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Would God Use Email?

Clergy/Leaders’ Mail-list No. 1-209 (Leadership Issues)

WOULD GOD USE EMAIL? (Part 1 of 2)

by David Lyon

Email is an ever-present tool of communication. It is used in business, among community groups, between friends and within families. But what is appropriate use? Are there occasions when email is inappropriate? David Lyon suggests a framework for answering these questions.

My experience with email began in the early 1980s. I was doing some work for the Open University in Britain at the time. From 1985 we used computer conferencing email and several other forms of media communication for the Open University’s first course that was to develop, as it were, in cyberspace. The Open University in Britain is a distance institution with no undergraduate teaching on any campus.

By 1994 Queens University in Kingston, Canada determined that it was time for email to become the standard mode of communication within the University. I began as head of the department at that time and I started using email for all departmental communications. After the first year as head of the department two very kind and gracious colleagues came to see me in my office and they said that they wanted to talk about one or two things that related to my first year in office. The key thing they wanted to talk about was communication. They were bothered by the fact that we had gone over to using email, which meant that I didn’t just walk down the corridors and stand at people’s doorways and chat with them face to face. I had some very interesting things to learn as I began as head of the department.

Even on sabbatical we are in email contact. I keep getting emails that remind me of all kinds of administrative and teaching matters that I really want to have nothing to do with. In pre-email days I would have been able to get away with not having to think about those things for one year. Email can also have its downside.

These new technologies are economically profitable. We have seen recently the America On-line Time Warner merger. There is massive economic activity as people want to have some version of the information super highway. And it is culturally cool. Movies like ‘The Net’, ‘Sneakers’, and ‘Matrix’ all portray some aspect or another of cyberspace. But is it a bane or is it a boom? Why do we use those little smilies when we are writing email? Why do we find other ways of making faces? It is precisely because the face is missing. We can’t see the face; we can’t even hear the voice. Email is very useful in keeping tabs on employees, as I am discovering as an employee of Queens University. A recent report in The Age [newspaper, Melbourne] suggested that during sports events like the Australian Open executive corporate boxes are increasingly important in an email driven climate as there needs to be some context in which people can see each other face-to-face.

Social meaning of cyberspace

THERE ARE MANY aspects of cyberspace, philosophical, technological and so on. I want to focus on questions of relating and communicating. William Gibson, a novelist who lives in Vancouver, Canada, coined the term cyberspace in his novel Neur, published in 1984. Since then the term has become universal. Gibson produced what I think is the best definition of cyberspace, that is ‘to be wrapped in media’. I include email and the use of the Internet as part of that.

How should a Christian community using biblical ethics try to understand the social meaning of cyberspace? People who go to church, if they are fortunate, will hear sermons. There will be someone who speaks, again if you are fortunate, from the Bible and will try to apply what is said from the Bible to everyday life. What I am trying to do here is exactly the other way around. It is starting with everyday life, what we all know and are engaged in. Then I’ll move back trying to interrogate the Bible. To ask questions within a Christian community of how we might appropriately use new technologies such as those in cyberspace.

Approaching the Bible and Christian tradition from the point of view of everyday life is an absolutely vital Christian task for everyone in every life situation and in all occupations, professions and trades. We need to be constantly interrogating, asking questions of our deepest commitments, of our scriptures in order to understand how we should live. You may have thought that technology was somehow neutral. Technology has never has been and will never be neutral. There is no sense in which we can think about technologies as neutral. Cyberspace like all products of technology and of imagination is a human activity and therefore is subject to evaluation including ethical and moral evaluation. Technology has never has been and will never be neutral.

The statistics about the women and men who are using, or not using, the Internet, reveal some interesting things about the non-neutral impact of technology. Those who are likely to be enthusiasts for the Internet are male, between the ages of 35 and 55 (this is Australian data, but also figures elsewhere as well). Those who are the strongest sceptics about cyberspace, the Internet and the email in particular are women, between the ages of 35 and 55. So we need to evaluate the Internet and email and ask the question – Is this ‘media wrapping’ good? It extends our activities, making it possible for us to do all sorts of things that we couldn’t do before, improving our relationships through networking, and so on. Or, does more ‘media wrapping’ mean less meaningful relating? I am going to suggest two frameworks within which we can think about this. One is disappearing bodies and the other is enveloping technology.

Disappearing bodies

MOST RELATIONSHIPS in history have been face to face. It has been only recently that we began to split communicating from physical co- presence. That is the process within which cyberspace has appeared. For most of human history in most places in the world people have lived relatively settled and local lives with little mobility. Therefore they did not have extensive contact with others who were distant from them. Until the middle of the 19th century communication and transport were still one. That is to say, you couldn’t take a message unless somebody actually carried it. That is an important factor. If you have to give a message then you are dependent entirely on a means of transportation to carry the message.

In the 1850s you could almost get a letter from Bendigo to Melbourne in one day. Almost, but not quite. Even then, to go three quarters of the way you had to have five changes of horses. By 1879 the time to send first class mail from Melbourne to London was reduced to 44 days. It was achieved by means of very fast steam ships using the newly opened Suez Canal and by a fast train from Brindisi to Calais, across the channel to London. That was pretty good going for 1879, but you can see the picture that I am building up, once you don’t need someone to carry the message, the communications revolution begins.

Most relationships in the technologically advanced societies are no longer face-to-face. That isn’t to say that we don’t have lots of meetings in face-to-face situations every day. But most of the network of relationships that we have with all kinds of other people and institutions is remote. We relate from a distance. Does that mean that the body has been depopulated? I think electronic ex- carnation would be a rather good theological term for what is going on.

As a Christian believer I am rather interested in what the Bible has to say about bodies. It tells us an awful lot. We begin with what I think of as a kind of memory platform. That is to say the place from which things begin, the origins – biblical creation. When God creates a human he immediately refers to this human as them. Even before we have a story of woman and man, there is a ‘them’. A plural. Human beings are already in relation. What kind of relation? We see it in the Genesis account. God walks with human beings in the cool of the day in the garden. It is the face- to-face relation of embodied persons.

Immediately the Bible account goes on to tell us less happy things about relationships, above all that they are fractured by rebellion of humans against their maker. We see shame, hiding, and blaming. All kinds of distancing effects that drive wedges between persons in relation.

The good news comes biblically not with excarnation, but incarnation. The writer of John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus is God made flesh. Indeed he is referred to as the word made flesh. A body is born and becomes one of us. And this embodied Jesus communicates using all of his senses. Those who are familiar with the gospels will know that Jesus communicated by touching people, talking with people and by eating with people. He tasted things, usually good BBQ fish. Jesus used all his senses in communication. There was even the awful occasion where he had to confront the tomb of one of his very closest friends who had been dead for several days, and he was met by the smell and warned in fact about the smell of the decomposing body (Jn 11). Jesus was an earthy person. I should say that Jesus is an embodied person, and this Jesus communicates using all the bodily senses.

There is another bit of good news in this biblical drama, and that is that one day those who are believers in Jesus will see the embodied Jesus face-to-face in the flesh and be able to communicate face-to-face. In that heavenly city we find an embodied person, Jesus, and there is the hope of a whole rich range of face-to-face embodied relations. This helps me to think about the relationship of bodies and faces in communicating and therefore about how to evaluate email, internet, cyberspace and other forms of mediated communication. It leads me to suggest that mediated communication is good, but limited. It is limited in particular by lack of bodies. I suggest that the default position should be face-to-face relations – a phrase like voluntary disclosure and trusting relationships might be a good guide to communicating well.

Mediated communication is good, but limited. There are five of our family here in Melbourne. One member lives in Japan. Email has been a godsend. My little laptop has been used more this year by the five of us than it has ever been used. We are sometimes particularly delighted when one of the correspondents sends a photo attachment, so that we can see how they are and how things are going. Even better, we get very excited when there is a phone call from Canada and we hear the voice, with all its modulations and its accent. Three of us at least seem to be developing Australian phrases and Australian modulation. But to hear that Canadian accent again is a reminder of dear friends. At Christmas, our son, the sixth member of our family who teaches English in Japan, was here for three weeks. We email him all the time and he emails back. But when we saw him face-to-face it made all those emails slip into insignificance. We could hug him, laugh with him and cry with him. It was fabulous, having Tim with us in a face-to-face relationship. Mediated communication is good, but limited above all because of its lack of bodies.

When Paul wrote to the fledgling and argumentative church in Corinth, they had to learn some communication skills too. But when he wrote to them, he said an important thing on one occasion when they doubted that his letters were the real him. He said to them, actually I am the same person when I see you face-to-face as I am in my letters (2 Cor 10:10-11. Perhaps he didn’t mean to be enunciating a principle, but I think it’s an important principle that we can take from there. Paul wanted to reassure them that, in his case the apostolic authority and care he was showing to that church was exactly the same whether he was with them face-to-face or writing a letter. He wasn’t going to change his style because he was writing a letter. That is a really interesting and important bit of communicative ethics right there for us. Consistency is crucial.

If you use email, I bet you are fed up with spamming. Spamming is a pain in the screen. So many messages arrive unsolicited. You don’t want them, they are advertising messages. In my case I get what I think is administrative spamming from the University. I have to go through my message list and delete a whole series of messages before I even open them, because I don’t want any of that stuff. It’s easy to send a whole list one message, but is it always appropriate? Flaming is another. Those outbursts of anger are the electronic equivalent of road rage. In an enclosed space within a technological wrapping it is a similar phenomena. But how far is flaming compatible with that principle of the default position being face-to-face, and indeed the face-to-face relation guiding how we communicate in other spheres?

God, in the Christian scriptures, is portrayed as someone who reveals himself voluntarily within relationships of trust. Sometimes he uses deep agreement, a covenant. God communicates voluntarily with whom he wills, within relationships of trust. The same scriptures tell us that we are the image of God. Is it the case that we too should be involved in voluntary forms of self- disclosure within relationships of trust?

I find that principle of voluntary self-disclosure within relationships of trust very helpful for thinking about both email and other forms of less embodied communication. Traces of our behaviour, or our transactions are sucked into electronic systems where they become digital persona. There are little traces of us out there in cyberspace. Voluntary self-disclosure, within relationships of trust is a guide to how far those abstract bits of data about us should be taken without our consent and used for purposes about which we know very little, which happens all the time.

You are aware of cookies for example that reside on your hard-drive that are used mainly by corporations to find out where you travel in cyberspace. You are storing data that other companies take from your cookies or that the original company will sell to other companies, bits of data about you that circulate in cyberspace that you did not choose to disclose. That was not within a trusting relationship but something over which you have no control which has an influence over your life choices. Voluntary self-disclosure in trusting relationships is the way God operates and we should operate as the image of God. How do we relate that to our cyberspatial relations?

Enveloping technology . . .

[Continued as Part 2 in CLM-1-210] WOULD GOD USE EMAIL? (Part 2 of 2)

by David Lyon

[Continued from CLM-1-209]

. . . Voluntary self-disclosure in trusting relationships is the way God operates and we should operate as the image of God. How do we relate that to our cyberspatial relations?

Enveloping technology

TECHNOLOGY AS load lightning tools has given way to technology as a total environment. This is tremendously important. We dare not think any longer of technology just as little artefacts – like hammers, spades, or for example a yoke. A yoke is a load-lightening device, to reduce drudgery. The idea that technology is a tool has given way to the thought that technology is a total environment. It is the world in which we live. Technology is the context that we find ourselves in. It is the network on which we depend; it is the rules by which we run.

We saw how far we are dependent on that infrastructure with the run up to the supposed Y2K problem. If it did nothing else, it reminded us that we are deeply dependent on that information infrastructure. When there is industrial action, we discover that there are certain limitations of the infrastructure on which we depend. Our children grow up within this environment and experience the world differently because of growing up in that environment. Sherry Turkle, an American sociologist at MIT writes about this in Life on a Screen. She describes ways in which children encountering computers and other forms of high tech equipment, respond to them in quite different ways from people in their 30s, 40s, 50s. We grow up within a technological environment, and cyberspace is a prime example of it.

Cyberspace, as I say, is to be wrapped in media. Do we see a process operating here that moves from release from drudgery through to release from reality? Certainly we have moved from tools that enhance our capacity to use muscles that relate just to our bodies. We have moved to something that might be thought of as mental prostheses, things that increase, if you like, our brainpower. No one normally thinks of a hammer as a release from reality. But to people using cyberspace, within cyber space, wrapped in media might, it seems to some like an escape from embodiment, and escape from that encumbrance of flesh. And for others it’s seen as an escape from certain realities of life that are too hard to bear.

The same Sherry Turkle interviewed a young man called Josh. He said: ‘I live in a terrible part of town, I see a rat hole of an apartment, I see a dead-end job, I see AIDS. But in multiple user domains’, he said, ‘I see friends, I have something to offer, I see safe sex.’ There is someone responding to ugly personal circumstances and escaping into a form of reality he is looking for, or so he says.

What do we do with this technology? I think that the biblical teaching about technology applies not only to the limited sense of tools but also in the sense of total environment. Like the rainbow in a rebel world, technology is a good gift. We are created, the Christian scriptures teach us with cultural capacities. Cain’s city, which he built in order to escape the pain of being a nomad, a restless wanderer, is not altogether evil. Yet Lamech glorified in violence and weapons that helped him in his violent activities (Genesis 4). Babel develops that constant and ultimate technological tendency towards violence and idolatry.

Tubal-cain, a character ‘who made all kinds of bronze and iron tools’ is a proto technologist. He is described along with the founder of music and other forms of the arts, Jubal (Gen 4:21-22). The description of Tubal-cain reminds us that technology is more than just artefacts. It is know-how and it is processes. Similar processes are seen when it comes to constructing the sacred tent in the biblical book of Exodus. Bezaleel and Aholiab were spirit- filled craftspersons (Ex 36:1-2). God was involved in design, in planning, in material science. What those people needed to construct the best artefact possible was actually the Spirit of God. Jesus himself dignifies craft activities in the carpenter’s shop, but he also expects disciples to do their daily work, all their activities in relation to him.

Like the rainbow in a rebel world, technology is a good gift. Galatians 3:17-28 is a very significant passage. What Paul is saying here is that there is a new start for rebel creatures. There is the possibility that rebel creatures can, as it were, begin creation over again. He describes those who have come to faith in Christ as people who are new creations, who are having their knowledge renewed after the image of their creator. It is a direct reference back to creation. It is a chance to start again being human.

Paul goes on to say that those who are thus renewing their knowledge after the image of their creator find themselves in whole set of new relationships beyond ethnic background, credal differences, race and so on. Lastly, he says they have new attitudes in all their activities in which Christ presides over all. All is done for Christ. It’s as if we have the Jesus code embedded into our ID. We are doing everything in the name of this Jesus. That notion of Jesus presiding over all of life is neatly put by Abraham Kuyper who was a Christian prime minister of the Netherlands near the turn of the century. He said there isn’t a square inch in the whole of creation that Jesus does not say is mine.

Every aspect of everyday life is to be brought in relation to new creation. That includes technological tasks, and then as a complex infrastructure under God if you read about the new city in Revelation. That is also where Babel finds its post-Pentecostal reversal in the city. I hope that is enough to remind you about the way in which technology runs all the way through the scriptures as a tremendously important theme. Technology today is far more important than in ancient times. We depend on it in ways that even our grandparents did not. So the call for appropriate spirituality and right relationships, human enhancement and the limitation on harm is even more crucial.

A flood of cyber spirituality books are being published and some leaders in cyber utopianism will come out with some of the most astonishing comments about the godhood of cyberspace. Seeing cyberspace as soul space, doesn’t seem to me to be compatible with the teaching I have been trying to outline. Let alone seeing cyberspace itself as God, or as the means of attaining final human harmony, as Nicholas Negroponte, director of the MIT media lab says it is. Michael Benedict, another writer about cyberspace, says that cyberspace is just like the heavenly city of Revelation. We need to get certain things in perspective I think.

As of 1 January 2000, Canada has a new territory, Neunavert(?). It is in the Artic and covers an enormous area. It is the first territory ever to be given over wholly to native self-government. N… is run by the Inuit people. That far-flung community of tiny settlements of Inuit people stretching over thousands and thousands of kilometres, both east-west and north-south is highly dependent on and very excited about the possibilities of the internet and email. As one of their first technological activities they are learning to communicate about issues of native self-government in N… This is a wonderful example of human enhancement that can be encouraged in the world of cyber-spatial relations.

Harm limitation

COLLECTING DATA on people in various forms of surveillance is my particular area of research. I have been looking at ways in which harm can be limited within cyber spatial relationships, which is the other side of the coin. Enhancing relations and limiting harm. As God’s agents, I suggest, humans are stewards of a variety of communications. Cyberspace is a context for action, but it is a very ambivalent context. Our world is one of digital communications, of computer mediated communication. How do we live with wise priorities in this world of cyber spatial relations and information technology? Care and control need to go together, as well as love and trust. If the body and the face are vital for communication, as I suggest, these are the realities behind love and trust in relationships.

How does this guide us to answer the questions of when and how to use email? A biblical drama that goes right back to a memory platform through to the pull of the future hope gives us perspective on our dilemmas as we confront the ambiguities of the present. The question is ‘Does God use email?’ I think that through the disciples of Christ, God does use email. My point is that he uses it circumspectly.

[David Lyon is Professor of Sociology at Queens University at Kingston Ontario, Canada. He is one the world’s leading experts on the sociological effects of communication technology. This address was given at an Open Forum at St Jude’s Anglican Church, Carlton, Victoria Australia in 2000 while he was on sabbatical leave.]


This article appeared in ‘Zadok Perspectives’, the quarterly journal of the Zadok Institute for Christianity and Society. http://www.zadok.org.au or <>


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