The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

The Community Filter

A Rabbi, an Amish man, and a Muslim walk into a bar. Well, okay, maybe it’s a kosher pie shoppe. But if they sat down and started talking about cell phones, they might find that they have a lot in common. Maybe not in how they use cell phones but in how their traditions shape that use. By contrast, my own evangelical tradition has left us to fend for ourselves. Let me explain.

Dave Stearns recently reviewed the book When Religion Meets New Media. In the book, the author, Heidi Campbell, cites a case study of the use of kosher cell phones. Apparently, the ultra-orthodox Jewish community is large enough to command the attention of mobile phone providers, who have in turn modified phones and service plans to accommodate Jewish values.

I dialogued a bit with Stearns about it. He pointed out that the ultra-Orthodox have a strong hierarchy in place. This hierarchy empowers a central authority to observe and evaluate new technology and its effects on their community. It also empowers that authority to speak with one voice and represent their people. Thus, the authority not only carries weight within the community but also advocates for, represents, and protects the community.

These dynamics reminded me of another “strong-tie” community—the Amish. They too have strong, clear—and in their case, explicit—values guiding the habits and practices of the Amish communities. Like the ultra-Orthodox Jews, Amish leaders evaluate technology’s impact and make decisions about using it. Guided by the Gelassenheit, Amish leaders have adopted many modern conveniences in limited ways. The Jewish community has likewise adopted cell phones with limitations.

More recently, I read about Muslim reactions to various technological developments. Salamworld is a Facebook equivalent premised on Islamic values. It’s “protected from harmful content” and a “virtual, model society, in the climate of peace.” It’s interested in protecting young people from “ideas that are not familiar to them” by using filters and moderators. Maybe that seems restrictive or censorial, but consider it in the context of parents and children. Parents are certainly interested in protecting their children from ideas that can hurt their development. In a context of love, protection makes sense. Perhaps Salamworld is trying to achieve a similar goal.

The Wall Street Journal published an article in February that explored the Internet’s effects in closed countries like Iran and China. In the U.S., we’ve tended to overlook “the Internet's role in authoritarian countries.” After all, it’s not only dissidents who use the technology; it’s also the governments in power. “Facebook and Twitter empower all groups,” not just the ones we’re rooting for. In other words, technology isn’t always changing what is happening, but instead is changing how it’s happening.

Returning to Stearns’ blog review, this pattern continues. Another example Campbell, the author, describes is how the Anglican Church has created a diocese in the virtual world of Second Life. Again, like the Jews and the Amish, Anglicans have clear hierarchy and authority structures in place which are guiding their practices and responses to technology. In the Anglican’s case, it’s not limited adoption but intentional engagement that has taken place.

The pattern is obvious: Communities with strong ties and clear authority structures can engage with technology in ways that reflect their values. Ultra-Orthodox Jews, the Amish, Muslims, China, and Anglicans are all hierarchical structures. Their structure helps them use technology in well-thought-out ways.

In our dialog, Stearns pointed out how much harder it is to explore these practices in flatter social structures like democracies. This includes my own tradition—Christian evangelicals. Evangelical beliefs and values are much more diverse. Authority structures are based on influence and not necessarily position. But there’s are some drawback to a democratic social structure like this.

In these “strong tie” communities, I see a lot of protection going on. Leaders are guiding the whole community, for the good of the community and its individuals. They’re doing so in a way that reflect their community’s values. Ultra-orthodox Jews can defer to experts who share their values. Muslims can log on to Salamworld confident that their values will be upheld there. In a way “strong-tie” communities function as filters.

Evangelicals, for the most part, are largely left to decide for themselves—about everything. They have fewer filters, so the flood of decisions is overwhelming. Sure, evangelicals can find experts, but they have to seek such an expert out and then determine whether he or she shares similar values—all before they can even begin to trust his or her judgment. The individual in a flat, democratic society is much less protected, and his responsibilities are much greater. The prospect is daunting.

While evangelicals may not have careful leaders to help us along, these “strong-tie” communities show us that we do have a choice. Their intentional engagement and limited adoption light a path the rest of us loners can follow. We are not at the mercy of technology. We can adopt and engage in limited and intentional ways. If we are only an authority unto ourselves, we at least might consider how best to wield that power. Those choices require self-discipline, sure, but deciding begins first with conscious evaluation. We can observe how we use technology, and we can identify some of its negative effects. We can decide how we might best limit our adoption to stave off its harmful effects.

We can observe. We can identify. We can decide.

In my next post, I’ll share a few of my own practices of limited adoption and intentional engagement.