For the next few weeks, seminary is moving onto the blogosphere. I am engaged in a class that discusses media in terms of faith issues and faith issues in terms of media. Part of our coursework is to create discussions in this space related to our readings for the course.
In that context, then, I am responding to a book by Professor Mary Hess entitled Engaging Technology in Theological Education. All That We Can’t Leave Behind. (New York: Bowman and Littlefield, 2005). In this book, Dr. Hess treats the connection between faith and the digital world. She makes the point that “digital technologies are cultures that we are embedded in, not just tools we use” (Hess, 90). Questions like “Who am I?”, “How do I connect with others?”, “How do I learn/how do I work/how do I play?”, and “What is reality like?” are questions we now ask in conjunction with our relationship to the World Wide Web. A great deal of the book deals with what it means to be a person of faith embedded in digital cultures, that is, cultures in which more and more of what we do and how we define ourselves and our relationships is mediated through not just television and radio, but also Facebook, Twitter, the blogosphere, email, and the other elements of the global digital experience.
Of course this digital culture is the native land of the young. It has also become the native habitat of the businesswoman, the academic, the artist, and the politician. It has its own norms and language, still under development. Learning the language is time-consuming and ongoing. The language relies on (expensive) hardware, (ever-morphing) software, and, more and more, by an ever-adapting neural net (think biology here) formed and shaped within the digital universe. There is an evolutionary change in societies of the West that is rapidly going viral and becoming nearly-universal in scope. We have connected to, and through, the microchip. It’s science fiction, already here. Everything is changed. For instance, to be an artist who insists on getting dirty (paint, ink, mud) and making-things-by-hand in the world of graphic design is to be a bit old-school, these days, sort of like being a calligrapher instead of using a word processor. In every field, the gulf widens.
Let’s segue now to the practical and the pastoral. Recently, I was in Washington for a conference and stayed with a local family for a few days afterwards. My host was anticipating the immanent demise of the phone book. She had been advised that within just a few years, companies in her area would stop printing phone directories because “everyone has a smart phone now.” Her solution to this household dilemma was to consider purchasing a small digital device to keep in the kitchen, by the phone, just in case she needed to look up a phone number.
There is something significant that has indeed already been left behind in this rush to universalize digital access and to facilitate this evolutionary change. Not a what, but a Who, is being left behind. The Who I refer to is a class of individuals: our elders.
Imagine, if you will, that at some point in your waning years the entire world as you know it begins to speak a new language. It is a language, not of foreign words only, but of foreign concepts, as if everyone has become in some sense a member of a strange new race. Everyone, that is, but you.
On my last trip home, my mother was complaining that I was always on my laptop, so I gave her a virtual tour. Imagine the conversation. “Look,” I showed her. “This is where my photos are stored.” (We used to hold paper photos in our hands. When can I get a paper photo?) “This is where I can chat with my friends.” (We used to visit our neighbors, door to door.) “This is where I check the weather.” (We used to check the thermometer on the window.) “This is where I can buy theater tickets.” (We used to visit while we stood in line.) “This is where I read my homework assignments.” (We used to read books.), “ and post my papers.” (We used to type, remember the old Underwood? … and we practiced penmanship.). “This is where I check my grades.” (We went to the mailbox). “This is how I pay my tuition.” (We wrote checks.) “How I access my medical record.” (What?) “How I can make an appointment.” (I have to wait on hold forever on the phone.) “This is how I buy plane tickets and check in for my flight. It can send my boarding pass to my cell phone.” (Oh??) “This is where I look up information.” (We used the encyclopedia.) “This is how I look up maps, get directions, find out how long it takes to walk from one place to another in a city, zoom to street view to see what the neighborhood looks like there, and find out if there is an Italian restaurant nearby. This is how I book a hotel room. How I get a map for the subway or the bus.” It went on and on.
The conversation was about community. “This is how I communicate with my friends, in Denver, in California, in Italy, in Switzerland, in Palestine, in South Africa, in Massachusetts, in Maine.” (She used to get paper letters with pretty stamps she could hold in her hand, and read over and over.) This is how I found out a distant relative died. This is where I first saw pictures of new babies in the family. (We look at baby pictures for a while.) “This is where I talk to the world about things that are important to me, participate in discussions with others…” (Let’s sit in the living room and watch the nightly news together.)
These are not esoteric activities for the erudite. They are not specialized tasks for the few. These are the everyday points of access that make life human. The things that make for access to human community. I offered to get her a laptop. Perhaps just for email and skype, so she could see people. I could set it up, show her how. “No,” she said, “I am too old for that.”
By self-definition, she is. But maybe she actually is. I remember how it was for me. I’m old enough to have found the transition difficult. (I hired a typist to type my master’s thesis on an electric typewriter. That was high technology, before the word processor.) I used to be very unwilling to enter the computer-scape. My entry into it was painful. I resisted. I didn’t understand. I felt like I was in a foreign land. It brought me to tears on a number of occasions. (Now what brings me to tears is when my computer crashes and I didn’t back up.)
We really do live inside our digital culture, but there are many outside this global table, sensing the change, unable to pay what it costs to join in. At some point as we age, the idea of learning a whole new way of being in the world takes just a little too much time, money, and energy to contemplate. It’s just a little too hard, too confusing. “Checking a blog” might as well be “flying to Mars” for people who were socialized to reserve long-distance calls for the most dire situations. And so, all these human points of contact, along with the ability to do other commonplace things (like walking), become that much more distant and inaccessible.
What will our digitally enhanced community-building look like? For instance, a recent discussion on tornado-preparedness among Facebook friends considered whether siren warnings were really important when almost everyone has a smart phone now and can sign up for a weather alert. While sirens as an emergency alert system have drawbacks, they convey a meaning across age, wealth and cultural divides. This is a consideration that social planners need to have in mind. How can we include those who, for one reason or another, are not digitally connected?
Here is a question for our churches. What is to be done for the elders when the phone books go away? When they get to see only the photos that were printed? When safety alerts go digital? We’ve begun to do a better job of getting computers into the hands of children in this country, whatever their income. But can we become aware enough to notice as our elders, and perhaps also those for whom English is an issue, the poor, and other disenfranchised groups, get eased out of the conversations of humanity and drop off the radar? What ministry implications are there here? How can we intentionally build community for the digitally deprived?