Might virtual community become a way of living out the New Testament's "one another" passages?
(This is the first of a series of columns for Comment in which I will address the relationship between technology and various aspects of life, and what bearing this intersection has on living Christianly in the world.)
Information and communication technologies have dramatically transformed human life over the past few centuries. The printing press, telegraph, telephone and email have progressively contributed to making the world feel smaller. Each has facilitated some aspects of community.
The Internet has ushered in the phenomenon of virtual communities. The cyberspaces where these communities reside are growing ever more sophisticated, from the early bulletin board systems, to chat rooms, and now to three-dimensional virtual worlds like Second Life. As technology improves, we can expect better and better simulation of real life community. I imagine we'll soon be able to go on trips with friends to explore exotic places without leaving our homes.
I used to be skeptical about forming true community online. But my mind began to open when a wheelchair-bound friend was recuperating for a couple of years in a convalescent home. He started blogging about his experience and soon developed a community of friends (some of whom he had never met in person) who really cared for him, prayed for him, and supported him in tangible ways; some even came to meet him. For the handicapped, elderly, and those with social phobias, technology-mediated community can be a godsend. I have a friend who gives spiritual direction over Skype and email, because most of her directees live in another country.
Another type of virtual community is the collaborative one, exemplified by online universities and the open source movement. People from all over the world gather online to study or work on a software project together. Many never meet each other in person, and yet they learn from each other, rely on each other, and produce something together that they can be proud of.
Technology transcends distance, leading people like Marshall McLuhan to envision a "global village." Virtual community also erases physical differences. As Peter Steiner's famous New Yorker cartoon puts it, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." The possibility of "lurking" online means people may observe a community undetected before venturing to join in. This has enormous implications for church, as we move into an era where worship services can take place in virtual worlds.
Might virtual community become a way of living out the New Testament's "one another" passages, enhancing discipleship, as we instruct, encourage and admonish each other? And might it provide new ways for Christians to collaborate towards the common good?
There are reasons for caution as we tread these waters.
Technology can pose barriers between people, even as it creates connections between others. We've all experienced it: the kid wearing iPod ear buds who tunes us out, or the friend who answers her cell phone while we're engaging in a face-to-face conversation. Robert Putnam's book Bowling Alone shows how television and computers, among many other factors, have contributed to the decline of traditional communities.
Social networking has captivated the world. Much is good about Facebook, but there are several negative effects. Multiplying friendships shallows them all. How can you have meaningful relationships with 450 people? Then there's the blurring of privacy boundaries. Facebook users rarely take the time to set different levels of privacy for all their friends, so they end up broadcasting personal information to dozens of people they barely know. Facebook also feeds addictive tendencies. Finally, time spent online has an effect on face-to-face relationships. In more interactively intense sites like Second Life, online friendships have been known to become sexual and destroy real-life marriages.
Marshall Van Alstyne and Erik Brynjolfsson have coined the term "cyberbalkanization" for the fragmentation of community that can result on the Internet, as it unites geographically separated people around common interests. Groupings of like-minded individuals have always existed in real life (e.g., religious, recreational and political clubs), but online interaction across the globe concentrates fringe elements and can enable extremism to reach critical mass.
Other concerns I don't have space to explore here are the marginalization of technology "have-nots," the impact of people assuming false identities, and the disembodiment or "dis-incarnational" nature of virtual community. Does virtual community create a new Gnosticism?
How then shall we live? I have no easy answers. We must think about the technology we use, value people over the technology that allows us to connect with them, beware of marginalizing the poor, and stay grounded in the created physical world. As technology grows more able to mimic real life community realistically, we should embrace it to the extent that it doesn't get in the way of still more meaningful ways of relating to others in person and working towards the shalom of the kingdom of God.