by Michael B. Barkey
"Too much time online makes people more likely to go offline in real life," began a story this month in the Washington Post . The story reported the findings of a small online survey conducted by the Stanford-based Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society (IQSS). Words like "recluse" and "lonely" were used to describe heavy Internet users and phrases like "isolating technology" and "electronic cleansing" were applied to the wider social impact of the Information Age.
Many of us can relate to the isolating effects of the Internet. Our first month as a citizen of the virtual world probably involved long hours of exploring, like Magellan or Columbus after reaching the New World. But the novelty soon wore off. Everything returned to normal, save the enormous world now accessible to us like Narnia, whenever we choose to step back in.
Worries about the disruptive effects of technology to individuals and communities have been commonplace since the Industrial Revolution. The remote American family farm gave way to large, crowded cities and eventually to more tranquil suburban living as a predominantly agricultural economy shifted to a large-scale industrial economy and eventually a small-scale entrepreneurial economy. Transition to a service economy can only be expected to bring about similar changes in lifestyle and community in the Information Age.
The technology revolution increases the possibility for people to work from home. This is perhaps the greatest foreseeable social impact it will have on the developed world. Electronic mail allows us to quickly communicate with co-workers and customers who may be located on the other side of the globe. Likewise, the Internet puts a world of information immediately at our fingertips. Will this further isolate us from one another and reduce face-to-face interaction, as the IQSS study suggests, or instead will it reinforce our sense of community since most waking hours might now actually be spent in our own neighborhoods?
Humans are blessed with the power to make choices for themselves. How each of us chooses to respond to new opportunities depends wholly upon the values we seek to promote in our lives. People are what define a community and information technology is only another tool to help express who we are.
Many people are now choosing to employ these technologies in a way that allows them to keep up regular contact with family and friends who they might have otherwise lost touch with. And they are doing this at minimal cost. Moreover, chat rooms and bulletin boards allow strangers with shared interests to meet and become friends, as was the function of the town square in days gone by. Even the scourge of racial and ethnic bigotry can be overlooked in relations between people online. One’s words and actions, not one’s vital statistics, define the kind of member one makes of a community.
Although some people abuse the privilege of membership in these virtual communities by showing disrespect for their neighbors and engaging in sinful activities, this can only be expected: the Information Age does not somehow change the nature of man. As the virtual world gives us greater freedom, a commitment to the responsible use of our freedoms becomes increasingly important. In fact, the spontaneous development of "netiquette" is likely to expand further and establish broader community standards for proper behavior, as naturally develop wherever people interact with regularity.
"Neighborhood watch" programs that help police behavior in the very neighborhoods we choose to inhabit hold great promise. In the "real world" these programs have often given people an added sense of safety and security, as well as belonging, in their own communities. Now, such programs offer the same possibility in the virtual world as well. They have already been incredibly effective at catching online sexual predators, for instance, and at shutting down online child pornography rings. A commitment to actively enforcing community standards is essential for online societies to flourish.
Just as technologies have been developed and improved to protect us in our neighborhood and homes, like door locks, security systems, and outdoor lighting, new technologies will also be needed to deter wrongful action and protect those in our virtual communities who cannot protect themselves. Recent advances in filtering technology allow parents to block objectionable content from the eyes of their children and also help to protect them from Internet predators. Moreover, it demonstrates that demand for a safe online world will translate into innovative solutions from the private sector to address these needs.
Safety, security and community in the online world are not enough. There is much that words and graphics can do positively to effect the bonds between us, but unless this translates into action in the offline world, the social critics will have been right.
Thankfully, the Internet holds the capacity for facilitating action. We have already seen the ability for the Internet to mobilize grass roots political campaigns. More importantly, it can revolutionize philanthropic giving and institutionalize effective compassion. An excellent example of the tremendous potential of the Internet to facilitate charity is the Virtual Foundation. Established four years ago, the Virtual Foundation works to link ordinary citizens from all corners of the globe in a virtual philanthropic community.
Focused primarily upon linking small donors with grassroots activists in Asia, and Eastern and Central Europe, the Virtual Foundation seeks out small problems relating to the environment or human health, posts information about them on its Web site and allows individuals to discover efforts they wish to support. Afterwards, the organization must provide reports online about the success or failure of their effort, allowing donors to hold them fully accountable for solving problems and helping those in need.
Finally, the Internet provides tremendous potential for religious growth. Sites like Ibelieve.com and CatholiCity.com give seriously religious people a forum for discussion, evangelism, and deepening of their knowledge and practice of the faith. Likewise, libraries of writings by the early Church Fathers are now available online for study at Wheaton University’s Christian Classics Ethereal Library. The growth of explicitly religious communities and resources online provides even those living in nations that restrict religious freedom a place to safely grow in their faith. This creates the opportunity for the greatest facilitator of community commitment and love of neighbor: the saving grace of Jesus Christ.
Each new technology requires new human responsibilities. There is vast potential in the Information Age for dedicating these technologies to love of neighbor and service to God. But it is up to each of us as free individuals to make this choice and prove the social critics wrong.