Does God have an e-mail address?

Jennifer Cobb's 'Cybergrace' seeks the spiritual dimension of technology but gets mired in the details.


Mary Elizabeth Williams
May 22, 1998 2:47AM (UTC)

The problem with trying to explain the meaning of the universe is that it's easy to get lost in the existential void along the way. That Jennifer Cobb should set out in her new book, "Cybergrace: The Search for God in the Digital World," to prove not just that there is a higher entity, but that his or her hand is at work in the realm of computer technology, is almost touching in its well-intentioned ambition. It doesn't, however, make her book any less of a muddled wreck.

Cobb is a woman of impressive dueling credentials -- a high-tech consultant who's also a theological scholar. Her need to "reconcile technology and spirituality ... to go inside, uncover the details of that connection," gives her a healthy respect and skepticism for both worlds. She's neither a rah-rah technophile nor a hair shirt-wearing hermit. But is that enough? The conundrum of the existence of a universal architect is one that history's greatest minds haven't been able to resolve. What hope then is there for someone like Cobb -- of whom it may be charitably said that she remains an intellectual heavyweight in training?

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More damning still, Cobb doesn't even seem to be truly trying, substituting factoids for ingenuity. She bangs out truckloads of reference points -- synthetic evolution and artificial intelligence and virtual reality -- liberally smattering Eastern and Western lore throughout the prose along the way. Yet, ironically for a book about the melding of two disciplines, very little seems to tie together. What Cobb may have hoped would be an overwhelming body of diverse evidence amounts instead to a messy stew of unrelated information, drowning in a sauce of turgid jargon. The exhausted reader is left in the end not with the great "Aha!" of epiphany but with the stoned, 3 a.m.-in-the-dorm-room feeling of quiet bafflement. How else can one respond to declarations such as "Within a holoarchy, holons emerge holarchically" but with a resigned shrug and a maybe a doleful "Say what?"

And that's a big part of the problem with "Cybergrace" -- the head-scratching dryness of it. Cobb may have spent the better part of her career around words, but the double-threat disciplines of high tech and academia are rarely conducive to the development of a gripping writing style. At its best, the book is an ungimmicky, rational contemplation of a broad, serious subject. At worst, it's a soporific foray into the world of superscripts and ibids.

Cobb's logic is harder to follow than the trials of Lot: She just keeps throwing examples and theories against the wall, assuming something's eventually got to stick. Is the fact that Big Blue's ultimate triumph against Kasparov came not from a faultless, mechanical move but from an inventive, beatable one proof of the "hand of God"? Or is it just evidence that a machine can emulate the mind of man?

Perhaps the last person on earth to have a clear sense of who God is would be a divinity student, but Cobb's lack of a coherent vision of the book's title character ultimately makes her text look like so much mental pussyfooting. It's as if someone tried to write "Moby Dick" without being reasonably solid on what a whale is. Maybe God isn't so much a creator as a shaper of life, and we can prove it by this! Or maybe God is part of every living thing, and we can prove it by that! And here's a story about robotics thrown in for good measure!

Cobb gamely strains to cover all the intellectual bases, going so far as to admit at one point her discomfort with using the very word "God" (she later half-jokingly refers to the "big transcendent computer in the sky"). Her anything-and-everything attitude may make her belief in a higher power more palatable to a variety of believers and non-believers, but it also washes out a good deal of the vitality from a provocative subject matter. And it's pretty tough to know whether to agree or disagree with Cobb's analysis when she won't just strike her flag in the sand and say where she stands.

She does drop a few hints here and there. For example, while Cobb alludes to a strong if questioning Judeo-Christian bent, she still feels the need to give gentle nods to Eastern traditions. She uses the story of the Hindu god Indra as a metaphor for the Net and pats it on the head as a "lovely myth." But she tells the parable of the seed and the good soil as a solid example of evolution in action, and doesn't even feel the need to mention the story's New Testament origins. She devotes a tenderly written subchapter to French cleric Jacques Gaillot's online bishopric Partenia, but tempers her recollection of a Hindu ceremony in India with lip-biting resentment over the travails she had to endure in order to witness it.

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Cobb, with her obviously sincere (if multitentacled) respect for the subject matter, may have her heart in the right place. Her brain and spirit may even be close behind. Early on, she speaks convincingly of her desire to fuse her two passions, to prove that the divine and the digital are more than just parallel worlds, running close together but never touching. Her belief may even have merit: When she points out that the word for religion comes from the Latin for "to connect," it's a reminder how interactive prayer and ritual are, and how creative and profound the world of technology can be. Unfortunately, her hopefulness translates itself here into a jittery academic eagerness that will never be mistaken for deep spiritual wisdom.

Whether God is in the computer is still anyone's guess. But if he is, he probably won't be discovered by such strenuous multitasking.


Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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