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Note: This article was written for our friends Tom and Christine Sine for their recent Mustard Seed Associates ‘Seed Sampler’ titled: ‘2010-2020, New Challenges-New Possibilities:  Technology & Social Networking‘.) Technology, and particularly the Web, have brought tremendous changes to our world. As each decade rolls on it seems that these changes have greater effect- almost exponentially. The pace of change is at blinding speed. In the next ten years, as the virtual, digital realm increasingly comes to bear on our lives, how will our faith and our pursuit of GOD’s kingdom be impacted (augmented or impeded or…)? Can we approach these coming changes with wisdom and prayer for the sake of emerging generations and our own spiritual integrity? [caption id="attachment_929" align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="How will we respond to the emerging immersive Web? (image: J Fowler)"]The Coming Immerive Web[/caption] I remember using email for the first time. Back then I didn’t even know what the Web looked like. Our Internet access was slower than mud and only connected online when sending emails. Today I use dozens of social networks and hundreds of tools and services online. I stream feature-length movies to my laptop while downloading music and other files (legally of course). I connect with family, friends, clients and new contacts who are all over the world with Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, NING… I write blog posts on the porch and ‘live tweet’ at seminars thanks to WIFI. I video chat with my dad who lives four hours away so he can see my kids, and if I was savvy enough, I could always be connected to everyone at all times with a smartphone at my side. I do this all from a small farm by the mountains in rural Virginia thanks to high speed Internet access. But what are the implications of this hyper-connectedness? I see the Web much like a great river that is ever-increasingly rising past its determined banks. The landscape is reshaped as it spills over into more aspects of our lives. Some of us are adapting and jumping in, learning to swim like fish. Some of us are watching the raging river flow by as we stand on the shrinking shore. And others of us are riding on top of the rapids, wondering how to get out or find a quiet spot to take a break. Wherever you are in your use of the Web, one thing is certain- the digital realm is only expanding. In 1999 Tim Berners-Lee, the father and inventor of the World Wide Web, said in his book ‘Weaving the Web’:

“I have a dream for the Web…and it has two parts. In the first part, the Web becomes a much more powerful means of collaboration between people. I have always imagined the information space as something to which everyone has immediate and intuitive access, and not just to browse, but to create…In the second part of the dream, collaborations extend to computers. Machines become capable of analyzing all the data on the Web…our daily lives will be handled by machines talking to machines, leaving humans to provide the inspiration and intuition.” [p.157-158]
This coming immersion of our lives in the Web is partially already here. For most of us we can’t imagine life unplugged. But as the Web matures, deeper and wider dimensions will emerge. The Internet as we know it today (dubbed Web 2.0) has given us all the ability to create and communicate online with incredible speed and reach. We collaborate in the digital realm in ways not possible even a few years ago. Tim Berners-Lee’s dream is beginning to take shape and with Web 3.0 (what is Web 3.0 you ask?) we will truly be living in an all-encompassing grid of communication (a dream come true for some and a nightmare for others). Gutenberg’s printing press doesn’t hold a candle to the revolution we find ourselves in right now. Are you ready? Let’s touch on a few characteristics of this technological flood and how it will continue to change our lives:
  • Omnipresent: As we race towards a massive convergence of technologies and media platforms, the Web will expand into all realms of communication and interaction. This great convergence is bringing together the digital realm with: television (now all digital), mobile devices, gaming consoles, telecommunications, domestic appliances, automobiles and other forms of transportation, retail (through tracking technologies like RFID), money, medical records …I could go on. And for many of these developments we are either partially using them already or in the next five to ten years we will probably see them implemented fully in some form.
  • Real-Time: As a consequence of always being connected to the Web, information is traveling at the speed of life. News stories break live, not just from CNN, but through social media tools via cell phones. With the rise of mobile devices connected to the Internet (in the billions, I hear) a whole new cultural phenomenon has been born.
  • Intelligent: Through coming semantic standards and digital protocols we will see an integrated system of data that is beyond what the Web is today. Also with our use of GPS, geolocation, open IDs, social networking media, and other activities our personal information trail will go where we go. Your digital footprint may not be singularly accessed in one seamless identity now, but that is not a far-fetched possibility for the coming days. You can fear it, resist it or enjoy its benefits. The integration of our day-to-day activities with our digital presence seems inevitable.
As I have been thinking about the possible ways communities of faith can leverage the tools of this revolution – I had to pause. As much as I wanted to lay out twelve ways we could embody GOD’s kingdom of shalom through these technologies- maybe serve the poor with our app-laden smartphones somehow, or create apostolic leadership networks with Facebook or any number of other ways (which I believe we can and could and sometimes should do)- I began thinking maybe a different approach to the digital realm is in order. Instead of asking how we can leverage these tools, is it possible that we should be questioning the level of devotion we have to this digital immersion we’ve created? I’m not advocating we become Luddites (people who reject technology altogether) but maybe, just maybe, we should ask ourselves if Tim Berners-Lee’s dream of a technological Utopia is in competition with the kingdom of GOD. There are many of you out there who are using technology and the Web to accomplish incredible ways of loving and serving the world- both in the Church and beyond – but is it technology or the power of the Holy Spirit that spreads the kingdom of GOD? Where the Web has entangled our souls, we must realign ourselves. Where these emerging trends beckon us to become faithful citizens of a digital empire, we must decline. Let’s set our hands to work building GOD’s realm of influence-that like the Web is a virtual space of sorts- which one day will make all things new in a way that our inventions never could. Let’s embody His kingdom in purposeful community, in daily rhythms of work and prayer and time together- in radical hospitality and love. And if technology aids us in our endeavors, let it have its place. But again I ask: which kingdom are we devoted to? In the end it’s not a matter of external actions but of the secret depths of who we are. Are we mastering our tools or are our tools mastering us? Are we humanizing technology or is it dehumanizing us? As progress and technology march on, we as followers of Jesus will have immense opportunities to embrace and profound challenges to overcome. There is no doubt in my mind that some day- if it is not already here- there will be a church service somewhere that calls people to the altar to lay their smartphones and netbooks down in repentance. There will be families hiking together deep into the forest for some analog time and quiet listening to the Creator. There will be a new movement of monasteries that spring up in rural countrysides inviting any who would come for a rest from the digital flood. There will be a Sunday school class that after reading their Bibles together will study Neil Postman and Jacques Ellul.
  • As technology and the Web have become more continually present in your life, have you had to rethink your use of it (especially in the context of your Christian faith)?
  • In what ways has having access to the Web improved your life? In what ways has it diminished it?
  • What digital changes do you see coming that we should be excited about or wary of?
  • How can we teach emerging generations to master digital tools without being mastered by those tools?
  • Are you looking forward to the next phases of the Web with anticipation, concern, (insert your emotion here)…?
  • How are digital technology and the Web changing the Church at large?
How is it changing the way you live out your Christian faith? (above) Neil Postman on Cyberspace (circa 1995) A Brief Primer on Web 3.0]]>