imageStephen Garner and Heidi Campbell have published this book, released by Baker in September. As connective technologies and new media are now ubiquitous, we have need to reflect on the way we use these tools, and the way they shape us. It’s that double edged knife so common to technologies, that there is this dialogical kind of praxis involved. How do we evaluate these trends within our global information society? And what frames and metaphors help us?

The metaphor of the network is a powerful one. It offers a way of seeing how the internet functions, and also a way of viewing social interactions. In their book Campbell and Garner examine three discourses, arising from (1) science fiction and stories around the birth of the internet; (2) the rise of social network analysis as a way to understand contemporary communities, and (3)rhetoric related to the network society.

It’s quite a tour de force, and in the first few chapters I was gaining some new perspective on these forces and technologies that have engaged so much of my life for 20 plus years. In the INTRO the authors quote Wellman and Raine in Networked, who describe the social operating system of the network as “networked individualism,” marked by several core qualities. “The social operating system is personal — the individual is at the autonomous centre just as she is reading out from her computer; multiuser — people are interaction with numerous diverse others; multitasking — people are doing several things simultaneously; and multithreaded — they are doing them ore or less simultaneously.” (9) It’s intriguing to recognize that the network privileges the individual, in ways that can both encourage interaction or contribute to social isolation.

The authors cover some good historical territory, reflecting on the much earlier shift from orality to the printing press. It may be familiar ground for some, whether filtered through the work of Karl Rashcke (“The Next Reformation”) or Walter Ong. But looking back to these historical events gives us a way of seeing the current transition, and how new technologies become accepted and integrated into culture. One comment that caught me in this second chapter relates to the democratizing power of information technologies. Graham Houston argues that, “the increasing control of the technological world by a decreasing number of experts and technocrats is challenging the presupposition that technology is a democratic medium…” (31)

In the same chapter, Garner and Campbell reference the notion of technology as an ecology. Bonnie Nardi and Vicki O’Day (Using Technology with Heart) define information ecology as a “system of people, practices, values and technologies in a particular local environment. In information technologies, the spotlight is not on technology; but on human activities that are served by technology.” (35) In this view technology is not just a single tool used by an individual for a particular end, but is rather a network of relationships that respond to local environmental changes. This had me thinking about urban contexts and digital connectivity. While we have seen that Twitter can be a powerful tool for civic engagement (think Occupy or the Arab Spring) we also know it can be a solvent to neighbourly connection (think video game addiction). Ecologies are always complex and adaptive — they partake of the qualities of complexity, where sensitive initial conditions can lead to unexpected outcomes (the butterfly effect).

Just a little further along in the next chapter, Campbell and Garner talk about “publicized privacy.” The blurring of public and private boundaries, in a world where we are “always on,” is giving rise to a new space. Sure, we all know about virtual space. But have we recognized that it is blurring the way we think about space in general? We have always had a generalized dichotomy between public and private. Now, however, we have a third space — connected space. It is neither public, nor really private. Campbell and Garner, borrowing from Sloop and Gunn, use the term ‘publicized privacy.” (57) The paradox of this mediating space is that it offers unique opportunity to express one’s opinion, but limited control. It’s a little like having a baby. Once that life enters the world we have limited control. Sites like Youtube or Vimeo open a public platform for apologetics, storytelling, etc., but digital sharing is often iterative, and subject to various sorts of mash-up and remix. Once an artifact is online it becomes malleable.

As you can see, there is a lot here, and I highly recommend this work. The link to the Baker page is HERE. This is the TOC

Introduction: When New Media Meets Faith
1. Theology of Technology 101: Understanding the Relationship between Theology and Technology
2. New Media Theory 101: Understanding New Media and the Network Society
3. Networked Religion: Considering How Faith Is Lived in a Network Society
4. Merging the Network with Theology: Who Is My Neighbor in Digital Culture?
5. Developing a Faith-Based Community Response to New Media
6. Engaging Appropriately with Technology and Media

The detailed Index contains names, nouns and subjects.