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Review for Religious, 31 March 1997

From parchment to cyberspace:

good news about the Internet

by John Freund, C.M.

Introduction: "We've been making pages for 1500 years..."

Imagine a religious order receiving front page coverage in the New York Times and then being featured a few months later in a New York Times Book Review article.

monk illustrationFor once, the story had nothing to do with scandal. In fact, the tone of the articles reflected uncommon respect and even admiration for the electronic publishing endeavors of the Benedictines at Christ in the Desert Monastery. These religious have found a new way to embody their charism of working with the written word. The world looks on, fascinated by the blend of devotion, artistry, and technological expertise.

The Benedictines of Christ in the Desert Monastery host a web site on the Internet, where they "continue the heritage of creativity, the arts, and handicrafts as exemplified by our predecessors in monastic life. We write on electrons creating cyber-books: pages for the World Wide Web.... We've been making pages for 1500 years. It is part of our tradition, our heritage as monks."

It's a new "monastery industry," an industry that goes beyond jams and breads. By using technology to update their approaches to ministry, the Benedictines offer food to hungry souls in the vast community that comprises the Internet and they have also found a source of income to support their ministry.

Institutions seeking to establish a presence on the Internet prize the skills of the Benedictines. As these religious assist in migrating already developed print media to a new form of library on the Internet, they have developed a new face for their ministry to the world.

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Another lens on updating a community charism

Religious congregations in the twentieth century have wrestled with the challenge of expressing charisms anew in a modern or post-modern world. The Benedictines of Christ in the Desert Monastery have peered thoughtfully through the lens of technology to examine their charism again. Other congregations might engage in such a process, too, especially taking into account the evolution of the Internet and the World Wide Web.

Some individual members or pockets of "early adopters" of new technology have ventured into cyberspace as modern day Gutenbergs, adapting developing technologies in service of the gospel. But the Benedictine community of Christ of the Desert may be only one example of what might happen if we began to look at community charisms through the special lens of technology.

This is far from the only way to revitalize a charism. I suggest merely that the Internet and its associated technologies might provide us with fertile fields for tilling. Indeed, these fields may well need and deserve far more attention than they have thus far received. As a Vincentian, an example that occurs readily to me is that the poor are being shut out of access to the newly emerging world currency of information. The gap between the have's and the have not's can only increase and solidify. Communities who work to reduce poverty and to provide a way out of poverty must look at issues raised by a new form of deprivation - "information poverty."

What the Benedictines have accomplished belongs to a broad landscape. Here we explore some of its horizons and look at ways to move forward, boldly and prudently.

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Sea change in the information age

There is a revolution going on in communication, a sea change. It has various names: cyberspace, the Internet, the web, computer-mediated communication. Some describe it as more than a revolution, as a paradigm shift possibly more significant than that brought about by the printing press.

Reactions vary. Some hail the changes; others ridicule, revile, or fear them. Religious leaders in Iran have labeled it a plot of the western world to subvert religious and cultural values and impose Western materialism in every home. (This may be true to a certain extent of all media even if it is unintended.) No matter which view proves closer to the truth, the revolution cannot be ignored, regardless of how intimidating, over-sold, or underestimated it seems.

Microsoft computer titan Bill Gates learned the lesson the hard way. Initially he miscalculated the impact of the Internet. Now he has seen the light and scrambles to revised his multi-billion dollar company's plan. He knows Microsoft needs to catch the wave he at least implicitly admits he did not see coming.

The revolution brings tremendous implications for the church and for religious communities in our post-modern world. It should not be ignored. Put another way, it can only be ignored at tremendous cost to evangelization. We need to evaluate the new medium of the Internet without allowing ourselves to be driven by the "hype".

Information and information technology are, of themselves, neutral. We need to harness them in the service of gospel values. Gospel-centered vision must lead us, rather than trends and fads.

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What is the Internet?

In some ways the Internet is akin to, but even more powerful than, the largest multinational corporation. It cuts across international and ideological boundaries, all without incurring long distance charges because computers connect to a local network.

library illustrationMetaphors abound. The Internet has a Barnes and Noble mega-bookstore like flavor but with much more endless rows of shelves, not to mention the comfort of your own chair, coffee and slippers if you connect from home. It differs from a bookstore in that in many instances when a publication catches your attention, you can frequently establish e-mail contact with the authors, send notice of it to a friend on the other side of town or the world, or join an international discussion of the work.

It evokes the memory of our parents' or grandparents' excitement about getting a radio. But with this significant difference: the 'Net puts in homes and offices not only a receiver, but also a transmitter.

At another level, it resembles a gigantic party-line conversation. Freedom and chaos abound as people share their worlds, eaves-drop, advise strangers, and always look for more information. Virtual communities of sinners and saints, of health practitioners and disease suffers, of workers and game players spring up in the free-flowing world of the Internet.

The Internet sends mail more efficiently than any postal service ever imagined. How fiercely people on the Internet grumble if electronic mail delivery requires more than a few seconds. Hence the derogatory appellation "snail mail."

This has its shadow side. Point-and-click ease of sending multiple copies is a mass-marketer's delight and the possibility of "spamming" (flooding another's electronic mailbox with so much mail that important communication gets buried) or "flaming" (inflammatory or just plain rude messages) delight the vengeful and the mischievous.

But email opens up new possibilities of networking which many have already seized upon. The Internet makes strange bedfellows - the anarchist cozies up to the traditionalist, Pro-life and pro-choice proclaim their positions in favor of free speech. Traditionalists and Call to Action groups clamor attention. An exiled Catholic bishop and Mother Angelica hold forth from the same medium.

The World Wide Web, the "WWW." increasingly cited on business cards, billboards and print advertisements, may provide the most apt metaphor. The Web entangles us, whether we realize it or not.

As bandwidth and baud (net jargon for speed of transmission) multiplies, the Internet is becoming increasingly visual and interactive. Television, other communications media, books, newspapers, magazines and more represent themselves. Become enthralled with Mona Lisa's smile live from the Louvre and, with a simple "download" and the right software, make her frown. Hang out on a street-corner a world away where a video camera vigilantly records the ebb and the flow of human traffic. Children in Alaska teach their language to children in the Philippines; grown-up children hook into endless Dungeon and Dragon games, now in shockingly real 3-D. Electronic fan clubs of your favorite movie star or television actor elevate time-honored institutions to a new level of sophistication.

Pray with monks of Taizé, search through the entire text of the Summa Theologiae, or download the latest statement of Pope John Paul II. A CEO may be able to view a competitor's tax returns, or an activist can query who contributed to political action groups in a specific zip code, and in what amounts.

The very concept of a library as a physical place in town or on campus is challenged by this exponentially increasing repository of information.

Yet the Internet is not owned by any one and therefore is controlled by no one. In a sense, everyone owns it. It is not a monolithic, sterile machine encasing whirring reels of tape in the sealed room so often portrayed in movies.

The reality of the Internet is far messier and far less organized. At its most basic, it is a network of computers of all sizes and types. These range from very basic computers found in many a child's bedroom to the super computers of research institutions and governments. The Internet is the sum total of computers and computer networks voluntarily connected to various telephonic umbilical cords. Information is shared voluntarily. No one has to open their own computer or every part of their computer to the penetrating eyes of others. However, the fact that so many have has created, in the incredible space of about five years, so great an archive of information that the phrase "information overload" loses meaning.

The Internet blurs traditional distinctions between telephone, movies, books, radio and more. Traditionally packaged media must scramble and merge. The president of Sony Corporation forecasts integration of the electronics and entertainment industries. And already cable and telephone giants compete fiercely for who can direct, if not produce and control, the on-going development of the Internet.

watch illustrationAbove all, industry leaders must figure out how to avoid the fate of the Swiss watch-making industry. Swiss watchmakers, comfortable with their superior hand-crafting, turned their backs on quartz technology for watches. They believed the new technology would barely ripple their pond. Instead, they found themselves swept away by a tsunami. Inside five years their market share plummeted and they became a classical example in business and paradigm shift literature of an industry that refused to read signs of the times.

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Hooking up to the Internet

The information superhighway has its tolls, and the first is equipment required to connect. One image of being "online" suggests that only high powered, "state of the art" equipment cruises the Internet. In truth, the cost ranges from the equivalent of a "rent-a-wreck" to a luxury sedan or a Ferrari.

In addition to basic hardware of a computer, a monitor, a keyboard, and a modem, access to telephone service is needed. Massive on-line service providers such as America Online, telecommunication giants such as AT&T.Internet service providers (ISPs) provide connections that allow the use of telephone lines for transmission of the electronic data that is the life blood of the Internet.

One part of the Internet is primarily text-based and without the "golly gee whiz bang" graphics. Even a virtually ancient computer (3 years or more old), which can occasionally be found abandoned at curbside, is enough equipment to take advantage of sometimes free email accounts. (These accounts are supported by advertising revenue much in the manner of commercial TV.) For other applications, newer but still relatively simple equipment suffices.

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Using new technologies in the service of our charisms

Once alert to the phenomenon, perhaps only a little imagination is needed to envision some of the enormous implications and possibilities for ministry. Potential exists for ministries of the church, for religious communities and for the Vincentian family.

The information age brings with it a new form of poverty potentially more significant as a cause of poverty than has yet been realized. "Information poverty" imposes a new kind of powerlessness.

The needs of the poor have changed. A new measure of wealth is access to information and skills required for survival in an information age. The poor need more than food, clothing, shelter and medical care. Although these necessities of life must be addressed, new needs not envisioned in earlier times have arisen.

More than ever there is need for employable skills which can be acquired for the most part only through training and hands on, on-line experience. The shift from an industrial economy to a service and information economy dramatically widens the gap between the "digerati" and the poor. To attend to this new form of poverty we must heed the repeated calls of Pope John Paul II "to search out more than ever, with boldness, humility and skill, the causes of poverty and encourage short and long-term solutions."

If the poor are to sit at the table with others, then they have very specific needs. Chief among these would be word-processing skills and access to computers. Some have already begun this form of empowering ministry. Recently a housing development in Rhode Island became the first in the country to act on this insight when it built in computer access and skills training for all residents. In Philadelphia local activists have arranged for a mobile van to provide access and training in poor neighborhoods.

The voice of the poor may be initially through people like us, but ultimately the poor themselves must be empowered to speak in their own voices and sit at the table of the new measure of wealth - information. There will always be need for bringing the food and bandaging the wounds. But even Vincent de Paul, the paragon of direct service to the poor, saw in his age the need to do more - to network, organize and get at root causes. Otherwise the poor are condemned forever to eating the scraps from Dives' table.

The ministry of evangelization

Historical precedents abound for adapting new technologies in the service of ministry. We see the genius of Gutenberg in adapting the bible to the new paradigm, of others using ships as means of transporting missionaries across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans (although Paul did it much earlier), of Bishops flying airplanes in Alaska to visit far flung parishes. Few TV viewers of the 50's have forgotten Bishop Sheen's flourishes and his anticipation of the current interest in angels. Without pressing the point, perhaps Fr. Coughlin might be seen as one of the forerunners of Rush Limbaugh and talk radio.

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Implications/possibilities for religious communities and institutes

The Internet brings with it new ways of embodying a religious charism for those who have eyes to see.

The Benedictines of Christ in the Desert have found a new way to live out their charism of working with the written word. The general Benedictine site on the web includes the Rule of St. Benedict with extensive bibliography, Latin text as well as translations into other languages. General Information includes a world-wide Benedictine e-mail directory, information on internal elections, material on monastic topics, links to corporate and personal Benedictine sites throughout the world.

Developed religious outposts in cyberspace also include the Dominicans, the Claretians, the Jesuits, the Franciscans and my own Vincentian family. But as with all things on the Internet and the Web the presence of other communities is growing by leaps and bounds.

The Dominicans seem to have been among the first to plunge deeply into cyberspace. Perhaps that is why some of them seem on the cutting edge of the latest interactive possibilities of the medium. such as the sound and video very effectively integrated into their pages.

The Claretian presence includes everything from addresses and telephone numbers of their houses throughout the world, a gallery of pictures of Claretian priests and brothers, descriptions of various apostolates, and a section that educates even novices on the Internet in the details of composing his or her own Web page. Two of their best known publications, US Catholic and Salt of the Earth Magazine, have web sites.

Of course the Jesuits have turned out in force. One of the keys to their presence resides at LeMoyne College under the title of Jesuit Resources on the World Wide Web. The site includes links to information about their spirituality, history, official documents, Jesuit events around the world, apostolates in retreat centers, parishes, higher education, faith and justice, art and artists, science and technology.

My own Vincentian family is using the Internet and the World Wide Web as a way to connect the more than one million Vincentians in the world. These followers of Vincent, Louise de Marillac, Frederic Ozanam, and Elizabeth Ann Seton can now visit the site of the Vincentian Center for Church and Society at St. John's University for history and announcements of common interest and contact each other directly through an e-mail list that spans the globe with its membership.

The Internet has great potential for facilitating communications, internally and externally. The recently developed SisterSite promises to be a major resource in networking for religious women. The Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the Conference of Major Superiors of Men are both in the process of developing web sites.

It not at all inconceivable that Internet usage will become more ubiquitous and utilitarian than current uses of fax machines. Administrative correspondence could speed instantaneously from Provincial to houses and members. Apostolates can hold on-line meetings and think-tanks, etc. Imagine the savings in time and money when meetings or at least parts of meetings can be done through video-conferencing, which is already economically feasible even if not yet of the top quality available to large corporations. Certainly there will always need to be face-to-face meetings. But on-line preparation offers the tantalizing possibility of improving productivity.

A frequently heard criticism of cyber-communication is that it de-values human presence. But think of members of congregations who find themselves in isolated assignments far from meaningful direct contact with other members of their institute. Through the Internet, many achieve a new level of connectedness with their brothers and sisters. Similarly, the valuable services ham radio operators perform during times of crisis and in maintaining missionaries' connections to their home bases can now be supplemented over the Internet without accruing long distance telephone charges.

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Additional reasons to get wired

There are many other reasons to explore ministerial possibilities of computer-mediated technology. While the documents do not explicitly reference computer-mediated technologies, such advances seem to fall within the call to the church as expressed by the invitation of Vatican II to read and adapt to the "signs of the times."

There are also some very practical reason for religious institutes to explore this new technology. A technologically mediated apostolate can be open and appealing to the old and the young, the healthy and frail. Certainly it engages the young. Increasingly, youth will be not only computer literate but will speak the Internet's language with all their ease of their native tongue.

At the same time, it opens the door to the possibility of people remaining active longer. It can empower the frail and may be source of second career energy for those in burn-out. As Vincent dePaul faced his increasing infirmities he would write: "When I can no longer ride a horse I will take carriage to continue my work. And when I can no longer do that then I can write."

candle illustrationFinally, we need to compete in marketplace of information. That it is "better to light a candle than curse the darkness" applies to the necessity of establishing positive presence on the Internet rather than merely condemning it or buying into the stereotype of x rated chat rooms. As a state lottery ad proclaims, "you've got to be in it to win it." Put differently and more compellingly, the sinful, sad state of our world did not stop God from sending Jesus. Concerns about the state of morality on the Internet should drive us to provide more helpful, interesting, and even entertaining sites. As one email correspondent of mine expresses it, "The more good places we put on the Internet, the more likely it is that people will find good places to go."

Initially I was surprised at how the Internet has given me a much richer sense of the immediacy of the body of Christ in the world. In a matter of minutes I can "converse" with people from all continents whose concerns I share.

As we move to a new millennium, we are called to be as visionary and as practical as Vincent and the other giants whose spirit we enflesh in the new millennium. If we are to be effective servants of the poor in the new century, we must explore the new frontier called cyberspace and we must take advantage of its immense opportunities for networking in service of the poor.

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Net surf's up: how to catch the wave

The skills required are rapidly becoming no more complex, arcane, or mystical than those needed to drive a car. Few drivers can design, build or repair a car; few Internet users these days are the technical whiz kids portrayed in popular media. Investing a few hours in simple computer training is not at all beyond the mechanical prowess of the average religious. Witness the rapid development of Internet use among senior citizens ranging into their 90's.

Getting started does not require a long technical explanation. The single most important suggestion would is that you find someone to show you first hand what all the shouting is about. The Web is not something you read about but experience. The second commandment is like unto the first: fearlessly mount the Internet surfboard yourself. Explore any topic that interests you and prepare to be amazed at what you find. It remains a dry, intellectual concept until you jump in the river and get baptized.

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The Internet will not solve all ministerial problems. Indeed, it may create some. But it will become an increasingly valuable and indispensable tool. The Internet is a another way to gather the folks and tell the story. Only a few hours of surfing the Net discloses that there are many seekers. Who will feed them? Likewise, the Internet is another way to serve the poor. A few hours of surfing uncovers invaluable sources of information and networks for people who join in common cause for the poor.

Some say this paradigm shift is nothing short of a tidal wave sweeping us into the twenty-first century. Is this hyperbole? Time will tell. Pray let us not find ourselves among the Swiss watchmakers in the world of the gospel!

What? All these great links and you're still here? Get back up to the top of the page and find some place else interesting to go!

Copyright 1997 - John Freund, C. M. All rights reserved.