Postman, Groothuis, and Ingram all have notions about the relation between technology and community. They do not necessarily agree. Here I trace the effects in the thought of each and give my own ideas about what the relationship means in the life and ministry of the Christian Church in its contemporary surroundings.
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Community refers primarily to relations of commonality between persons and objects, and only rather imprecisely to the geography of such community.This incongruity will only be magnified in the future. What is important is a holding-in-common of qualities, properties, identities or ideas. The commonality of ideas is best accomplished when individuals or idea makers can express those ideas in an accessible fashion so that argument can be applied and consensus can be formed. This is the greatest threat that technology poses to community- unlimited opinions and no claims to authority. The issue of authority is a great one that transcends the current discussion, though I will return to it repeatedly..
Before going farther, I am compelled to diverge slightly to point out an issue raised in my response to question two. In reviewing the texts that relate to this question, I am struck by the cross referential nature of the work. Ingram basically outlines and restates Groothuis' thoughts who in turn references management trend analyst Faith Popcorn (who first coined the term cocooning) without a footnote, Stephen Talbot, Marshall McLuhan, Peter Drucker, Jeremy Rifkin, Negroponte, and others too numerous to mention. In turn if one goes back to these authors, one encounters a plethora of referential materials as well. I believe one would be better served by reading a few key texts of primary thought. This is my point- in the future, if present indications are a gauge, primary thought and authority will be hard to come by on some topics. This has a serious impact on all our discussions of technology and community. Postman does the same thing in the context of his writing and leaves us very few actual footnotes, yet the same referential quality is there. Now, in the spirit of the authors, I will offer up a few quotes of my own.
"People in virtual communities use words on screens to exchange pleasantries and argue, engage in intellectual discourse, conduct commerce, exchange knowledge, share emotional support, make plans, brainstorm, gossip, feud, fall in love, find friends and lose them, play games, flirt, create a little high art and a lot if idle talk. People in virtual communities do just about everything people do in real life, but we leave our bodies behind. You can't kiss anybody and nobody can punch you in the nose, but a lot can happen within those boundaries. To the millions who have been drawn into it, the richness and vitality of computer-linked cultures is attractive, even addictive."-Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community.
According to Rheingold,
"Virtual communities are social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace." ( Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1993), 5.)
These quotes yield a general flavor of the current outlook for community in cyberspace. With Rheingold, we are left to wonder just what constitutes "Sufficient human feeling". We are left very much in the dark about the process of community development--perhaps "generation" would be as appropriate--but we know that the key ingredients are communication and feeling. To his credit, it seems that for Rheingold, despite his immersion in certain virtual communities and his guarded enthusiasm for the uses of CMC, the best virtual community is an extension of "real community"--though not, I think, in McLuhan's sense of transformative extension and amputation.
Effect on Culture and Values
Marshall McLuhan's "The medium is the message" pervades Postman's analysis of technology's radical influence upon American values. In many ways McLuhan makes more sense today than he did 30 years ago. Postman characterizes the values peculiar to an oral culture as "group learning, cooperativeness, and a sense of social responsibility." These values, necessary for community, are rapidly being depreciated as the values inherent in mass media confront the values inherent in the printed word. Much of what Postman has to say regarding the question of technology's effect on community is framed in relation to its negative effect on these overarching concepts of culture and values.
Postman says that as a culture we have lost the ability to carry on meaningful dialogue. The cure, according to Postman, is education. The schools must not ignore electronic media, rather we must subject new technologies to a rigorous analysis and critique. We must study it--as students have studied literature for hundreds of years. Only by standing back from it and trying to understand how it works on us, and why, can we keep from being its victims. If we ignore it, it won't go away, but it will change us. As technologies impact the cultures, so the community is affected on a local basis. I would say along with Ingram that the loss of the ability to engage in meaningful dialogue transcends the question of technological impact.
Groothuis laments the isolation of individuals and then proceeds to characterize it as fragmentation of individuals. he doubts that can help us find the love that binds communities together. networks are not communities in and of themselves, nor is that their primary intent. Appropriation of technological substitutes for real community is not possible. I contend that while particularities CAN be withheld from on-line consciousness, they can just as easily be expressed. Case in point. in a recent presentation to a Writing across the Curriculum group on technology based strategies for on-line composition, I came across a discussion by an instructor who told about a Vietnamese student who was participating in an on-line discussion. His on-line persona of choice was "Anglo". No one was aware of any ethnic diversity in that on-line community, but when a comment was made that offended the young man, he was quick to assert "I AM VIETNAMESE! I AM AN AMERICAN TOO!" When identity is seen as pertinent, it is easily displayed. It is not as easy at this time to approximate the human presence and touch, although this can be created virtually as well. Frankly, a regular classroom setting, or most other "real" communities in our culture come with unspoken rules about autonomous spaces for individuals to reside in. So the issues predate the technology that is considered to exacerbate the problem of alienation. this has at its root the problem of human sin as Ingram points out which is manifested in this case as individualism.
Groothuis and Ingram both reference futurist Edward Cornish who warns that we might become a non community- a poorly integrated mass of electronic hermits. Groothuis consistently focuses on the impact of the disintegration of the self and the impact that will have on its community.
With the self (the "knower") at the center of the universe, modernity attacked community , authority, institutions, tradition, and instead set up its own individualist tastes, authorita- rianism, centralized bureaucracies, and idolatry of the new.
C.S. Lewis has called (in his essay "Membership") the modern vision of the autonomous self collectivism (in groups) or individualism (standing alone).
Christianity counteracts collectivism without becoming individualistic. Membership implies class distinction in today's world. It is not necessarily so. In the Christian world view, membership as a vital organ in an organism speaks of a unity in diversity. Harmonious union is the refuge from the collective mindset of today. True personality as well as true community thrives in this type of union. Our real inequalities can then distill into service and relevance. This is not utopianism, but it is a clear alternative to what the world offers and can form the construct within which Christians frame their relationship to technologies yet to come.
The Fabric of Society
Technological change can be viewed as a sort of instrumentality- and instrumental cause of a social effect. Ingram defines community as a group of people, living together in a particular place, having common interests, work values, etc. Communities can be good or bad. For our purposes we shall define a good community as one free of oppression yet equipped with responsible authorities. A good objective would be the advancement of internal cohesiveness and grace , where peace and justice reign. This is reflected in Ingram's quotes from Nick Wolterstorff. Wolterstorff has long been concerned with aesthetic issues, having written two textbooks on Art and Art History from a Christian perspective. I find it intriguing that his chain of thought that originated in the field of aesthetics has propelled him into the discussion on community in Reason beyond the bounds of Religion, which Ingram references in his last lecture. In a very real sense the discussion on self, embodiment and community is at its root an aesthetic and spiritual one.
The effect of technology on community is not only a direct assault on personality and populations as such. In more indirect ways, the influence will become ubiquitous, reaching to the fabric of society. Many see the democratizing potential of technology to be a matter of fact, not speculation.Therefore, technology's effect on the economy of the future will lead to an effect of Social institutions and necessarily, the concept of community.
The assault on Community by the New Economy
Paul Romer, leading proponent of New growth Theory in the field of Economics argues that the effect of technology in the information revolution will wreak havoc. Cognitive skills will be valued more highly on a permanent basis than unskilled labor. This will impact communities by creating a more competitive environment and an increasing polarization between the haves and the have nots living in the same communities. Another possible scenario is an technology driven apartheid situation where the techno elite remove themselves from shared spaces and retreat into their own comfort zones. Romer proposes more competition in American schools. "It seems to me that any reasonable proposal for educational reform has to involve a much greater degree of competition in our schools than we've seen so far." (Peter Robinson, " Paul Romer". Forbes ASAP magazine, copy, N.D.)
After reading some of Romer's theories on the role of information and knowledge in the future, one can imagine communities structured around the activities of employers, all networked together in a dronelike fashion. Human ingenuity and the quest for ease, comfort and pleasure will temper this trend. A trend that has developed in Europe, as a reaction to the potential isolation caused by technology is "Telecottaging". This is where people gather in one location to telecompute or telework- but for different employers and institutions. People need interaction and are proven to be more productive in environments where they can informally talk or relate to one another.This is a potential backlash against the "cocooning" effect that Faith Popcorn has predicted.
Management Guru and Social Philosopher Peter Drucker echoes Romer's prophecies. (See Peter F. Drucker, "The Age of Social Transformation." The Atlantic Monthly, Nov,1994., pp 72.)
"The old communities- family, village, parish, and so on- have all but disappeared in the knowledge society. Their place has largely been taken by the new unit of social integration, the organization. Where community was fate, organization is voluntary membership. Where community claimed the entire person, organization is a means to a person's ends, a tool. For 200 years a hot debate has been raging, especially in the West: are communities "organic" or are they simply extensions of the people of which they are made? Nobody would claim that the new organization is "organic". It is clearly an artifact, a creation of man, a social technology."
Once social tasks were performed in the context of community. The concept of a local community performing some kind of task as was done 200 years ago is daunting. In our mobile society, communities no longer have control over its members attentions or loyalties, much less their energies. In the absense of neighborhoods in the traditional sense, where areas are populated with individuals with no roots. The picture emerges of a highly competitive society of increasing polarity between successes and failures. Such a knowledge society portends anarchy. So who will take care of social tasks in lieu of the traditional community? Either the government or the organization?
The Church: Between Apocalypse and Utopia
A surprising third choice may step up to the plate. In America, the nonprofit sector, made up mainly of churches, has a long history of meeting social needs. At this time, most of them are occupied with social justice issues and specific social tasks. In church circles the organizations that have experienced the most growth tend to put their energies to work on social issues that are married to kingdom issues. The product of the new church is healed individuals, solved social problems, exemplary citizens that are also fulfilling a human need to be needed, balancing some of the effects of being "knowledge workers." This may be the only sphere in the future where most people can make a difference in society. The public and private sector will have become so big and insular that responsible citizenship is confined to the ballot box and taxes.
One of the most highly sought after abilities in the future of this scenario will be the ability to collaborate with others, though not necessaily face to face. The role of education will be to unify distinct discourse communities made of individual persons or specialists into coherent and uniform master communities. Of course the great danger in this scenario is the potential loss of material identities. Some may find a certain kind of illegitimate freedom in the anonymity that cyberspace affords as Groothuis documents. A new awareness of cultural and ethnic or geographic identity will be explored. The very real danger of aliasing can easily be applied to human personalities. I see connections to the idea of Heidegger's "enframing" here as well, extended to the "truth" of human personality.
Vaclav Havel warned that the foundation of the West is exactly the same as that of the East, and our future is their present: "I believe that with the loss of God, man has lost a kind of absolute and universal system of coordinates, to which he could always relate everything, chiefly himself. His world and his personality gradually began to break up into separate, incoherent fragments corresponding to different, relative, coordinates."
(Cited in Colin Gunton, The One, The Three And The Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p.71.) Click here for an excellent essay on transcendence by Havel.)
This makes the breakdown in a coherent theological system within evangelical Christianity all the more vital to rebuild. The sense of need and the ability to meet that need shall be greater than ever in the technological future. I find myself on the same road as Ingram againand again as I reflect upon my cogitations on this issue. The NEW is seen by Ingram as the agent that throws a new light on the failings of modernism.
What I am about to say is said in full realization that the impact of Postmodern thought can render any authority meaningless in the eyes of many electronic citizens who will believe the lie. However, the presence of the imageo dei in mankind and the irresistable grace of the Holy Spirit holds out hope that many will come to comprehend the rationale of propositional truth if it is lived out before them, in real or virtual communities. The need for coherent defenders of the gospel will not diminish in a new theatre for rational discourse that can be reclaimed in the technological environment. The possibility machine holds forth this possibility as well. In the face of absurdity, many will choose suicide, no doubt. The Evangelical church can provide the stability, and point to the Authority that every human has always needed. As more individuals encounter this neediness as it comes into clearer focus, we may be surprised to see many recognize that God was on His throne all along, Christ is over Technology as well as Culture, and revival and a new reformation is not an impossibility.
Against the Pomo Dystopians
The Hypertextualization of Literacy
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