Sunday, November 25, 2007
The Internet: An engine for schism?
I have just finished reading Alex Wright's fascinating history of information management called Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages (Joseph Henry Press, 2007). In it, he examines human attempts to organize information from prehistoric beads, ancient libraries, monastic proto-bloggers, Thomas Jefferson's Library, and the Dewey Decimal System, all leading up to a history and critique of the World Wide Web.
It is no surprise that he has some thoughts on how the web affects human consciousness.
Before the age of television, many historians believed that the spread of literacy signaled the forward marc of technological progress, in which human civilization was moving inexorably forward toward higher degrees of social complexity....Recent history, however, seems to support an alternative view that in our modern technological era human culture may not be moving unidirectionally at all, but rather multidirectionally. The notion of inevitable progress towards hierarchical complexity began to fracture in the 1960's, with the rise of the great modern liberation movements:civil rights, the antiwar movement,feminism, sexual liberation, gay rights. All of these social movements also happen to coincide with the spread of electronic media. p. 236.
In short, the web is a corrosive force for any centralized authority. I don't think is much of a jump to apply his conclusions to our Church today. It has often been pointed out that before e-mail, no one cared about the World Wide Anglican Communion.
What the American Church was up to was unknown to the African Churches. Now, with every action of every bishop instantly analyzed and criticized by millions, and self-appointed bloggers emerging as the semi-official spokesperson for any given theological view, the ecclesiastical world has changed.
Where Wright takes this idea deeper is in assertion that web cultural represents, in spite of its written form, a new "oral" culture which tends towards tribal self interest.
Fueled by the growth of personal computing and network technology, many organizations have since had to come to terms with the ongoing transfer of power, away from the old central planning hierarchies and towards increasingly self-organized groups of individuals. p. 238
I suspect we have seen these forces at work with the dissident movements within our own church--witness the continued fracturing of those groups leaving TEC--as well as the more positive "emergent" movements both within and without our existing organizational structures.
For a culture which is essentially a 19th century informational book culture, I believe we ignore the impact of the digital age to our own peril.