Google Maps, they did not need to add too much to the backend, although they did create a Movable Type template which generates an iPhone friendly version for each page - if you go the Web site on an iPhone, you will go directly to the maps.

I had been seeing educational applications, especially for museums, incorporating mobile phones with GIS data, but this is the first iPhone version. It looks like the iPhone is that smart phone in the U.S. with wide enough acceptance to make it worthwhile for a U.S. academic institution. At Penn State, I know there are a few applications in agriculture and sciences as well as history. At one point, we had been thinking of using a guided tour of Penn State landscape features via a Palm Pilot, but this could be easily ported to the iPhone.

Mapping in the Humanities

As if that weren't enough GIS, I went to the Mapping in the Humanities session lead by a panel of Princeton professors. This was a good panel if you were interested in some of the guts of GIS manipulation. For instance, we got a quick demo of ESRI.

I have to admit that for humanities, the big question is how you handle historical maps. The answer is that you use "custom tiles" from the Google Map API to build your own world. Apparently the historical maps of Venice are too difficult to align with modern Venice satellite maps even though both are fairly accurate.

The most memorable classroom application was a course in which students were able to travel to Venice over spring break and make blog entries about different historical sites. Another semester they got to go to Crete (and report on Venetian sites there). Myself, I'm thinking we can document some sites in Pine Grove Mills or Bellefonte.

Decision Making Seminar (actually Games)

The most misleading label for a session was probably the one about "Decision Making" in different courses (doesn't that sound exciting?). Surprisingly this was a session about GAMES (I actually hit the mother lode). This presentation was done by a group out of the University of North Carolina Greensboro, who admitted that they had a lot of (ahem) budgetary support from the Provost, so everything was very WOW.

The highlight was a course in economics which was constructed as a game where students in the post-apocopolyptic Earth have to re-establish mini trading economies. Fortunately, they get rescued in the end. One module that was especially interesting was a game where students had to allocate resources to rescue a neighboring community from an incoming hurricane. Clearly, this game could have applications beyond economics, so the group said that they made it portable so that it could be adapted for other courses...good forward thinking.