The Internet Is My Religion

This week, I was lucky enough to attend the second day of sessions at Personal Democracy Forum. I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into.

As a social web / identity junkie, I was excited to see Vivek Kundra, Jay Rosen, Dan Gillmor, and Doc Searls. I hadn’t heard of many of the other presenters, including one whose talk would be the most inspiring I had ever seen on a live stage.

As Jim Gilliam took the stage, his slightly nervous, ever-so-geeky, sensibility betrayed no signs of the passion, earnestness, and magnificence with which he would deliver what can only described as a modern epic: his life story.

Watch it now:

Watch live streaming video from pdf2011 at[Don’t read on unless you have watched the video. The rest of this post probably won’t make much sense.]

Apologies for the long quotation, but I find his closing words incredibly profound [my bolding]:

As I was prepping for the surgery, I wasn’t thinking about Jesus, or whether my heart would start beating again after they stopped it, or whether I would go to heaven if it didn’t. I was thinking about all of the people who had gotten me here. I owed every moment of my life to countless people I would never meet. Tomorrow, that interconnectedness would be represented in my own physical body – three different DNAs: individually they were useless, but together, they would equal one functioning human. What an incredible debt to repay! I didn’t even know where to start.

And that’s when I truly found God. God is just what happens when humanity is connected. Humanity connected is God. There was no way I would ever repay this debt. It was only by the grace of God – your grace, that I would be saved. The truth is we all have this same cross to bear. We all owe every moment of our lives to countless people we will never meet. Whether it’s the soldiers who give us freedom because they fight for our country, or the surgeons who give us the cures that keep us alive. We all owe every moment of our lives to each other. We are all connected. We are all in debt to each other.

The Internet gives us the opportunity to repay just a small part of that debt. As a child, I believed in creationism, that the Universe was created in six days. Today, we are the creators. We each have our own unique skills and talents to contribute to create the Kingdom of God. We serve God best when we do what we love for the greatest cause we can imagine. What the people in this room do is spiritual – it is profound. We are the leaders of this new religion. We have faith that people connected can create a new world. Each one of us is a creator but together we are The Creator.

All I know about the person whose lungs I now have is that he was 22 years old and six feet tall. I know nothing about who he was as a person, but I do know something about his family. I know that in the height of loss, when all anyone should have to do is grieve, as their son or their brother lay motionless on the bed, they were asked to give up to seven strangers a chance to live. And they said yes.

Today, I breathe through someone else’s lungs while another’s blood flows through my veins. I have faith in people, I believe in God, and the Internet is my religion.

The audience rose in a standing ovation, twice. A few of the reactions:

You know it’s an amazing talk when everyone looks up from their computer and stops working to pay attention. #pdf11@katieharbath

Standing ovation for @jgilliam at #PDF11, not a dry eye in the house – @doctorow

As I walked back to the office from the Skirball centre this afternoon, I found myself thinking through what his message means to me, and why I was so moved by his words. Working at betaworks, I am confronted with and fascinated daily by the creative opportunities on the Web – for opportunities to change the way that we connect, communicate, share, learn, discover, live, and grow. Technology is only as good as the people who wield it, so perhaps I’m a bit idyllic and naive in my boundless optimism, but I am consistently awestruck at the power of the Web as a creative force.

I’m not a religious person, but I do believe there is something humbling about the act of creation – whether your form of creation is art, software, ideas, words, music – there is something about the act of creation that is worth striving for, worth sacrificing worth, worth living for. Regardless of your view of her politics, Ayn Rand spoke to this notion beautifully:

Whether it’s a symphony or a coal mine, all work is an act of creating and comes from the same source: from an inviolate capacity to see through one’s own eyes . . . which means: the capacity to see, to connect and to make what had not been seen, connected and made before. – Ch. II, The Utopia of Greed, Atlas Shrugged

The Web – at its simplest, an open and generally accessible medium for two-way connectivity – bridges creative energy irrespective of geography, socioeconomic status, field of study, and language. It enables and even encourages the collision of ideas, problem statements, inspirations, and solutions. As Stephen Johnson offers in his fantastic book, Where Good Ideas Come From, “good ideas are not conjured out of thin air; they are built out of a collection of existing parts, the composition of which expands (and, occasionally, contracts) over time.” He might as well be describing the Web.

The Internet is a medium capable of unlocking and combining the creative energies of Earth’s seven billion in a way never before imaginable.  Through the near-infinite scale with which it powers human connectivity, the Internet has shown in just a few short years its ability to enable anything from a collection of the world’s information, to a revolution, to, in the case of Jim Gilliam, life itself.

I’m so excited to be a small part of what can only be called a movement. I’m excited to build, I’m excited to change, and, perhaps most critically, I’m excited to defend.

This article was originally published at Subscribe to Jake’s posts and follow Jake on Twitter.

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