The Internet, the much talked about international information and communication network, has been branded by a senior churchman as having devilish consequences

DR JOHN HABGOOD said in a newspaper interview, shortly before his retirement as Archbishop of York at the end of August, that the information revolution could create a nightmare society in which self-centred individuals [are] concerned only with their own fulfilment, sitting all day in front of their computer or television screens, and soaking their minds with increasingly violent and obscene entertainment.

DEFENDING HIS VIEWS in a letter to The Times, Dr Habgood draws attention to the phrase ‘surfing the Internet’, which he claims reveals the act as carrying no commitment, no permanence of relationship, no necessity for give and take … entirely free-floating; surfers can create their own little self-chosen individualistic world.

DR HABGOOD’S REMARKS may have some relevance. There have been reports from psychiatrists that the Net is addictive in the same way as pornographic literature or even mind-altering drugs; accessing the Internet can give the user a rush, other activities are neglected; and kicking the habit can cause classic withdrawal symptoms.

ANYONE WHO HAS actually used the Internet, whether for pleasure or business, would undoubtedly agree that these dangers, while real, are easily outweighed by the tremendous advantages the new technology affords. Even Dr Habgood admits the Internet is potentially life-enhancing.

AS AN INSTANCE of the Internet’s potential for enhancing quality of life, I have a friend who is at university in a remote part of Cumbria, in which there are very few students. But through the internal college electronic mail (e-mail) chat forum, she has made contact with many more students at the main campus in Lancaster, and they now visit each others digs.

TODAY, most students at most universities in the world are offered an e-mail address when they enrol; many businesses quote an e-mail address on their letterheads; and the leading firms are implementing the paperless office in which all documents are sent electronically.

E-MAIL BEGAN IN THE US as an alternative communication system for the military, sending information not by the most direct telephone line, which could be cut, but by whichever route is open. It was the academic world which popularised the network, as it enabled the quick and world-wide exchange and development of ideas.

THE LATEST STAGE in the Internet’s history is the creation of a vast library of text and graphics which any number of people can access from any PC fitted with a modem and subscribing to a service provider. Virtually anybody can add to this library any information they care, although an informal censoring convention is beginning to become enforceable legally. It is this entertainment aspect of the technology, rather than the more basic e-mail messaging, that Dr Habgood is concerned with.

WHAT DR HABGOOD should perhaps be more worried about is the serious lack of interesting Christian sites on the Net, and conversely, the plethora of wacky pages offered by other religions, particularly the newer religions. In my research of the New Age, for example, I have read a number of riveting electronic articles on how to control your dreams so that you can float outside your body!

ABSURD, YES, but accessible; whereas the presumably less absurd Christian sites did not jump to my attention, even though both the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury do have e-mail addresses.

CHRISTIANITY HAS A sorry history of resisting the march of technology. It has fared better when it has instead harnessed new technology to its own advantage. The Times editorial was right on the sport when it reminded Dr Habgood that the 15th century Vatican referred to the printing press as the Devils machine.

Darren Kemp