The Common Good
January-February 1996

The Choice of God's People

by Joe Nangle | January-February 1996

Sojourners has invaded cyberspace. Or perhaps it's the other way

Sojourners has invaded cyberspace. Or perhaps it's the other way around. Do we actively "surf around" in the e-mail universe, or does that world gradually envelope us?

Whichever, Sojourners has officially gone online and in this corner the question poses itself: Will promote or weaken community? It's a legitimate concern.

The naysayers serve up visions of a world inhabited by solitary computer nerds, passing late-night hours in front of impersonal screens, massaging the various buttons that put them in touch with others of their ilk around the globe. The image of middle-aged men sitting alone at afternoon movies comes to mind. What does this have to do with being human?

And yet, and yet. Other experiences point to quite different scenarios. As people in touch with Christian missionaries around the world, we're being pushed by them to check into cyberspace daily. Our folks overseas may not have running water, but lots have managed to get online, and their world suddenly comes very close to ours. Community with them, via modem and words on a monitor, is real.

For a whole other reason, we're inclined to build community in the "Windows 95" world. The kids are already there. Who hasn't an experience of a 6- or 7-year-old in the family or community looking in amazement at our fumbling to hit the right button to get us out of some mysterious computer hole? They're naturals at it. And with reason. Cyberspace is the environment in which our children have grown up; it holds no fears for them. They're shaming us into entering this sometimes scary world.

Given this upcoming generation of computer-literati, we oldsters have little choice but to "get with it." We'll never make common cause with the kids if we don't know at least something about electronic communication. Said much more positively, young folks get very excited when we tell them about an e-mail message we received at the office that morning. You can almost see the mental reaction: "They aren't over the hill yet."

WITHOUT meaning to sound portentous, the bottom line, I believe, rests on a choice as old as Deuteronomy. With a new chapter in the history of the Jewish nation facing them, God presents the people with the fundamental alternative: life or death. Human beings have had to make the same choice ever since, when some new and revolutionizing idea or system arrives on the scene.

Humanity has done well at times and poorly at others in the face of such change. The last choice presented to us, television, proved once again that the human spirit can soar or plummet with technology. Have there ever been better moments in human experience than watching the first moon landing on television? And can we find any worse mind-numbing trivia than on those same screens day in and day out?

So today, trips on the information highway can mean centrifugal, alienating, and isolating journeys that deaden the human spirit. Some will avoid or at least be done with them as soon as possible.

Sojourners-among many others-holds out other possibilities, articulated last issue by Bob Sabath, the magazine's online administrator, as "visits by friends around the globe," "connections in your own area and worldwide," "getting to know one another better," "carrying on more interactive dialogue," and "exchanging notes with Sojourners members around the world" (see "Sojourners Online," November-December 1995, and this issue, page 6). That sounds like the choice for life which God urged on the people centuries ago and which rings through the corridors of time as we face this new, electronic way of building or breaking community.

JOE NANGLE, O.F.M., former outreach director at Sojourners, is executive director of Franciscan Mission Service and a member of Assisi Community in Washington, D.C. This column has appeared in the former "Community" department of Sojourners , the rest of which may now be found in the new "Taking Action" department (see page 37).

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