All systems are made up of smaller simpler units, people or parts, cogs, with or without cognition. A computer is really just a big systematic pile of on and off switches, that's all. Barring revolutions, systems generally become more complex as time passes, and some people will find the changes difficult. Still, tools have been changing for many thousands of years, and will continue to change. It is our nature to invent ways to manipulate everything from stone to ideas.
I've been thinking about what Jane Ubertino had to say about computers in her article "Of Hairdryers and Lightning Rods" (Compass, September/October 1996). She asks whether we are free to reject the use of particular tools. I suppose we are. Not everyone uses axes or spinning wheels, but just as there is a cost to using these tools or systems for spinning wool and cutting down trees, there is also a cost to not using them.
The system in question here is a communications technology. Other technologies that aid us in communication, like books, musical notation, paintbrushes, spelling and mail have all been quickly adopted. A useful tool is a useful tool, and a mastery of the tool to the level necessary for the individual's need is all that is required.
We live to communicate ideas. It is of the essence of being human. In our inventiveness too, we seek new ways to speak and to hear. At first the work of Stravinsky may sound discordant and strange, until we learn how to comprehend it. It was the same with many other composers, writers and artists and the systems they used.
Granted, the distribution of pornography, hate literature and plans for bombs over the Internet may cause us all to ponder the nature of this technology's impact on society. Eschewing this technology as evil, however, is as wrongheaded as saying that all books, mail and telephones should be banned because they too may be used for the same evil purposes. The distribution of information that remains the result of Mr. Gutenberg's printing press includes the poetry of Dylan Thomas, the plays of Shakespeare and the novels of Dostoyevsky. Mr. Bell's telephone connects people over huge distances, and can even call the fire department to a lightning-struck barn.
More important is whether the new technology keeps control of information in a few hands or places it in many. In the same issue of Compass, Derrick de Kerckhove points out that the technology allows two-way communication, while most other media do not. As control of other media becomes ever more concentrated, the provision of a more open forum may be the best hope for the free interchange of thought.
I cannot help believing that many ideas need to be exposed for what they are. Voices of hope and reason need to be heard in the marketplace along with the other voices that will be there whether we choose to participate or not. To eschew the electronic media may mean abandoning them to the views and misinformation of the ilk of the father of all lies. I refuse categorically to abandon the world or to separate from it.
I've had multiple sclerosis for some years now, and recognize that technology may well become ever more important to me. It has already helped me continue to work. For those with more serious handicaps, computers can allow communication that might otherwise be impossible--reading aloud, becoming a voice for someone like Stephen Hawking, or connecting the housebound to other people around the world. Fortunately, I do not need such help, but some day I may, and it is comforting for me to know that it is there waiting. I cannot believe that this is an evil.
The communication of ideas and thoughts one to another is the bread that makes us human, and together with the bread that nourishes body and soul has, at its heart, the reality that we are not alone. A voice, even one on paper or in electrons in a wire, remains a voice, and voices should not be silenced lightly.
One final thought: to consciously turn away from a technology on the off chance that any resulting disasters could somehow potentiate the grace of God, as Jane Ubertino suggests with regard to Amish barns and lightning rods, is nothing short of absurd. Tell the cows or people burned in the lightning-struck barn that their deaths were somehow necessary to bring about the grace of God in neighbours gathered to build a new barn, and they will not answer (well of course you can't answer when you're dead). Such a theology poses a far greater challenge to us about the nature of God than any computer or communications system ever could.
© 1997 Compass, A Jesuit Journal and Gail van Varseveld