NS Internet Column

Marshall McLuhan was a devout Catholic which may have some relevance to the fact that the Irish Jesuits have set up a site to enable people to pray through Lent at their computer screens. McLuhan’s distinction of media into "hot" and "cool" was confusing at the time, for it was made so long ago that "cool" was a term of praise used without irony, so it seemed that he was merely saying that television was up to date and fashionable, as in those far off days it was. But I think he meant more than that: there is a quality of disengagement, and of deep watery calm about gazing at a screen. We withdraw from the world a little, rather than being drawn into it.

This is not of course the way in which things are sold. Since the long-term force driving the development of the web is the belief that fortunes will be made by selling things over it, everything possible is done to turn the experience into something like the slightly bewildering and stimulating environment of a shopping mall, where we are forever making decisions just a little bit unwise. Hence the ludicrous term to "surf". But the medium is recalcitrant to that. I have spent far more time in a kind of trance in front of the screen than ever shouting or even squeaking faintly with excitement.

So in one sense, the Jesuits are working with the grain of the medium. It is meant to be a thoughtful one. They also have the advantage of using small texts. Large globs of print upon the screen are inherently distracting, perhaps because our eyes are used to careful layouts with lots of white space in everything else we read, and such things are really quite hard to reproduce on the web. It can be done, but it is not easy, and you can never be certain that everyone will read things the way they are intended. In fact you can be completely certain that many readers will see either the wrong layout or one that is even worse.

The Jesuits’ site (at shows signs of this problem: visitors are exhorted to resize their browser windows and to turn off extraneous toolbars — I’ve been asked to turn off mobile phones often enough before, but this is a first. But it also makes use of the great strengths of hypertext: the way in which a simple text can lead off in all sorts of directions. The prayers themselves are very short, nuggets of a few lines at most; but from each there is a link to a guide on how to say them, along with discussions on the psychology of prayer and the effects to be expected from it. This stuff is fascinating whether or not you believe Anyone is listening. The Jesuits have been experts on the technology of prayer for the last 400 years and know a great deal about its workings, even if you disagree with their explanations of why it should work.

Peter Scally, one of the men behind the site, says this is deliberate. The idea is to provide people with the tools they need to open themselves to God: "The site doesn't give you a whole load of words to rattle off, but gently helps you to recognise God's presence in your life, and to grow in your relationship with God."

What I find impressive as well as charming about this is that it make such a huge contrast to most of the millions of religious sites on the web. "Millions" is quite literal, by the way. AltaVista finds 1,374,240 web pages mentioning "prayer" as opposed to 14,546 using the phrase "fucked by". Yet almost all of these millions of sites are hectoring or proseletysing. They are trying to sell god as you might sell anything else, rather than to transmit an experience. Most of the exceptions are using the web as a kind of low-powered radio or television, and broadcasting the sound of prayers as well as their substance. This is true of the Vatican’s own web site, and of a variety of Muslim sites which broadcast daily prayers and even downloadable prayer calls, which rules out their use in most offices.

In its first week, the Jesuit site drew about a thousand visitors a day, which is an impressive figure for something hardly advertised anywhere, and which demands a certain of commitment from its readers. There is, or will be, a prayer for every day of Lent. It will be interesting to see if they continue the experiment after that.

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This stuff written and copyright Andrew Brown. If the page looks bad, that's my fault, unless you're using Netscape 4.x. Then it's yours. Upgrade, and do yourself a favour.