Like many of my predilection and generation, I have become entirely dependent on ‘tinternet for all sorts of things.
It does some things very very well.
- It plugs me into an international stream of humanity that is transforming the way we live and work and think.
- It gives me access to endless (if sometimes dubious) amounts of information in relation to any subject.
- It allows me to connect with individuals and groups at a huge distance in a meaningful way- without leaving my living room- particularly useful if your passions and interests are not of the mainstream, or if you live in the Scottish Highlands, or the middle of the Atacama desert…
- It allows me to find any product I may wish to buy, compare it with others, and find the cheapest place to purchase it from.
- It gives me instant access to entertainment of all sorts of kinds.
There is of course a downside to the changes that the internet is bringing to us. All the positives listed above have a much publicised and debated negative side-
(Time to bring in Some Grey Bloke again I think!)
- The stream of humanity we plug into is unequal, full of contradictions, exploitations and does not include ALL of humanity- in short, it reflects the power and wealth differentials found in the physical world. Most would say that the early hopes for the democratisation and empowerment of the small over the large has simply not been realised- beyond little reshuffling and re-entrenchment of existing powerful corporations.
- Information is rarely truly free, and always contextual and comes pre-loaded with values and assumptions. Some of it is simply wrong, wacky, or malign- and there is so much of it to filter through. The internet can be said to devalue information- which only has worth because of the amount of attention (hits) achieved. So the superficial, celebrity driven nature of our culture continues to feed itself…
- Social networking- I’ll come back to this later- but in the meantime…
- Shopping- like we do not do enough of this already! Has the internet just become the new means to maintain the unsustainable and unequal lifestyles dictated by capitalist imperialism? (Oh dear- the old class warrior in me just hiccupped!) There is also the problem of the further destruction of local networks of commerce, with yet more consequences for erosion of community and isolation and loneliness.
- Entertainment- don’t get me started on that one! Bite sized, mind numbing, celebrity driven drivel- a million channels to fill. And the pressure that we all feel to participate in mass manufactured experiences, in order for life to have meaning.
I suspect you have all heard this before- and may even wonder if there is any point in worrying about these things- after all, the internet, in all its mixed glory, is here to stay. It is perhaps the defining characteristic of western (and increasingly of southern) cultures. It just IS, and we people of faith have to get with the programme, and carry Jesus out there with us, one server at a time…
And this is my feeling too, most of the time. But every so often, I lose faith in the medium. And I remind myself that we Christians are supposed to be ‘…in the world but not OF it’- that as well as looking for truth and beauty, and salting/lighting it, we are also called to bring to bear what Michael Frost calls ‘dangerous criticism’. (Decent summary of this stuff here.)
So my take on this is that we Christians, faced with the megalithic construct that is the world wide web, should participate, contribute and celebrate truth and beauty, but we should also be driven by a deeper radical alternative set of principles that are the cultural capital of the New Kingdom, arising from the teachings and very personality of Jesus.
I think these are some of the principles that seem relevant-
People before product, before project, before everything.
Community as the evidence of the beloved, the blessed ones, the agents of the Kingdom.
Community offered freely and looking outward to serve.
Real community- the dirty, messy hand-in-hand, painful kind- as school for life.
Learning to love, practicing grace and valuing simplicity and humility.
Justice- a skew towards the small people, the poor and the oppressed.
So what of all this social networking?
I participate in a few of these- I blog, I am part of Emerging Scotland Ning site, Missional tribe, and Facebook. All of them have been fun, and allowed me to connect with others.
I have discussed the relationship between real friendship and the internet before here. In this article, I shared some research about the some negative isolating effects of social networking, and suggested that it’s value for me was only the degree to which real flesh on flesh connection was facilitated and enhanced.
So, the question for me is whether or not this has been my experience?
I think the answer is mixed for me, and so the jury is still out…
I have connected with some wonderful people- but most of these connections have been transient and brief. We have hoped for the establishment of real networks of people who seek to mentor and support, but so far this has not happened. This may be that we have not yet found the right combination of people and processes that allow this, or in more negative moments, I fear that we are as addicted to those safe saccharine personalised spaces that the internet allows us to wrap ourselves up in as anyone else…
But of course, that is not the whole story. There are people who keep offering themselves as a place of hospitality and openness. God bless them- because my feeling is that we need them now more than ever.