It is difficult to predict the future and I have never wanted to be a prophet of doom. There are some realities, however, that appear rather clearly. A key theme for 2017 will be transition. We have the transition from the Democratic presidency of Barack Obama to the “breaking news” new presidency of Donald Trump. Changing White House residents is a big transition. There is a bigger transition, however, that will outlive any presidential administration.
For me the big transition in 2017 — which will increasingly impact our lives in the coming years — is the now rapid transition from physical space, where morality and civility govern human behavior, to cyberspace, where no one is in charge and words and images fly across the globe in a moral vacuum. Increasingly, cyberspace is where we connect with other people, buy our products, exchange information expressing our content or discontent, find “baby sitters” for restless children; and it is where we watch other people and they watch us.
Cyberspace calls into question everything we know, what we want to know, or what we think we know. People can move easily from information to misinformation without realizing the difference. Is a comment on Facebook a statement of truth or a prejudicial or biased opinion, reinforced by multiple smiley-face “likes”? What is good? What is true? What people announce as goodness and truth?
I am reminded of a quote from Joseph Heller’s Catch 22: “It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.”
Is it enough to express one’s beliefs and attitudes, without some form of verification that they have an anchor in concrete historical or day-to-day reality? In November 2016, a Stanford University Graduate School of Education study reported that students had a dismaying inability to critically reflect about information found on the Internet. They even had difficulty distinguishing advertisements from news articles.
Using the Internet requires careful observation and critical thinking. I discovered that a few years ago, as I began a genealogical research project about my paternal family. Encouraged by a friend, I went on the Internet. I googled the family name, and bingo I got all kinds of “helpful genealogical information.” What I discovered however was a hodgepodge of legends, conflicting family stories, some bits of history, many inaccuracies, and a lot of just plain nonsense. I discovered for instance that my paternal grandmother died in Indiana, when I know she died in Michigan, because I was there. I discovered that my wife is Belgian (she is Dutch) and that we have two sons. In fact we have only one son. I can make a long list of nonsensical Internet “genealogical facts.” Today I will only accept genealogical information that I can document with a birth certificate, marriage license, property deed, or death certificate, etc.
One of my university students, told me not so long ago, that she feels increasingly lonely and often abandoned in cyberspace. She fears posting anything on a “social network.” She feels she has become an object of not-always-friendly observation by other students, by her part-time work employer, by her current boyfriend, and by her former boyfriend. She wonders as well about her two hundred Facebook “friends” who never react. Silent observers. She wonders who her “real” friends are and whom she can really trust and confide in.
I told her we all need to avoid shipwreck in cyberspace. Since she was a student in my “American Way of Religion” course, I reminded her of John Winthrop’s speech, “A Model of Christian Charity.” Winthrop, an English Puritan lawyer, was one of the leading figures in founding the Massachusetts Bay Colony. On 8 April 1630, four ships left the Isle of Wight carrying Winthrop and other leaders of the colony across the Atlantic. Winthrop sailed on the Arbella, where he gave a speech to reassure his nervous travelers that they could indeed avoid shipwreck.
“Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck and to provide for our posterity,” Winthrop stressed, “is to follow the counsel of Micah, ‘to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God.’ For this end, we must be knit together in this work as one….We must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor, and suffer together…”
My Travel Advisory for Survival in Cyberspace
(1) Remember that all people have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Rights, however, imply responsibilities. Preserving one’s own rights implies a responsibility for protecting and preserving the rights of others.
(2) Remember that every word and every picture that one sends into cyberspace will remain there. Probably forever. One must be careful about what one posts. It may return to embarrass, haunt, or hurt the original poster.
(3) Bullying and denigrating people online is neither mature nor humane. Acting responsibly requires dealing with issues, discussing differences, and respecting people who see things differently.
(4) We need cyberspace guidelines and educational programs for children and adolescents. Something like drivers’ ed programs. Well-equipped with smart phones and tablets, they are often playing with something far more dangerous and destructive than playing with fire.
(5) Schools and universities must insist on internet research protocols: exploring internet “facts” one needs a healthy skepticism and critical thinking skills; anonymous citations are not acceptable; and original sources must be found and indicated.
(6) In cyberspace one can find an enormous trove of religious and theological information. One finds as well an abundance of not so trustworthy religious and theological trash. Pastors, parish leaders, and educators need to help believers separate cyberspace chaff from whole grain Christian belief.
(7) Social networks do link people together; but cyber-connectedness will never replace the warmth and assurance of a face-to-face smile or a supportive pat on the back. A lot of people today truly need that supportive human touch.
Safe travels in cyberspace……..
Dr. J. A. Dick — Geldenaaksebaan 85A — 3001 Heverlee, Belgium