I am not addicted to food or money, but I might be to my computer. I’m having difficulty remembering what life was like 25 years ago before this new technology ushered in a new era of electronic communication.
Lately, though, I’ve become aware of how much of my work, social and church life revolves around a screen, keyboard and cell phone. And I seriously doubt that the improved efficiency of it all has necessarily increased my quality of life.
All this has expanded my world and church community, has speeded up my research and kept my knowledge on a wide variety of subjects current and within a moment’s reach. But at a deeper level, I am worried about wrapping myself into a sterile cocoon of virtual isolation.
I’m afraid I am becoming what Shane Hipps, in his book The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture, calls an “electronic nomad.” Despite having a permanent home address, belonging to an active Mennonite congregation and working at a definable task, I seem to be having fewer encounters that define what we, especially in the Anabaptist tradition, call “community.”
“As electronic nomads, we do not sojourn as a group,” writes Hipps, “we drift and journey on our own.” What is missing from the monologue of an e-mail are the nuances so basic to good communication: eye contact, facial expression indicating agreement or a question, the smile of affirmation, the chuckle of a humorous twist. Smiley faces and the style tools of italics, exclamation points, all caps and boldface are inadequate substitutes for the more fundamental venues of human exchange.
There is the possibility of more omi-nous consequences. In his new book, You are Not a Gadget, Jaron Lanier sees the new rage of social networking as evidence of our being “led down a garden path toward a future that denigrates, rather than empowers, the individual,” according to reviewer Douglas J. Johnston.
Lanier sees all this as elevating the “wisdom” of mobs, creating a “hive mind” that seeks to supersede individual intelligence and judgment.
So what is the antidote to this tendency to “sojourn alone,” to avoid this slippery slope toward “singularity”? Hipps asks us to develop healthy relationships with our technologies. “This means nurturing a conscious awareness of their power and our longings, and the way both of these shape us. On occasion we may consider fasting from certain media as a spiritual discipline.”
That advice is good for us 40 and older. For our young people, a summer camping experience at one of our several pro-vincial church camps is the best counter I can imagine against a domineering cyber-world the younger generation so comfortably inhabits. As I travel to the delegate sessions of our area churches, I am pleased with the investment and energy going into their camping ministries, with some of these facilities expanding into retreat centres.
For it is here that both young and old can mingle face to face in the open air, on the hiking and horse trails and around the campfire; making new friends; sharing stories of struggle and joy; starting or continuing a dynamic journey of spiritual formation—all life-giving forms that build and sustain communities of faith.
Freed from their computers and cell phones, both young and older adults can be nurtured and affirmed in what Alan Kreider calls “authentic relationships,” so needed by the people of God as they enter into his “kingdom coming.”
Meet your board member
Joon Hyoung Park of Abbotsford, B.C., represents MC Canada on Canadian Mennonite’s 12-member board. A member of Emmanuel Mennonite Church, he and his wife Kyoung-shim Baeck are parents of two pre-teenage children. A former global training manager for Samsung by profession, he is currently a student at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries in Elkhart, Ind. As an intercultural educator and author, he is the founder of a non-profit educational organization, “Creative Writing for Children Society,” in BC. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 574-226-5912.