My father pastors a congregation in rural Swaziland. Their biggest task is looking after the victims of HIV & AIDS in a home-based care program. Earlier this week he wrote a story on the use of technology in this extremely poor area of Africa, where even running water and electricity is a luxury most people don’t have access to.

Ons of the things I do somewhat on the sideline is working in ethics at the University of Pretoria. Over the past few weeks I was part of a team teaching Engineering Ethics (I’ve been part of this for a number of years now), and I marked a number of papers in Christian Ethics and Health care. From this ethical perspective, I’d like to make a few remarks, to point out some of the complexities raised by the story. I’d suggest you first read this.

One of the complex questions we try to bring to the attention of Engineering students on their way to make a life in the field of technology, is the problem of the weakening between the causal link of an action, and the possible negative outcomes. This raises the question of who are to be held responsible in the case that something went wrong.

On the other hand, in ethics and medicine we tend to focus on doctor-patient relations, and all kinds of potential models for how medicine should be applied or understood, while the reality of Africa is that there simply isn’t doctors available for people, many times not adequate medicine available, and difficulty in accessing medical facilities from rural areas. The questions concerning medicine and ethics in areas of poverty might by much less about what to do with the doctor that messed up an operation, than about what to do about a system which doesn’t allocate enough doctors to the poor (or doctors who prefer not working with the poor).

Now, some questions and reflections surfacing out of the above and the story.

If I ever visited a doctor, who looked at my medical record, and took out his phone to check the name of something written there, and in reference to some random google hit (which didn’t get to number one on google because the South African board of medicine thought it should be there) would tell be what I should do in future, I’d be really unhappy. But in this case we’d probably be OK with the act (or maybe you wouldn’t, but then I’d get to that in a moment). But lets say that the answer found from google was wrong? Now, I’d agree that chances are almost nothing, but what if it were? Who’d be responsible? If it was my hypothetical doctor, we’d surely say he’s responsible, since he was supposed to have access to the right journals and textbooks. But what if it was my father the missionary, pastor and theologian? Is he responsible? Can we hold wikipedia responsible if incorrect information was found on there site (assuming he got the info from a wikipedia site), which lead to wrong advice given in this situation, and possible worsening of the patients condition? How does the fact that there is a total lack of doctors in this specific area affect our thinking? The fact that we live in a system where it’s simply not possible that a doctor or nurse would see this lady of her family to make sure that they have all the correct information.

More complex, is the questions concerning the photos. What if the pharmacist would make a wrong judgment on the photo, and prescribe something which would worsen the wound? Would he be responsible? What if he refused to look at the photos? Would he then be responsible for not giving advice? What about all the millions of trained doctors that isn’t giving advice even electronically? Can the fact that distant advice is possible become a hindering factor in making sure that adequate doctors are sent to these poor areas? Can new possibilities in applying medicine distance interfaces become a further reason for not getting doctors into the areas which need them most? And what about the story told by comment no. 4 about doctors being trained to use advanced technology, and now refusing to work in areas where this technology isn’t available. Could the wonders of modern medical science become yet another worsening effect for the health of the poor of society?

Reflecting on the layers of complexity in the decisions that need to be made in this situation should obviously bring out the importance of context, and be a reminder that certain answers we give in our comfortable developed existence, simply cannot hold in other contexts. Furthermore, it’s a reminder that in times of crisis, we change our perceptions of right and wrong. Few of us would rely on the methods described above in our daily medical care, but in the extreme crisis the people of rural Swaziland are finding themselves with HIV & AIDS, these same processes become life-giving beyond our imagination. But furthermore this story brings out the absolute injustice of medical care, where the rich have access to the most amazing possibilities thanks to technology, while the poor don’t have access to the most basic of medical attention.

And as you read this thanks to the same technology that delivered the pictures to the pharmacist, and gave the answer to my father, technology becomes the tool focusing our attention on the injustice mentioned above, and the question is forced down: Who should now take responsibility for this injustice? And what is our responsibility when technology make us aware of injustice in the world?

If you are 25 and speaking to a bunch of academics, chances are that you won’t contribute much.

If you are 25 and working in a church, chances are you are responsible for the website.

So, if you are 25 and speaking at a theological conference, you might just make a contribution.

Introducing: Amazon Kindle.

Yes, I believe that might have been my largest contribution to the South African Missiological Society.

I was preaching in East-London, in my father-in-law’s congregation a few weeks ago. When I printed out the sermon and liturgy, the ink on the printer was low, and at points the printout was almost unreadable. So I uploaded my sermon to my kindle, and it worked wonderfully. I wouldn’t advice publicly reading a text for the first time in a kindle, since you will have to do a page-flip while reading the last 2 words on one page, and the first two on the next, but for a text that you just somewhat know, it works great.

Plus, it gets you introductions to lots of academics.

Academics love books.

Academics tend to be on the other side of 45 or even 50.

So I delivered my paper, got a few responses, I’m thankful for that.

I delivered my paper from a Kindle, and suddenly the dean of the faculty the conference was held wanted to ask me questions.

I don’t have a large enough portion of my library on my Kindle yet to be able to confirm this, but students and academics might want to check out this post before becoming too excited about the Kindle. I have struggled with the fact that a kind of spatial memory doesn’t work on a Kindle as it would with a paper-book. Hopefully something future e-books might solve.

It’s not the first movie to play around with the dangers of  virtual worlds, and probably not the last. But some serious questions will have to be considered in the coming years concerning social networks and virtual worlds. Gamer portrays a world, 25 years in the future, where a social network is created in which you play another person. A virtual world, but it’s not virtual and not virtual people. The poor in society can sell themselves, their brains get wired up, and then someone can pay to play their bodies. The user sits behind his computer and play someone else.

This “society”, is portrayed by the film as a place where users guide the “bodies” to create a place of sexual experimentation. Maybe taken to an extreme, but it does show something of what happens when an anonymous world is taken where no responsibility needs to be taken.

A game is then created, where you can control a death-row inmate in a first person shooter game… to death (for the inmate). A literal game, a virtual game. People really die, but this while being played by kids.

The film opens up questions on virtuality and reality, and although not doing it very good, it does point to some of the dangers of what may happen to morals when actions are viewed as just virtual. Death and sex become mere virtual experiences.

Although I don’t agree with the general rating from RVA Magazine, it’s critique needs to be taken seriously:

It is a film that demonstrably hates its primary audience. It is a film that tries to criticize the commercialization of violence, even though it itself is commercialized violence.

I wonder about a film that criticizes virtualized violence, and then create a film of 95 minutes, of which a large part goes into just another violent scene: virtual violence.

I’ll give it 2/5 at best, but would consider it worthwhile to stimulate a few conversations.

I think I just discovered one of the greatest and most interesting apps ever. Nexus friend grapher. It takes your facebook friends and draws a graph of the mutual connections between them. This is my map:

nexus map 1I’ve identified a few groups already. Groupd form when I have a number of connections with people who have mutual connections among each other, but not with the rest of the map.

The two big groups are where I’ve spent most of my life. Piet Retief and The University of Pretoria. The University is wher eI have the most links, this is where I started using facebook. The links with friends, and connections with theological students. The Piet Retief crowd and the University crowd has little to do with each other, although there are quite a few links, since some of my school friends also came to university. Oh, and right between these two you’ll find my parents and siblings, whom have a lot of connections to both sides.

Currently I’m pastoring in Kameeldrift. So there is a lot of connections that has formed there. However, the Kameeldrift crowd consists mainly out of 30+ers and under 18’s. So the number of people on facebook is not very high, and this group is probably not a very good presentation of reality.

Then there is the Dutch Reformed pastors. I know a lot of them from various meetings, and try and remain connected with them as they join facebook. They seem to share a few links with the University. This might be because we share the links of lecturers at theology, the student pastors at the student congregation, and theological students, whom obviously also connect strongly with Dutch Reformed pastors.

The South African emerging crowd (by lack of a better term) seem to constitute a very distinct crowd. These people share few links with the people with whom I spend my day to day live, but it’s a distinct group that also know each other. They consist of many Pangani folks and South African bloggers. What I’ve called the Emerging Bloggers crowd is bloggers all over the world who are connected to each other, but obviously have very little to do with the rest of the people in my life. Some of them to connect with other South African bloggers as well, and some of the more well-known ones connect with some of the Dutch Reformed pastors as well.

Go on try it. What do you think? Is this of any use to anyone?

I’ve been wondering about this question for a long time now. How much can we mess things up? Will God always keep thing in line, or can people mess things up totally? Was it theologically possible that the world could have been destroyed by nuclear war during the 60’s and 70’s? Is it possible that humans can destroy humanity through global warming? How much can we mess things up?

See, the pragmatist in me say that reality is that we can mess things up really really bad. Maybe totally is too big a term, as 11th hour say, it’s humanity that is in trouble, not creation. Humans may become extinct, not creation. So let’s ask this question: Can humanity really mess up humanity? Can we wipe out humanity, or would God always keep humanity intact? (OK, until the second coming if you would).

On the other hand, the tradition in me say that God created and cares for humanity (good theist that I am), God will always keep the 7000 that serve God in place (1 Kings 19), God will never again destroy the earth by water (Gen 9).

Sitting in a class yesterday someone used the Missio Dei to say that we should sometimes relax, knowing that God is in any case working in the world, whether we are doing something or not. Now, I have some thoughts on the Missio Dei, but decided not to take part. I have my doubts whether we can say this, when I read the gospels and Acts it would seem like we are sent to the world, that caring for the world is a task given to the church.

What this illustrates, I think, is the danger of the extreme of the view that God will always keep thing intact (no, my classmate did not take this to the extreme), is passifism. On the other hand, I think the extreme of the pragmatist in me might be humanism (I’m not always sure that humanism is a bad thing, but as theologian I’m sure that as a believer there is more in following Jesus than you would find in humanism).

So, help me here: Theologically, would God always keep humanity intact, or can we mess thing up really bad? Is this a journey between the extremes of passifism and humanism? Is humanism the extreme?

OK, I finally got around to writing the draft of my contribution on “Theology and the virtual world” which will happen in October. It’s a first draft, written in the last two days. I will deliver it to probably the largest yearly gathering of pastors of our church. This will be part of one of three open sessions, and I’ll have only a few minutes. In these few minutes I have decided to make the case for blogging as an important tool in the “virtual world”. I’m expecting a 40/50 something crowd, highly intellectual, but with little to no Web 2.0 experience. I’m using a number of different types of sources, academic journals, books, a TED video, blogs etc, so my referencing is still a mess. Well, for the past two years I’ve been formed by the blogging community, so if you are reading this, input will be appreciated, either as comments, changes to the wiki space or as email. You can download the PDF version of the paper here, or visit the wikispace where I’ve uploaded it here. Happy reading, it’s about 2000 words.

Network society, blogs, and the church

Cobus van Wyngaard

 

Introduction

The Internet is more than a new technological medium, it is a new world. This world is transforming our way of communicating, our language, our attitude to writing, our social relationships, our relationship with space and time, our way of learning and much more (Bazin & Cottin 2003:3). Working from the theme “Theology and the virtual world”, I will focus on the Internet, the most popular manifestation of the virtual world (Bazin & Cottin 2003:2), on what has become known as Web 2.0, and especially on blogging. What is currently happening in the Web 2.0 sphere can rightly be called a revolution, both technologically (O’Reilly 2007:17), but also in the way people organize themselves (Shirky 2005:19:50-20:05). The virtual world is not longer only virtual, it’s effects can be seen all over society. In what follow I will explore some of the possibilities of blogging in this network society.

What is Web 2.0?

With the dot com collapse in 2001 many thought that the heyday of the Internet was over. Today this is seen as the shakeout where a new technology was ready to take centre stage. Enter Web 2.0 (O’Reilly 2007:17). The term Web 2.0 does not refer to any technological innovations, and is therefore seen by many as a meaningless marketing buzzword (O’Reilly 2007:18). However, the millions of citations of a definition of Web 2.0 (O’Reilly 2007:18) and countless conversations, posts, wiki’s and pages on this is just some of the markers of a growing consensus that a totally new understanding of the Internet has emerged. Although a final definition of Web 2.0 is still eluding us, and this paper won’t even try to attempt giving one, some understanding of the shift that has taken place is critical in this conversation when looking for the place of theology in the virtual world.

By the end of 2006 the Time person of the Year was “you”, it was everyone who participated in web 2.0 (Grossman 2006). Time talked about a story of community and collaboration, called it a revolution, said that it has just got started. This new Internet is characterized mostly by collaboration among users. It has given rise to, among others, social networking sites (for example Facebook), wikis (wikipedia being the most notable example) and blogs, which we will discuss in this paper. This said, it should be clear why the words of Bart Decrem (2006), the participatory web is appropriate to describe Web 2.0, as opposed to the web as information sharing.

Blogs and the blogosphere

It seems like a popular understanding of blogs by those who are not involved with the blogging community is that blogs is online dairies. This understanding has it roots in some truth, but underestimate the influence of blogs. A Blog (shorthand for web log) is a website with different entries, called posts, with the latest post displayed on top. Blogs has evolved to become much more than an online dairy, with Bloggers blogging about whatever topics matter to them (Gill 2004:3), and the influence of blogs on mainstream media, business and politics have been seen on many occasions (Bailey & Storch 2003:3-8).

Blogs is considered an important part of Web 2.0 (O’Reilly 2007:24). Essential to Web 2.0 is harnessing collective intelligence, turning the web into a kind of global brain. Within this the blogosphere, the term coined by Bill Quick to represent the intellectual space that bloggers occupy (Bedner 2004:7), is the equivalent of a constant chatter in the forebrain (O’Reilly 2007:26). “Weblogging is a classic example of mass amaturization, it is deprofessionalized publishing. Want to publish globally? Anything you think today? It is the one button option that you can do for free.” (Shirky 2005:15:57-16:10). Some of the important characteristics of blogs is the already mentioned reversed chronological order, regular date-stamped entries, links to related articles and blog entries and blogs (the latter called blogrolling), archiving (the old content remain available), and ease of syndication (RSS feeds) (Gill 2004:2).

If these characteristics are used, and obviously exceptions on almost all of them would be found within the blogosphere, the very important factor that blogs is not only monologues, but actually conversations. One of the things which make this possible is a technology called RSS (Real-Simple-Syndication), one of the most significant advanced in the architecture of the web. RSS make it possible to not only view a blog, but to subscribe to a blog, and be notified each time the content is updated. Furthermore, RSS readers provide the ability to bring any number of blogs subscribed to onto one interface, reading posts as they are published. Although this might seem trivial it was essentially the piece of technology that turned blogs from “an ease-of-publishing phenomenon into a conversational mess of overlapping communities” (O’Reilly 2007:25).

Christian blogs in a network society

The classic answer to how we get a group of people to do something was to find an institution, get some resources, and coordinate the institution into doing a certain task. In this approach everyone taking part would then be incorporated into the institution (Shirky 2005:00:37-00:57). However, the reality with which churches are currently faced is what Dwight Friesen (2003:15-16) describe: A woman gets together with some Christian colleagues once a week over lunch for encouragement and to be spurred on to good deeds. She reeds a book by Thomas Merton, volunteers at the midweek children’s program of the local Baptist church, usually attends an Assembly of God service, although she sometimes opts for Russian Orthodox, while her membership is still at her parents Lutheran church.

The reality is that people do not necessarily commit to a single institution, and, following Shirky (2005), Web 2.0 technologies further enable people to make such connections, to form connections within networks. A network is a set of interconnected nodes. Although social networks are as old as the human race, it has taken on a new life under what Castells calls informationalism. “The network society is a social structure made of information networks powered by the information technologies characteristic of the informationalist paradigm” (Castells 2001:166). In this world blogs, and similar spaces, become meaning-giving clusters to which people are linked (Friesen 2003:15-16). Contrary to what might be commonly assumed, a strong network is not made up of a few strong links, but of many weak links. Such a network is both stronger and more enduring (Friesen 2003:16).

At this point an important distinction needs to be made. The virtual world is not so virtual at all. It is real people connecting with other real people. These connections have a very definite influence on “real life”. Blogs provide the tool for believers to create a network of sacred places. This Tim Bedner (2004:7) call the cyberchurch, a subcategory of the blogosphere, although we should probable add groups on social networking sites and other similar sacred spaces created through Web 2.0 to this.

Blogging and the church

The Internet is more than a tool that we must learn to use, it’s a new phenomenon (Bazin & Cottin 2003:29), a new world (Bazin & Cottin 2003:3). Adapting to the network society involves more than adding a website to an old process; we should rethink our entire process (Himanen 2001:25). Blogs can help in tasks of the local church. It can be another medium for communicating with congregants. Blogs can help in giving in giving a personal feel to a large church, give people a window into the heart of the church, and help pastors connect with congregants. It can be a way of sharing stories and the vision of the church, and hearing the response on congregants (Bailey & Storch 2007:18). This is using blogs as a tool to connect people to the institution, something blogs can definitely help a church with, but from the above a different understanding also emerge. But the use of blogs must be seen from a totally different angle.

The moment you enter the blogosphere you open yourself up to a global context. I regularly blog about the congregation in which I serve, but a very small percentage of readers come from my congregation. Rather, my blog has become a node to which a number of people connect, all of them also connecting to other nodes. The moment that I enter the blogosphere I have the ability to create a meaning-giving space, a sacred space, to which anyone with internet access can connect. This, to me, seems to be the primary way in which church should interact with the virtual world through blogs. More than strengthening the communications of the local church to it’s local congregants, it becomes part of a strong network consisting of many weak links. When pastors blog they take part in this process. When this happen relationships are formed and friendships result. We take part in the endless chatter going on, voicing part of the conscious thought in the Web 2.0 brain, theologizing, posting and commenting, but most importantly, we create a sacred space where people can connect.

Conclusion

The virtual world, in this case the Internet, and specifically the use of blogs, is not the way in which we do church better. A revolution is taking place, and a new approach to how groups connect together is happening all around us. Theology in the virtual world mean that the church also take part in the endless chatter, form nodes and clusters, sacred spaces people can connect to. From an insiders perspective it would seem that the question is no longer whether this is happening, but rather who is taking part.

Bibliography

Bazin, J N & Cottin, J. 2003. Virtual Christianity. Geneva: WCC Publications.

Bailey, B & Storch, T. 2007. the blogging church: Sharing the Story of Your Church Through Blogs. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Bedner, T. 2004. We Know More Than Our Pastors.

Castells, M. 2001. Epilogue for The Hacker Ethic. London: Secker & Warburg.

Decram, B. 2006. Introducing Flock Beta 1 (http://www.flock.com/blog/introducing-flock-beta-1)

Friesen, D. 2003. Scale-Free Networks as a Structural Hermeneutic for Relational Ecclesiology. Washington: George Fox University

Gill, K E. 2004. How can we measure the influence of the blogosphere?, http://faculty.washington.edu/kegill/pub/www2004_blogosphere_gill.pdf

Grossman, L. 2006. Time’s Person of the Year: You. Accessed 15 July 2008, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1569514,00.html.

Himanen, P. 2001. The Hacker Ethic. London: Secker & Warburg.

O’Reilly, T. 2007. What Is Web 2.0: Design Patterns and Business Models for the Next Generation of Software in Communications & Strategies no. 65, p17-37.

Shirky, C. 2005. Coordination Costs, Institutional Loss, and Cooperative Infrastructure (TED talk, http://feeds.feedburner.com/~r/TEDTalks_video/~5/331825158/ClayShirky_2005G-[None].mp4)

I’ve been meaning to get round to wathcing the TED talks since I first heard about them. So I finally started. I’ll most probably be downloading quite a number of them in the coming months, so for the South African readers, who all have limited bandwidth, if you want them, let me know. Maybe we can make an exchange, since my bandwidth is limited as well.

Anyhow, this one REALLY got me (70mb). Maybe it’s because I’m currently working on the Theology and the Virtual World paper I told you about, and this really hits home, I don’t know. It’s Clay Shirky talking about what’s happening with Web 2.0 (although the term is never used), and this is used as example for how things might be organized in future.

Thing is, Shirky didn’t really say anything that I didn’t already know. I’ve experienced what he is talking about. I’m already sure that he is right, but still I think we like to hide from the reality that institutions is on their way out! What I did realize is that the church don’t yet know how to deal with this. I’ve been reading emerging literature for quite some time now, and even in this, I don’t think I’ve found anything which really deal with all of this, or maybe I just didn’t understand it when I read it.

So, questions: Is emerging really a theological movement (which I like to believe, but which I doubt after seeing this), or is it more a sosiological thing happening (which I think I can live with, already can see some light at the end of the tunnel)?