by Robert Braswell, Ph.D.
Special Assistant to the Executive Director
Of the Assemblies of God Division of Foreign Missions
Computers are extensions of our brains. . . .
The effect of extending the central nervous system
is not to create a world-wide city of ever-expanding dimensions
but rather a global village of ever-contracting size.
-- Marshall McLuhan, Counter-Blast (1969)
|Today I will call your attention to some issues of the information age, the media environment, and (to use the current buzzwords) the Global Information Superhighway, because I believe basic literacy regarding these issues is becoming increasingly necessary to effective missionary work.
After this introduction, I will go over a brief glossary of terms, attempt to give you a perspective on information technology that is critical and aware, and then focus on why you as missionaries should care about the Information Environment, and why and how you as missionaries should adopt and use certain aspects of it as a means to accomplishing your mission. I will also try to give a glimpse of what headquarters (both DFM and General Council) are doing in these areas. (Throughout this document, a link like this: [TOP] will bring you back to the table of contents.)
My goal is that you will understand the information environment and adopt certain technologies, but that you will at the same time feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to use them carefully, critically, and with due regard to the side effects of these technologies. I dont want you to leave this presentation saying, oh, Im going to start using e-mail as easily as you would change your socks; I want you to realize the side-effects of such a decision, including changing the way you work and eventually changing the way you think and therefore who you are, and to consider the ramifications of becoming someone slightly different, in some sense a citizen of cyberspace, when who you are is the incarnational context for the gospel message you share.
Im trying to work through, for myself, some of the ramifications to missions of what I see happening in technology and communications. For instance, in a world where the very fabric of communication tends to squash heirarchy, what is the role and relevance of a place called headquarters?
In a world where the very fabric of communication tends to make geography increasingly irrelevant, how should we, a division defined by geography, react?
In a world where I have more in common with (and more communication with) a college professor in Bulgaria or a computer programmer in India than the gangster rapper a few blocks a way in Springfield, what is the meaning of foreign missions? What about the meaning of indigenous in a context where the geopolitical underpinnings of indigenous to whom are chaotic? Should we be looking for a successor to the indigenous church principal?
And in a world where every pastor wants to have his own missions philosophy and send out short-term teams; in a world where the receiving nations are sending their own missionaries who desperately need to learn from mistakes we made 75 years ago and at the same time desperately need to be independent from us, how can these technologies be harnessed to build consensus, a sense of community, and a truly global partnership in mission?
Again, these are questions Im struggling with, and I dont propose to answer them all in this session. I do propose to raise them, and to challenge you to a critical awareness so that questions relevant to your field will be raised over time as you see the influence of information technology on the missions force, the missions field, and missions philosophy and practice
Glossary of Terms
E-Mail (Electronic Mail)
The Information Superhighway
A Place to Stand
|If I were a layman in this area I might be able to share my insights on todays topic as if they were my own. As a student of communications I am forced to admit that what I see today closely follows writings I was exposed to, and didnt agree with, while in school. Many of todays headlines were written thirty years ago by that controversial media guru of the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan. This puts me in the awkward position of not only needing to give him credit, but to some extent defend some of his ideas where they happen to agree with mine. Im not asking you to swallow everything he said by any means, but I would like to use McLuhans provocative way of looking at media as a starting point. To give you a little bit of a place to stand, a
theoretical framework, Im going to ask you to look critically at his statements and then challenge you to look more critically at media as a result.
You may remember Marshall McLuhan as the guy who said, content is irrelevant; the medium is the message. He was also fond of saying, To the blind, all things are sudden, and Media are new environments as imperceptible as water to a fish. My purpose in reminding you of his ideas today is similar to his in using these quips: I want to make you aware of what youre swimming in, so that the changes you will be facing will not surprise you.
Communication channels arent neutral: they have strengths, weaknesses, and (especially) side-effects.
McLuhans theory revolves around his insight that our communications technologies are more than just tools, even more than metaphors of our time, but actually define and shape us, changing the way we think.
McLuhans approach was to try to look at the attributes of a specific medium and predict how using that medium would change us as a society. For instance, by 1967, before there was a generation who had grown up with television, he predicted that the effects of television on such a generation would include all the following:
Note that these predictions werent made based on the content of what was being shown on TV in the 1960s -- for McLuhan, content was irrelevant. He based these predictions on the attributes of the TV technology itself and the way cooperating with those attributes would change TV viewers.
McLuhan also predicted that side-effects of modern communications technology, including computer-mediated communication, would include the following (as quoted from Counter-Blast (1969)):
There is more in this book about Russia, communism, and the eventual outcome of the cold war; anyone interested enough can judge for himself whether McLuhan predicted in 1969 what the rest of us began to see in the mid-1980s. What is interesting for our purposes is McLuhans insight, based solely on his observations of the side effects of technology, of Russias complete domination by the American technological economy, as early as the mid-1960s.
One more quote for good measure, because it so accurately describes the current rush to commercialize the Internet and create the Information Superhypeway: The wild broncos of technological culture have yet to find their busters or masters. They have found only their P.T. Barnums. (p. 54)
Now I ask you again not to swallow McLuhan whole or to accept his view uncritically, but to consider whether it is possible that he really did what he claimed to do: predict long-term effects on society which would occur as a natural result of adopting communications technologies with certain attributes and side-effects. And further, to consider where current technology may push us, not only as a society, but in the context of world missions. [TOP]
What does the Global Information Superhighway have to do with missionaries?
|Back to our original question: what does all this have to do with you? Part of the answer is that, like the fish for which water is imperceptible, you are in an information environment which may not seem to be a
relevant issue. Yet it is this environment within which mission will be accomplished if it is to be accomplished at all, at least for this point in history. The technological/media environment touches everything, and it is not static: as McLuhan said, environment is process, not container. The environment is changing, and it is also changing you, your support base here at home, and the world to which you are sent to minister.
Information technology will change you.
Either you will adopt these technologies, or you will reject them. Adopting them will change the way you work and the way you view the world. Rejecting them will change you just as radically, potentially even putting you out of step with your supporters and the aspirations of your audience. Look at TV as an example: some men have tried to harness it for evangelistic use, others have spent their whole lives and ministries preaching against it. But nobody has been untouched by it.
Information technology has changed (and will continue to change) your support base.
I believe a book could be written on this topic. I will make two brief statements that seem to me to be simple and self-evident, but at the same time full of potential ramifications for missionaries:
Information technology has changed the world.
The world you were called to isnt there anymore. The souls are still there, but the cultures and sociological groupings have changed. Expectations have changed. Cultures have changed. Religious openness has changed.
One consequence of the shrinking planet is that geography is becoming less relevant in defining people-groups, lifestyles, even language groups. I regularly have electronic conversations with people oceans away, but I almost never see or talk to my next-door neighbors. And it is not only Americans for whom this is becoming true. Everywhere in the world it happens, access to media images and the consequent ability to compare lifestyles across geopolitical boundaries is shaking the old order. The concept of a people-group is changing from a geographic and ethno-linguistic given to a self-selected reference group.
The information environment has also changed the rules of effective use of power. There are many kinds of power. One of the most misused kinds of power is the power of authority. When we have authority to do something, we rarely attempt to cultivate other kinds of power, even though other approaches would be better in the long run [for the simple reason that power is an attribute of a relationship and the relationship is often more important in the long run than the short-term goal we exercise power to achieve]. Authority is quick and easy: if you have it, you can use it immediately. Other kinds of power take longer to use: the power of persuasion; the agenda-setting power of communication; the power of information; the power of integrity; the power of knowledge, of wisdom, of building a consensus. Communications technologies coming into mass use today have the side effect of flattening heirarchies and undermining authority. This is frightening to those who use authority as their principal means of achieving their goals--and not without reason. But it ought not to worry those who know how to build networks, consensus, and movements among autonomous districts, autonomous churches, autonomous pastors, and entrepreneurial missionaries.
The necessary technology and infrastructure is in place for one-world government and one-world economy. Things in Revelation that were once thought to be figurative can now be literally accomplished with existing technology. Digital cash, smart cards, microchip implants, instantaneous communications, all are here today. (Added in jest: If Bill Gates werent such a harmless nerd, people would be pointing to him as a potential candidate to become the anti-Christ. He has the technology, and the money, to pull it off. )
Most dramatically, the current information environment directly impacts the tools you have available to you. It represents the opportunity for creation of a virtual missions community about which more will be said in the next section.
The age of learning a living. Continuous self-teaching is a basic survival skill necessitated by the rate of change in every sector. It is also the age of readily available resources for self-teaching; the Internet itself is perhaps the best example of these self-teaching resources. [TOP]
What should missionaries know about the Information Superhighway?
It allows us to be part of a missions community anywhere we are.
If community is no longer geography-bound, we can be part of a missions community whereever we are. We really do need each other. This is a scriptural principal as well as a very practical one. I hope you have lived and worked with an awareness of a need--and a responsibility--to communicate with headquarters personnel, area directors, supporters, and networks of coworkers. None of us is as smart, as talented, or as well-informed, as a team of us working together. I hope we dont fear the interdependence of true teamwork.
What am I talking about here when I speak of missions community? Imagine the best parts of School of Missions -- all the friendships and conversations that develop in hallways and dorm rooms and across tables in the dining commons -- continuing on throughout your term on the field regardless of where you are. Imagine checking your e-mail and finding, on a regular or even daily basis, personal notes from friends both on the field and at home -- personal notes that will actually keep coming because you will actually answer them because it is so cheap and easy to do so. Imagine further finding e-mail messages containing the text of an ongoing round-table discussion with peers and coworkers on issues of interest to you; reading the material and knowing the others who are reading it also, how they are likely to react, and knowing that you can choose to reply or just wait and see how the conversation develops. Imagine being part of several such groups, one large including many missionaries and supporters back home, another made up of missionaries just from your area, and others that may not be related to work at all but to expanding your knowledge and expertise in some area of personal interest. Unless you have participated in an electronic discussion group, you may not be able to appreciate the sense of community it can foster.
The sense of community would be worthwhile if that was the only benefit, but that is just the beginning. The real power is not the feeling of community, but what can be accomplished by the community, working as large and small networks of like-minded people who pull together because they want to and choose to and are interested and motivated to do so. I believe there is more potential for missions in these grass-roots networks than in everything else missions has adopted out of management textbooks over the last three decades.
It is easy to tool up for easier/cheaper/faster basic communication.
The good news is that the possibility of a global missions community is now more convenient and affordable than ever before. Very few parts of the world are still beyond the reach of the basic infrastructure necessary for the least common denominator of the Information Superhighway, electronic mail.
The Net as evangelistic medium.
The possibilities afforded by the Infobahn as an evangelistic medium are being explored by many, including our own ICI University. ICI is setting up specific areas for their materials. Comment: dont spam the net for Jesus (posting religious material in inappropriate contexts).
Meets the need for continuous learning.
Again, Ill remind you that continuous learning is a survival skill, and there is no better place to learn about the information age and particularly the Internet than on the Internet itself.
Reminder: Communication basics.
Perhaps it would be good to be reminded of a few communication basics in this context:
You cannot not communicate: Refusal to communicate when channels exist is itself a communication.
Every communication has a content part and a relationship part: E-mail especially, since it lacks a lot of nonverbal cues, requires the communicator to specifically address the relationship part of the communication or risk having it read in by the reader based on the lack of relationship cues.
Every communication is to a greater or lesser extent cross-cultural: Cross-cultural communication is not just between you and the nationals on the mission field; it can also be between you and a missionary from another generation, or a supporter from another walk of life, or even a spouse of another gender. All the flexibility and determination necessary in any cross-cultural communication can be needed in any of these situations.
Communication can flow through a variety of channels, but the channels themselves arent neutral: We all know that some things must only be said face-to-face. Some channels are much better for creating a sense of community than others. No single channel is best for every purpose. Choosing appropriate channels to match the goals of the communication is part of the responsibility of the communicator. And by all means, Christian communicators must be aware of the side effects of the channels they choose.
It is easy to tool up for easier/cheaper/faster communication.
Relative costs of phone, fax, mail, e-mail
Example: 3 pages to Singapore:
Additional advantages of e-mail