On The Record

By the Ven Simon Burton-Jones

The pace of social change, driven by digital communication, has been so fast in our lifetime that we forget how far we have come.  Some of you will have seen Wall Street 2, the post-crash sequel to the defining yuppie film of the 80s.  Gordon Gekko is released from prison for insider trading after twenty years.  He is handed his possessions by the prison authorities, which include a monstrously sized mobile phone, once the height of sophistication but now a period absurdity.  We have come a long way from the green glow Amstrad computers we once used.

In decades to come we will be known as the first generation of the digital age.  We may feel we are managing its challenges with cool self-awareness, but there is a chance that future eras will be aghast at our failure to handle new technology in a way that enabled human flourishing rather than undermine it.  While digital tools enable us to have swift and efficient communication with one another, they lack the essential intimacy of face to face communication.  By definition emails pare down to a minimum the courtesies and kindnesses of meeting someone.  They can also be used aggressively to bully or intimidate without the cost of having to say it to someone’s face, thus creating something of a coward’s charter today.

We have all been hurt by emails; it is quite likely we have hurt other people without realising it or intending to.  Most people are able to pick up the clues they are being given in face to face communication.  Digital communication, by contrast, draws a veil over the face.  Some are critical of other cultures for drawing opaque veils over the faces of people, but blithely embrace this digital veiling.  The moral is clear: if we have something difficult to say to someone we should say it to their face, or at the least over the phone, where voice intonation can be discerned and a fluid conversation sustained.  It would be sad to create a world where we are afraid to open our emails for fear they will hurt us, but my suspicion is that some people have already arrived at that point.

The breathtaking speed of the digital revolution means that there are few norms surrounding its use.  Over decades, social etiquette has developed slowly to deal with the challenges of modern life.  Good manners are no anachronism: they guide and advise human relationships, ensuring we treat one another with respect and equality.  But the advances in digital technology have been so rapid that we have yet to see good norms of behaviour emerge surrounding them.  At first it was the use of the mobile phone in a public place, often a train, where someone would treat the whole carriage to the minutiae of their love-life or what they are going to cook that night.  Now it’s the use of social media.  One commentator recently expressed her dismay to find people updating their online statuses in the middle of a funeral service.  Some of you may have seen this happen.

Facebook and other social media sites have the potential to draw us closer together and many of us have enjoyed this facility, even if it is sometimes surrounded by the most mundane and prosaic of dialogue.  But I worry about the ethics of social media.  Facebook’s creators have gone on record that part of the philosophy behind the company is the belief that any divisions between public and private in a person’s life are essentially false and should be removed and that Facebook does that for us.  Leaving to one side the alarm I feel that the biggest experiment in the history of social intercourse is being driven by some geographically removed men, I believe we have dividing lines between public and private to reflect the complex and multi-layered nature of our personality.  We should relate differently to family, friends, acquaintances, work colleagues and strangers.  If we didn’t it would become a disorientating world where all become vulnerable.  Yet this is what Facebook and other social media sites achieve.

We should be very careful what we put online, especially as Christian leaders.  Unlike words which dissipate into the air, these can be recorded and shared by others.  And they are.  Bishops and Archdeacons have been known to receive print-outs sent by people essentially snitching on vicars.  The fact that our thinking is now routinely recorded in digital form is like some kind of perverse fulfilment of the eschatological promise that what we whisper in private will be shouted from the rooftops.  Social media are public, not private and we should drill this mantra into ourselves.

One of the questions often asked of celebrities is: do you Google yourself?  Some lie and say they don’t.  I would recommend you do, if you haven’t!  It's possibly the first thing a journalist will do if they are digging round a story.  There may not be much we can do about the outcome, but it is helpful to know what’s there.

If these are some of the pitfalls of the digital revolution, we could spend a day looking at the benefits.  The Christian message has endlessly and fruitfully adapted to the era’s media and a whole world of opportunity is out there.  We should not be afraid, but find encouragement and strength to pursue it.  Some of you already are, and this day will help you on this path.  We don’t have to keep pace with every avenue of communication, but find our milieu.  I have a personal website I work on a little each week.  It’s there for others to view if they want to.  Yet I can’t be bothered with Facebook and Twitter.  For me that’s too much effort.  But many churches are using Facebook, Twitter and YouTube in the most creative and imaginative of ways.  Be content with what you like, really.  But always hold before you a sense that, in spite of this media’s limitations, the Holy Spirit will ceaselessly be at work to bring glory to God.  Only a few decades ago, the only people who left a legacy in print were those commissioned to write books or about whom books were written.  This has changed.  One of the enduring legacies we will now leave surrounding your faith is our digital footprint.  So let’s ensure it is an assured, gracious and generous one for future generations to enjoy.

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