The church and the web

'Please stop talking about it, just get on with it'

'If you get hooked into virtual technology and you start to reduce your amount of contact with human beings, and in the most extreme cases, you start never going out at all or interact, then that's an issue for that person as a human being, because are those virtual relationships the same as the ones in the real world?'

Oh for goodness sake. Or in this case - quite literally - for God's sake. Yet another ponderous, tortured, darkly worded lament - simmering with barely concealed contempt - from a senior church figure agonising over the 'challenges' presented by the web.

This latest one was an address by the Rev Donald Campbell to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland - Kirk warned of dangers of social media - introducing a report by the Kirk's Panel on Review and Reform. Rev Campbell continued:

One of the issues with the social networking sites is that people are friends with people they hardly know or don't know at all. There is a danger humanity is being dehumanised by this technology… What effect does the virtual world have if they don't interact with the real world? There could be psychological impacts on a person, such as a loss of empathy for others.

As someone who has helped develop a fair few church websites, and met plenty of people within church communities with great enthusiasm for the web, the continued hostility of so many (not all) church leaders is downright wearisome. I really can't be bothered to be polite about it anymore. The internet has been a fundamental part of the lives of most of us over the past ten to 15 years: I find it quite astonishing that church hierarchies are still commissioning time consuming reports drawn up by dusty panels of the great and good exploring 'issues surrounding the internet', as if some kind of green light needs to be given before it's safe for the rank and file to get on with using web technology.

The tone of these reports, and the public utterances of the senior ecclesiastical figures who endorse them, is typically sullen, sceptical, bewildered and somewhat hurt: what is this new thing that has come along and disturbed our slumber? Go away!

The real 'real' world

There's an unexamined assumption that there is a 'real' world, in which proper, weighty, and serious interactions between mature, respectable adults take place, and a 'virtual' world which is lightweight, ephemeral and essentially trivial: a sad hangout for teenagers, nerds and other immature persons.

In fact there is just one world, in which people rely on all kinds of technologies to communicate: cars to get to places, phones to talk, airplanes to visit distant friends and relatives, letters to correspond, and, of course, the web.

The web does indeed warrant special consideration, not because it presents us with 'issues', but because it is a much better and more comprehensive communications medium than the others. The web gives me amazing opportunities to keep in touch and strengthen bonds with my existing network of friends and family. I no longer need to write to or wait for cheaper evening phone rates to call people: I can send them a text, post a message on Facebook, tweet them, send them an email, share an image, video or link - instantly. I don't need to be in front of a desktop computer to do it: I can use a smartphone when I'm waiting for the bus, and send them a photo of the bus stop as well if they might be interested.

As well as deepening existing networks the web makes it much easier to enter new ones. I'm no longer restricted by what's going on in the town or city in which I live. I can get in touch with people anywhere, people in the same line as work as me or who share my interests, regardless of their geographical location. And these relationships don't have to remain 'virtual': the web makes it much easier for like minded groups to arrange meetups, formal or informal. Anyone who takes the time to engage online knows this. The notion that the web is a cold shadow world of free floating disembodied spirits wailing in the void is utter nonsense, and must be named as such.

The opposite of what the Rev Campbell says is true: the web is an amazing facilitator of community, online and offline. In one sense there is indeed a 'real' world and a 'virtual' world, and I know which one people who use and love the web live in.

Apple's wicked empire

A den of inequity

Reading The Herald's report I recalled recent grumbling about 'all that new technology' by Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks, whom I otherwise much admire. In a recent article he said:

The consumer society was laid down by the late Steve Jobs coming down the mountain with two tablets, iPad one and iPad two, and the result is that we now have a culture of iPod, iPhone, iTune, i, i, i. When you’re an individualist, egocentric culture and you only care about "i", you don’t do terribly well… The consumer society is in fact the most efficient mechanism ever devised for the creation and distribution of unhappiness.

It seems some church leaders haven't moved on much from remarks made by the former Archbishop of York David Hope a few ago - Bishop warns of 'evil internet' - in which, amongst other things, he said:

The danger is in having all this wizardry in individual homes which people never leave and where there is, as a result, no social interaction.

'All this wizardry'. I like that: dear oh dear, when are these crackpot enthusiasists going to tire of building their infernal machines and just allow us to get on with things as they always were in the good old days. There's nothing wrong with good old pen and paper!

Another vision

To hell with all of this idiotic negativity. I've drafted some notes for the kind of thing I'd like to hear a church leader say:

  • The internet is an extraordinary and beautiful communications medium which provides us with unprecedented opportunities for communicating within and outside our community.
  • The incredible range of communication channels opened by the web is expanding every day. We can liberate our news and information from Word docs, office folders and parish magazines by building as many websites as we like. Anyone in the church can set up a blog and share their thoughts. We can upload as many great photos as we like, using the amazing, inexpensive cameras new technology has brought us. We can create and edit videos easily, and share them for free. We can self-publish cheaply. We can keep in touch with everyone in our networks in real time, and, with mobile apps, anywhere. We can hold video conferences for free. We can open all of this to a world audience. This is absolutely amazing, literally a God-send for us.
  • The web has expanded our appreciation of beauty and creativity. We access it using elegant shining devices, many of which we can manipulate directly using our fingers. We can download powerful applications to create and share compelling images, film and sound, giving us creative tools we couldn't have imagined. The web helps make even the most prosaic tasks enjoyable.
  • We recognise that the pace of change in web technology is so great that we need experts - who we know are themselves always learning - to help us make the most of it. We're going to take on professionals with the time and expertise to help our offices and churches get started with the web, and ensure it becomes firmly embedded in their processes. We look forward to doing things much moore effectively and saving a lot of money.
  • We're going to learn something from the extraordinary hope and creativity of those who develop web technologies. It is no surprise that today's web based economy emerged in California, a state that enjoys near perpetual sunshine, and that remains its spiritual home. In web start-up culture the horizon is always bright, numinous, shimmering with possibility. Finding different words for that vision, we might say: 'Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.' (Hebrews 11:1)

That's what I'd like to hear a faith leader say. I suppose one can dream.