Point Nemo

Jesus Christ, Jeffrey Bezos, and Geosynchronous Satellites


in Ideas • Illustrated by Kat Heller


On Earth, there is a place called Point Nemo where one can be so far away from other humans that the closest person to encounter is 250 miles above, orbiting in the International Space Station. In the Pacific Ocean, Point Nemo is equidistant from all points of land: 1,670 miles from the Pitcairn Islands to the north; Easter Islands, to the northeast; and Maher Island, to the south. It’s so far from human habitation that it has become a convenient graveyard — artificial satellites past their purpose are de-orbited there, safe from crashing into any populated areas. As someone living in the arid and scrubby hills of the Great Basin high desert, it is hard to imagine a place more alien than that. Water in all directions, the nearest point of land far beyond the horizon. No correct direction to head toward to find shore, only any direction. I want to reconstitute the fundamentalist Evangelical Christian faith I was raised in to be like Point Nemo. Allow me to explain.

Jesus Christ

“The devil is everywhere,” my dad solemnly told me, as a hot bead of sweat formed in my left armpit before rolling down my rib cage. Shivers clawed around my back. I was sat down in the living room, swallowed up by the large couch, my short legs parallel to the floor. My dad’s elbows rested on his knees as he leaned in closer to impart the important news. “He will always try to tempt you. He can even look like your friends. Or your teachers.”

I was nine years old and starting public school after being homeschooled by my mom. She ran a daycare in our house while also teaching me and my two older siblings. One day, as one can imagine, it was too much. With a crying baby on her hip and me brattily refusing to do my times table, she stood up and declared “That’s it!” Within the hour I was enrolled in Cook County Elementary School.

Though I was terrified, I was prepared to do spiritual warfare on my parents’ behalf and on behalf of my lord and savior Jesus Christ. Our family was Christian, but more specifically Evangelical Christian. The kind of Christian anyone in America might be ambiently aware of because of the outsized sociocultural weight Evangelicalism has on contemporary politics. This is the Christianity of Trump’s base and increasingly a kind of Christian Nationalism that informs much of the far-right’s ideologies. At its heart, this white Evangelical Christianity has a deep mistrust for public institutions, particularly places of education as that is where the devil might most readily do his sneaky bidding. Where groves of children might be led astray by the lure of drugs, sex, or, heaven forbid, Magic the Gathering.

Evangelical Christianity is my religion, or was, and therefore is the one I feel most comfortable poking fun at and criticizing. I don’t hate Christianity. I’ve been quite desperate most of my life to develop a relationship with God. It’s more accurate to say there isn’t any one Christianity, but many (many!) Christianities. There is a plurality of faiths pointing toward Jesus Christ. I don’t have a clue of which one feels true to me, nor will I ever, and to be quite frank with you, I don’t plan on assigning myself as a member to any particular denomination. That’s for a future Andy in a future crisis of faith to manage. What I do know is that it isn’t the version of Christianity I was given as a child. Upon years removed from this religious background, I’ve understood this Christianity as deeply paranoid and xenophobic which often serves as the ideological rationale for regressive policies across the country. It is deeply anti-science, a facet I believe Conservative politicians appeal to consistently for political gain.

As an adherent, I was required to read an overly literal interpretation of the Bible. Adam and Eve were literally the only two humans alive. The world was literally made in seven days. The world was literally awash in a gigantic genocidal flood. When imported into the modern day, this literalist interpretation creates a fun-house distorted mirror of reality. If the world is 6,000 years old, where did the dinosaur bones come from? Answer: the devil put them there to lead the unfaithful astray. If people in the Bible lived to be 900 years old, why do grandpas croak at 80? Answer: the air was purer then, leading to a longer life, and what’s more, we have fallen further from grace, from God’s original image, and so pay with shorter life. This interpretation of faith — and consequently reality — is alluring because it is simple. It at least provides an answer, orders the world in a recognizable way. Though I’ve left that in the past, the impulse is still there — to ask overly literal questions, to take one document or set of assumptions as absolute wavering faith, the word of God as a priori fact, toward which all conditions of reality are reconciled.

If I’m not trying to reconcile the tenets of an abandoned faith to then bring myself into its fold, why poke this religion with a stick? I often find myself thinking about Jesus very much the same way I find myself thinking about my iPhone. Jesus is eternally in my heart. My iPhone is perpetually in my pocket. There is a persistent and unshakable feeling that my every move and thought is tracked and noted by both entities. A sense that someone knows me more than I know myself. That I have to answer for every unconscious waver of doubt. That punishment and retribution are always possible. The paranoia I’ve imported from my childhood fits so nicely into this tech-heavy age.

Like most social creatures stuck in the miasma of their time, I understand the ineffable through metaphors of the material world around me. While millennia ago, people saw the sun and understood it as the life-giving force of Earth and their made gods, I have at hand innumerable screens and the Internet. For example, I think of prayer as Bluetooth — it radiates omnidirectionally from me and will connect with its intended target because of a serialized and protected code between sender and receiver, though the signal sometimes gets lost. When a prayer does connect, it is a charge of energy entering a global network of others prayers connected at nodes, shuttling around the Earth. The prayer is invisible but made manifest from the infrastructure of other’s believers, like the Internet. I think of my iPhone, connected as it is to the Internet and consequently the vast store of human knowledge, much in the same way as a deity who might guide me via the route of their omniscience toward a better, more clear life. That’s one aspect of why I think of my phone as a kind of Jesus. The other aspect is that while I’m looking at my phone, or praying to Jesus, the object of my attention is also staring straight gobsmack back at me.

Jeffrey Bezos

One of the defining features of financial and social control of modern life, what we might call surveillance capitalism, is irrepressibly similar to that of the white Evangelical Christian worldview. Scholar Susanna Zuboff first coined the term “surveillance capitalism” in her 2014 article “A Digital Declaration.” There, she defines it as “the unilateral claiming of private human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data.” It really got its start with the initiation of Google’s AdWords in 2001. In 2022 it’s an idea that we’ve become well acquainted with through such behind-the-scenes scandals like Cambridge Analytica. Though it’s a commonly accepted fact that our compromised privacy has been laid bare, business as usual continues. Why is this ok? Even eight years ago Zuboff had a sense when she said “users were unlikely to agree to this unilateral claiming of their experience . . . So from the start the logic reflected the social relations of the one-way mirror.” We give up the information of our daily lives and behind the black one-way mirror, someone takes. It’s easy to keep doing because we’re not aware of the tracking, of the unseen harvesting.

Zuboff goes on to explain other reasons this entirely unfair dynamic continues. Perhaps primarily is that these technologies developed post-9/11. In that fever dream of revenge and war private citizens’ rights to privacy were rapidly curtailed in the name of national security. The dystopic phrase “total information awareness” became common to civilian ears. Total information awareness. In other words, omniscience, or as close as any human-made entity can get to it. Another reason is what Zuboff names as the “dependency and the foreclosure of alternatives”. Meaning, we increasingly need the internet and our technology to fulfill even the most basic tasks of day-to-day life: paying bills, filing taxes, finding a place to eat, and watching the new blockbuster movie. When we do that, we make our behavior, and consequently our data, available to those who sell it.

Surveillance capitalism creates a knowledge asymmetry. “They know everything about us, but we know little about them,” she says. “These knowledge asymmetries introduce wholly new axes of social inequality and injustice.” I would agree, and eight years out from Zuboff’s original assessment I think this is truer than ever. How dependent are we on these technologies? I stepped away from my childhood image of Jesus, can I step away from my phone? It’s easy to imagine the human without the digital, Zuboff says. But impossible to imagine the digital without the human. I think God works that way, at least the Christian God I’ve been picking a bone with lately. It’s easy to imagine humans without God. Many millions already live like that. It’s impossible to imagine a monotheistic god without the daily aggregated attention of followers. The believers create the belief, much, in the same way, users of technology create the “behavioral data” on which the tech giants’ profits rest.

For both of these entities — surveillance capitalism and my former Christian God — I am decidedly on the outside looking in. Really, I have no idea how they function, nor will I ever. It’s meant to be that way. Such a broad knowledge asymmetry maintains an incredible power disparity. What if the God of my Christianity functioned much like modern-day surveillance capitalism? I already see them both similarly — all powerful forces watching me, knowing me better than I know myself. But how do they function? What is the physical infrastructure that allows surveillance capitalism to thrive? And how is that similar to my fundamentalist faith growing up? To get started, allow me deploy of my overly literalist Evangelical upbringing to ask a simple question with no answer: If God is omniscient, where are the data centers?

The people who gather behavioral data know us by the mechanism of our daily aggregated attention. How long we look at a post. What we decide to like. What we share with our loved ones. Where are eyes fall. What our thumbs and fingers caress on our black mirrors. How we decide to divvy the finite moments of our time. Through these repeated actions we become knowable to someone unknowable to us. It’s not fair to just say “someone”. Typically it’s understood as this depersonalized quasi-AI thing called “the algorithm”. Which is true. But many someones — humans with names and faces and lives —over time have created “the algorithm”. Who are these people? They aren’t the captains of the tech industries, per se, but rather the lieutenants. In this religioeconomic metaphor, they are the angels.


Let’s say I open Instagram and scroll for a bit. I like a post or two and check my private messages. That information is sent from my phone to the nearest cell tower which is in turn sent to another tower. The information is shuttled around the world at an unimaginable pace, eventually settling into one of the many millions of data centers around the world. The United States has three million data centers alone. A data center can vary greatly in size, from something in a small room to large as an entire building. Looking at the numbers of how much data is produced, I’m surprised there aren’t skyscraper data centers stretching every direction. According to Forbes, in 2018 every minute 46,740 photos are posted on Instagram, 456,000 Tweets are sent, and 527,760 photos are shared on Snapchat. Facebook has a daily active user base of 1.5 billion. The advent of the “Internet of Things” devices such as appliances or smart watches that share all kinds of data about our lives, is only increasing how much data we make. Not only is our day-to-day activity creating a massive amount of data, the rate is accelerating. Over 90% of all data created has been created in the past handful of years — that’s 2.5 quintillion bytes of data. That’s expected to double every two years. The massive amount of data we create doesn’t just evaporate, it isn’t invisible, it isn’t nothing. There is a specific place, or places, where it lives. A massive set of physical infrastructure all around us that holds our collective data. Not only around us but above as well. We’re enveloped by data machines too — roughly 6,500 satellites circle the world now. Many of them are geosynchronous, meaning from our perspective on Earth they seem to be on a fixed point. We are like the hapless wanderer depicted in the famous Flammarion Engraving — instead of poking our heads through a firmament of stars, we’re trapped under a cloud of data and spinning satellites we can’t escape. The machines that aid in our constant and profound surveillance are not only above us in the night sky, or around us in buildings, but also underneath us in cables that arc through the ground or stretch incredible distances on the seafloor.

So again I raise my literalist question of my Evangelical God: where are the data centers? We humans have amassed an incredible amount of data just in the past couple years. This God I was raised with isn’t just concerned with humans and their data. If he is truly omniscient he is also invested in the velocity and history of every proton, electron, and neutron that has ever existed. How is that possible? I guess approaching questions of omniscience is similar to approaching questions of infinity, which is to say, impossible. The only other viable option is that the universe itself is the thought of God. The data and the interpreter of that information inseparable. That’s not a new thought, there are many instances of religions through time that have come to a similar conclusion. Or perhaps the famous “Pillars of Creation” are a kind of billion light-years wide data center. While I send up prayers, how does God mean to read them? I have an electrified swab of meat in my skull whose patterned flashes of light translate, miraculously, to thought. Is that how God does it? The alpha and omega, translating my delta, theta, and beta brainwaves? How else? Regardless, if the proprietors of surveillance capitalism have a lot of data to sort through, the Almighty has much more. For both, there is a claustrophobic sense of being encompassed by an unseen entity, surrounded by a more powerful force. In the air, under the ocean, circling the planet, our own innermost thoughts and wishes swirling all around, perhaps even passing through our own bodies on their way to another cell tower, another data center.

As a former Evangelical Christian in the modern tech age, I must admit, I don’t love the sense that all my electronic behavior is being meticulously tracked, nor do I love the persistent feeling that God knows my thoughts. Not only that but knows what my thoughts will be. Between Jesus Christ and Jeff Bezos, there is no hiding, all is laid bare for someone else’s purposes. I want more mystery in my life. I would like to be able to know less and be less known. The answer is easy, I guess: Apostasy, of Jesus and of my social media habits.

I have a friend that has deleted all their social media. No Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. They were the one that first put the idea of mystery in my head. You should hear them talk about what it’s like. When they say “the mystery” they say it tenderly, so sweetly. They don’t see it as the black void of annihilation like I’ve been thinking, but a warm darkness where awe and wonder might live, outside the tracking of surveillance capitalists, outside of a nosy God. Isn’t that a kind of mystical experience in a microcosm, to feel the air of mystery envelop you again, every thought a blessedly benighted path for exploration? Not feeling the need to know where your high school friend went on vacation? It makes me think of how in my preteen years, before I ever had my first kiss, I spent roughly 78% of my day obsessively thinking about what a kiss would feel like, what another person’s mouth tasted like and, oh god, where would I put my hands? I could have Googled “what does a kiss feel like?” but that wouldn’t bring me any nearer the experience. I just had to amble around my days staring at strangers’ lips until the moment finally came. The only way to know was to do, a practice of surrender to mystery. But a loving mystery. A kind of mystery. A mystery that only grows. Though I will admit having an overbearing overlord does have a certain allure, being watched continuously can be a kind of comfort. Rilke asks “Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic orders?” It can be soothing to think some entity out there might answer. Soothing to know someone knows you intimately if trouble should ever arise. Even if there is no response because after all it’s easier to imagine a reticent God rather than an absent one. That’s the price for disavowing fundamentalist interpretations of the world, you don’t get to know.

When we walk away from our devices, might we not end up walking toward each other? What’s at stake but our own futures? Zuboff agrees. She might as well be talking about Jeff Bezos or my childhood Jesus: “What is abrogated here is our right to the future tense, which is the essence of free will, the idea that I can project myself into the future and thus make it a meaningful aspect of my present. This is the essence of autonomy and human agency.” What is curtailed is our generative capability to imagine our own futures. If we can’t imagine it for ourselves, someone has already imagined it for us.

And so as an entreaty to mystery and the protection of the sacred ground of our own imaginations, I have one last bit of data to send into the ether, a prayer. I’m realizing now that prayer is an ancient technology developed in part to deal with the knowledge asymmetry of living with a hidden God. Though I’m not a practicing Christian in the same way I was when I was a kid, I still pray often. I think I like prayer because it ultimately is a mysterious act. I keep speaking to no one, and no one ever responds. The likes of Jeff Bezos wield a godly amount of power over our lives, but they are still human. I have more practical ways to deal with his presence in my life. Namely, using my phone less. I’ll start there. In the meanwhile, I’ll work on reconstituting my relationship with God, which I imagine will take a bit more work. Like most reparative relational acts, it begins with an ask. My prayer:

Please Lord, allow me to be a question to you, unanswerable yet and as such allow the irreconcilable parts of myself to remain unreconciled. You are a great unknown thing to me, a mystery that as I name becomes unnamable. You are the Earth and I am the geosynchronous satellite. I fall toward you while you turn away from me, always. I am Point Nemo and you are any equidistant point of land beyond the horizon. Lord, as nemo is Latin for “nobody” allow me to be nobody. As you remain hidden from me allow me to remain hidden from you as the decommissioned satellites falling from spacelike ancient slow rain hit the Pacific’s blue surface and sink and corrode and become different machines in the black basement of the ocean. Please, I’m asking. Even though made by you, in your own image, I’ve heard, allow me the grace of remaining a tiny mystery. Allow me a future I might make, a future I might make of my own.•