A Presentation at the Newfoundland and Labrador Summer School, August, 2014
By Harry Connors
Our topic for this morning is “Wise and Un-Wise Uses of Technology”. I should be clear at the outset that the technologies that we addressing in this session are communications technologies – specifically, those technologies known through history under the terms newspapers, radio, television, telephone, e-mail, the “world-wide web”, and then latterly “converged” media which integrate elements of all of aforementioned communications technologies, and are those now utilized by both “mass media”, associations, sharing groups, families and individuals under the rubric “social media”.
Let me give you a road map to start off:
So I have had a fairly long and consistent interaction with these communications technologies as they have evolved, but my basic orientation really began with that set of history and philosophy courses; hence my tendency to take a somewhat philosophical approach to these matters. I admit that I tend to “cast a cocked eye” whenever I hear of the latest “new thing”, but I do try to pull my thinking back to appreciating what these gifts can provide, while remaining aware of the perhaps unintended impacts these technologies may have on us as individuals and society.
Section One: Arts and Sciences a Gift from God through the Manifestation
A mechanism of world inter-communication will be devised, embracing the whole planet, freed from national hindrances and restrictions, and functioning with marvellous swiftness and perfect regularity. (Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh, p 203)
The system, so prophetically foreseen sixty years ago by Shoghi Effendi, builds a sense of shared community among its users that is impatient of either geographic or cultural distances. (Universal House of Justice, Century of Light, p 133)
I have pulled out some brief excerpts for discussion, and italicised them.
Such arts and material means as are now manifest have been achieved by virtue of His knowledge and wisdom
In studying the history of various religions, we tend to assume that the religion arises as a result of the presence of certain capacities; however, the reality is opposite. It is the Manifestation, through the Power of Revelation, Who articulates the capacities and means required for the unity of the age, and the research and application of insight which gives rise to these means comes from the release of this creative power by the Revelation.
Religion is not an artifact of the civilization in which it is observed, ie a set of ideas created as a result of its era; rather Religion is the creator of the civilization associated with it, ie it is the generator of skills and capacities which owe their existence to divine creative impulse. When in the play/movie Jesus Christ Superstar, Judas laments anachronistically that the Christ should not have proclaimed His truth as Israel had no mass communications, the writer is suggesting, unintentionally perhaps, that the spread of Christ’s teaching would have been easier or was dependent upon technology. This was not and is not so, even as Christ said “the stones will cry out”, and as Baha’u’llah has said the Message is to be passed “mouth to mouth”.
It seems to me that such capacities, when considered as a gift from God, are endowed with a greater meaning, and require that each of us consider carefully for what purpose did God, through His Manifestation, allow these to enter into the world of discovery, the world of being. In this regard, we should approach such gifts as the native peoples regard whatever comes into their path each day – that the Creator has placed something as a gift to be used for wise purposes. That suggests a sense of humility, of moderation, that we use these gifts to the spiritual benefit of ourselves and others.
Let’s move on – Consider the following phrase of Baha’u’llah: a mirror endowed with hearing, sight and speech
An interesting aspect of Revelation is that when the Manifestation reveals a truth, we understand it in a certain way, but as the power of the Revelation and its creative impulse leads to greater discoveries and gifts in the arts and sciences, our understanding of the truth grows. So, when I first read this phrase about newspapers, I understood that they have pictures and carry quotations – but now I understand that the endowments of “newspapers” includes all of the aspects of the senses cited by Baha’u’llah. Certainly all of the responsibilities He lays upon the writers of the newspapers – to be purged from the promptings of evil passions and desires and to be attired with the raiment of justice and equity. They should enquire into situations as much as possible and ascertain the facts, then set them down in writing – all of these requirements apply to the presenters of radio and television, and equally so to the users of the Internet, e-mail, and social media, like Facebook and Twitter. In a sense, we live in a time when we are all journalists, sharing information, opinions, videos, and so on. In this regard, we all have responsibilities in the ways in which we use these media.
Let’s look at another phrase, in the second quotation where the Guardian foretells so accurately the rise of these social media: freed from national hindrances and restrictions. The core of my technological work was telephony. During the late 1980s, I was working in Ottawa with the national telecom system. In those days, it was still true that to call many countries, you had to place that call through an operator – think of that! During my four years with the national system, we enjoyed such a sense of growing excitement as one by one various countries of the world adopted what we termed Direct Distance Overseas (DDO) which mean that you were now permitted to dial your call to an overseas location direct. Those countries no longer wished to “control” such calls to or by their citizens! Now think of what the Guardian said in the 1930s – that such technology would embrace the whole planet, that it would be marvellously swift and regular, and freed from national hindrances or restrictions! And now look around us today.
To this the Universal House of Justice adds this technology could create: a sense of shared community among its users that is impatient of either geographic or cultural distances. How true this is becoming!
Section Two: Responsibilities arising from the gift of media arts and sciences
O newspapers published throughout the cities and countries of the world!Have ye heard the groan of the downtrodden, and have their cries of anguish reached your ears? Or have these remained concealed? It is hoped that ye will investigate the truth of what hath occurred and vindicate it.(From a Tablet of Bahá’u’lláh,translated from Arabic ‑ passage #2 in compilation ‘Proclaiming the Faith Through the Mass Media’, distributed by the Universal House of Justice, 23 Oct, 1991)
(Vindicate: To make or set free; To clear from censure, criticism or doubt, by means of demonstration)
The code of conduct of the press must embrace the principles of consultation as revealed by Bahá’u’lláh. Only in this way will the press be able to make its full contribution to the preservation of the rights of the people and become a powerful instrument in the consultative processes of society, and hence the unity of the human race.(Statement issued by The Universal House of Justice to the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States, 1988, pp 17-18.)
“The media have both a powerful influence on people’s attitudes and perceptions … Currently, a great deal of media attention is focussed on the seemingly insurmountable differences that divide peoples and nations … The media have a responsibility to help people understand that diversity … can be a powerful resource for social development. … The media should highlight the honour of serving humankind.” (Baha’i International Community, 1994)
It is hoped that ye will investigate the truth of what hath occurred and vindicate it. This Tablet was addressed to The Times of London, and in it, Baha’u’llah is unveiling the truth of the innocence and nobility of the Seven Martyrs of Tehran. However, it is true that when the Manifestation speaks to a specific concern – the obligation of the media to be truthful and to hold blameless the victims of oppression – these same injunctions apply both to the specific situation and the condition and activities of the media in all such matters, wherever they may occur.
This next excerpt really jumped out at me: The code of conduct of the press must embrace the principles of consultation as revealed by Bahá’u’lláh. Again, the word “press” should be read as to include the electronic media, and the electronic media should be read as to include all media, as we are all journalists now. Baha’i scholars such as Dr. Michael Karlburg have been investigating methods of applying consultative principles, to quote him briefly:
“Consultation is more than a skill to be applied within localized contexts, for the purposes of making a decision or solving a problem…consultation must be understood as an inter-related set of principles … applied … across all field of human discourse – from inter-personal groups to mass-mediated settings – for the over-arching purpose of effecting unity in human affairs.” (Michael Karlberg, Applying Consultative Principles and Objectives in a Mass-Mediated Setting)
The last excerpt from a statement of the Baha’i International Community addresses itself to the opportunities provided by these media: The media have a responsibility to help people understand that diversity … can be a powerful resource for social development. … The media should highlight the honour of serving humankind.
Section Three: Impacts of Using Social Media and How we can balance/offset those impacts
Dr. Karlburg provides a good segue for me for this next section, as concerns regarding the opportunities and impacts of these new media go well beyond the Baha’i community. Many proponents of and researchers into the impacts of inter-mediated communications have offered helpful considerations regarding how these impact us as individuals and groups. So, I want to emphasize that I am not one who rejects such media, but I just wish to emphasize we should be aware of these impacts so that we may use them wisely. I have drawn on a number of writers and I have ended each segment with a balancing quotation from the Universal House of Justice publication The Prosperity of Humankind.
1. Social Media Challenges to Modes of Learning
“Information anxiety is produced by the ever-widening gap between what we understand and what we think we should understand. Information anxiety is the black hole between data and knowledge. … We read without comprehending, see without perceiving, hear without listening…. It can be … a chronic malaise, a fear that we are about to be overwhelmed by the very material that we need to master in order to function…” (Richard Saul Wurman, Information Anxiety)
“The freedom to investigate the purpose of existence and to develop the endowments of human nature that make it achievable requires protection. Human beings must be free to know. That such freedom is often abused and such abuse grossly encouraged by … contemporary society does not detract … from the validity of the impulse itself. … Since the challenge is … empowerment … through a vast increase in access to knowledge, the strategy that can make this possible must be constructed around an ongoing and intensifying dialogue between science and religion…. People need to learn how to separate fact from conjecture … to distinguish between subjective views and objective reality; the extent to which individuals and institutions so equipped can contribute to human progress, however, will be determined by their devotion to truth and their detachment from the promptings of their own interests and passions. (The Universal House of Justice, The Prosperity of Humankind)
Information anxiety is the black hole between data and knowledge. … We read without comprehending, see without perceiving, hear without listening.
I think these anxieties arise when we encounter information without context, including times when information that is highly personal and intimate is shared without our being able to place it within the fullness of a mature relationship with the other person. Certainly, there are times when we will feel we have too much information, even when it is non-contextual or non-intimate: the sheer volume overwhelms our senses. And consider that impact – Baha’u’llah says that these media are endowed with certain senses, and yet on times it happens that the volume of information flow operates to overwhelm or even shut down these senses, leaving us feeling helpless, perhaps frustrated, and prone to other emotions such as upset or anger or even apathy.
People need to learn how to separate fact from conjecture … to distinguish between subjective views and objective reality; the extent to which individuals and institutions so equipped can contribute to human progress, however, will be determined by their devotion to truth and their detachment from the promptings of their own interests and passions
The admonition to be detached from our passions, especially in the use of such media, is an essential matter. Abdul Baha references an authoritative Tradition as follows: “As for him who is one of the learned: he must guard himself, oppose his passions, and obey the commandments of his Lord’…”, and then goes on to say:
“ ‘… opposes his passions’ How wonderful are the implications of this deceptively easy, all-inclusive phrase. This is the very foundation of every laudable human quality; indeed these few words embody the light of the world, the impregnable basis of all the spiritual attributes of human beings. This is the balance wheel of all behaviour, the means of keeping all man’s good qualities in equilibrium.” (Secret of Divine Civilization, pps 59-60)
2. Social Media Impact on Relationships
“Social roles (ie. the social “place”) can be understood … in terms of social situations, which, until recently, have been tied to physical place, and … the logic of situational behaviours has much to do with patterns of information flow, that is, much to do with the human senses and [these] technological extensions. … Evolution in the media …[changes] the logic of social order by restructuring the relationship between the physical place and the social place and by altering the ways in which we receive and transmit social information.” (Joshua Meyrowitz, No Sense of Place)
“The word discourse itself contains part of the explanation of this tendency. Discourse implies a long process: an indirect approach and a kind of winding movement involving successive approximations [of reality] . …the invasion of the verbal realm by images results in role reversal and domination … the humiliation of the word… we are dealing with … the disappearance of one sort of thinking” (Jacques Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word)
“Central to the task of reconceptualising the system of human relationships is the process that Baha’u’llah refers to as consultation. “In all things it is necessary to consult,” is His advice. “The maturity of the gift of understanding is made manifest through consultation.” (The Universal House of Justice, The Prosperity of Humankind)
Evolution in the media …[changes] the logic of social order by restructuring the relationship between the physical place and the social place and by altering the ways in which we receive and transmit social information
A world that was once very ordered and formal in its social communications has become immediate and intimate and informal, often with neither introduction nor warning. Once we shared intimacies with individuals we had known for a long time, now we tell the world of our trials, errors, successes, achievements and failures. And those of everyone else we might or might not know. We connect with everyone but there is no contextualizing and binding mortar. In business, it was not so long ago, up to the 1980s, somewhat uncommon to call someone in a business we did not know directly but would first write a letter, requesting the opportunity to speak. Now, the e-mail comes, and we are expected, or feel obligated, to respond, regardless of the lack of direct familiarity with the person. We are invited to be “friends” by, … who? Someone who knows someone who knows someone … The social order is upset, and this will continue, so the question is how are we to operate in this new world?
we are dealing with … the disappearance of one sort of thinking
Communications which is focussed on reading or listening to the words another is using is significantly impacted by the addition of images, videos and so on. Images create an interpretation of the words, are sometimes unintentionally disconnected from the speakers/senders own meaning. They impose on the reader/listener, deny the freedom of imagination and thought. Music videos did kill radio music – I realized that if I had seen a music video, I could no longer listen to the record without the promptings of the images, and I could create none of my own. Again, it is a question of how do we re-balance.
Discourse implies a long process: an indirect approach and a kind of winding movement involving successive approximations [of reality]
Is this not an apt expression of the dynamics of consultation? It suggests space and time and freedom to exchange ideas and views.
“Central to the task of reconceptualising the system of human relationships is the process that Baha’u’llah refers to as consultation.
It is fascinating that social media could have such impacts on our communications and our relationships, and that The Universal House of Justice would direct our attention to the process of consultation as the means of reconceptualising human relationships. So we need to ask ourselves, what is in the principles and practices of consultation as defined by Baha’u’llah that would allow us to re-balance the impacts of these media.
3. Social Media Impact on the ability to absorb and synthesize information
“… one way to characterize ourselves is as ‘hunters and gatherers of an information age’. Our shared sphere of interaction is informational rather than physical … Like hunters and gatherers who take for granted the abundance of food ‘out there’ and therefore only hunt and gather enough to consume immediately, we are becoming increasingly a ‘subsistence information society’…. people are beginning to believe that information is available ‘out there’ and that individuals do not need to stockpile it. … even many scholars have begun to steer away from storing in their minds the long, linear arguments [that characterized] literacy, that linked new discoveries to old, and that pointed to the future. The computer is increasingly used as an abundant jungle of bits and pieces of ‘data’ … the connections found are often consumed and digested immediately without being painstakingly linked to other knowledge and ideas.” (Joshua Meyrowitz, No Sense of Place)
“Another capacity that science must cultivate in all people is that of thinking in terms of process, including historical process …” (The Universal House of Justice, The Prosperity of Humankind)
storing in their minds the long, linear arguments [that characterized] literacy, that linked new discoveries to old, and that pointed to the future
You will note perhaps the similarity between Meyerowitz’s description of literacy and Ellul’s description of discourse. The ability to hold within our minds long chains of reasoning, of different ideas, of information gathered from divers sources, this regular re-reading and combining of personal discovery, guidance and experience. It is the sustaining of this kind of thinking that Ellul urges upon us, to not let such gifts be overwhelmed and lost in the use of otherwise gifted technologies which can provide the immediate, the ever-present, the instantly accessible.
Another capacity that science must cultivate in all people is that of thinking in terms of process, including historical process
I ask you to consider the manner in which The Universal House of Justice models for us “thinking in terms of process, including historical process”. Consider prior to this current series of plans publications such as The Peace Statement, Century of Light, The Prosperity of Humankind, how these act to provide us with insight into the experiences of humanity since the advent of Baha’u’llah’s Revelation. Even before these current Plans, did not The Universal House of Justice encourage upon us study of certain letters of the Guardian to the United States, which letters contextualize the developments of the world and the Faith up to the 1950s. Similarly, within the current Plans, consider the approach of the annual Ridvan Messages, and the ever-increasing flow of reflections regarding the institute process and the increasing penetration of programs supporting personal growth and community transformation. These are models of connecting chains of reasoning, of experience, of contextualizing data.
4. Social Media Impact on the power of reflection
“In Time and Free Will, Henri Bergson [asks]: ‘Suppose some mischievous genius could so manage things that all the motion in the universe doubled in speed, and everything happened twice as fast as at present. How could we detect this fraud? …Easily, [by] the impoverishment of our conscious lives. The contents of our minds would be reduced.’ Apply that criterion to those … [for whom] … speed is of the essence… Do they not rather despise anybody who pauses long enough to acquire a mental content from reflection, or to win a wisdom which will only cut down his speed in making for the goal? And is it strange that those who travel so fast and light should arrive in a nude and starving condition?” (Marshall McLuhan, The Mechanical Bride)
“A superficial culture, unsupported by a cultivated morality, is as ‘a confused medley of dreams’ …” (Abdul Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization)
“Through the faculty of meditation man attains to eternal life … the bestowal of the Spirit is given in reflection and meditation. … This faculty brings forth from the invisible plane the sciences and the arts. Through the meditative faculty inventions are made possible, colossal undertakings are carried out; through it governments can run smoothly. … The meditative faculty is akin to a mirror … if you turn the mirror heavenwards … the rays of the Sun of Reality will be reflected in your hearts, and the virtues of the Kingdom will be obtained.”(Abdul Baha, Paris Talks)
everything … twice as fast … the impoverishment of our conscious lives. The contents of our minds would be reduced
Bergson’s provides a concise and apt description of the impact of the speed and volume of information enabled by these communications technologies, and these comments are enhanced by McLuhan’s critique (and you didn’t think we were going to complete this session without McLuhan, did you). Someone send you an e-mail, after an hour they call you to ask if you have read it, they want an answer before you can think of what is the question.
A superficial culture, unsupported by a cultivated morality, is as ‘a confused medley of dream
We need to avoid a shallowing or hollowing out of our capacities in using these technologies. With regard to cultivated morality, I think Abdul Baha is suggesting a morality with is worked at, like a garden, where our thinking is guided by a Gardener.
the bestowal of the Spirit is given in reflection and meditation.
As with thinking in terms of process, the importance of meditation and reflection is key to balancing the impacts of these media. Studies such as Thinking, Fast and Slow can really help us to understand the necessity to be moderate and balanced, to recognize these impacts.
Section Four: Wisdom in the use of Social Media: Guidance of The Universal House of Justice
Essentially, the position of the House of Justice is that the Internet offers Bahá’ís a very valuable communication tool. As with all other forms of consultation, however, such exchanges are spiritually and intellectually helpful to a believer to the extent that they take place within the context of Bahá’í principle. (The Universal House of Justice, 1999 Nov 22)
– Notice the reference to the Internet as a form of consultation, and the need to apply requisite Baha’i principle.
As you well appreciate, the extent to which such technology advances the work of the Faith depends, of course, on the manner in which it is used. As a medium for Bahá’ís to exchange views, it imposes on participants the same requirements of moderation, candour, and courtesy as would be the case in any other discussion. Likewise, those involved should avoid belittling the views of one another. (The Universal House of Justice, 1997 Aug 13, Science and Religion, p. 6)
– The descriptions of the behavioural qualities are exactly the same as those which apply to the process of consultation
The ease and relative impersonality of the electronic medium require in some ways an even higher level of self-discipline than is the case in situations where a spirit of unity is reinforced by the opportunity for direct personal contact and social interaction. In the pursuit of such a spirit of unity, Bahá’ís will, without doubt, wish to assist the consultative processes by sharing and discussing relevant Bahá’í texts. This will itself have the further effect of drawing attention back to the framework of Bahá’í belief. (The Universal House of Justice, 1992 Dec 10, Issues Related to Study Compilation)
– We should reflect on why The Universal House of Justice states that these media require an even higher level of self-discipline. A typewritten letter which must be physically mailed might provide an opportunity for sober second thought; the “magic” send or enter buttons on a computer can be a blessing or a curse.
– These next two excerpts fall within the framework of “Protection of the Faith”
It is natural that the friends would discuss such matters among themselves, as you and your correspondent have been doing on your Internet discussion group; how otherwise are they to deepen their understanding of the Teachings? But they should recognize that the resolution of differences of opinion on such fundamental questions is not to be found by continued discussion, but in referring to the Universal House of Justice itself, as you have done. Prolonged, unresolved, public discussion of these fundamental questions can do nothing but breed confusion and dissension. (The Universal House of Justice, 1992 Dec 10, Issues Related to Study Compilation)
The principle which should guide our efforts to share the fruits of Bahá’í scholarship has been made clear for all of us in this passage from Bahá’u’lláh’s Writings: “Thou hast written that one of the friends hath composed a treatise. This was mentioned in the Holy Presence, and this is what was revealed in response: Great care should be exercised that whatever is written in these days doth not cause dissension, and invite the objection of the people. Whatever the friends of the one true God say in these days is listened to by the people of the world. It hath been revealed in the Lawh-i-Hikmat: “The unbelievers have inclined their ears towards us in order to hear that which might enable them to cavil against God, the Help in Peril, the Self-Subsisting.” Whatever is written should not transgress the bounds of tact and wisdom, and in the words used there should lie hid the property of milk, so that the children of the world may be nurtured therewith, and attain maturity. We have said in the past that one word hath the influence of spring and causeth hearts to become fresh and verdant, while another is like unto blight which causeth the blossoms and flowers to wither. God grant that authors among the friends will write in such a way as would be acceptable to fair-minded souls, and not lead to cavilling by the people. (The Universal House of Justice, 1992 Dec 10, Issues Related to Study Compilation)
“With the physical unification of the planet in this century and acknowledgement of the interdependence of all who live on it, the history of humanity as one people is now beginning. The long, slow civilising of human character has been a sporadic development, uneven and admittedly inequitable in the material advantages it has conferred. Nevertheless, endowed with the wealth of all the genetic and cultural diversity that has evolved through past ages, the earth’s inhabitants are now challenged to draw on their collective inheritance to take up, consciously and systematically, the responsibility for the design of their future.” (The Prosperity of Humankind)
– We are at the beginning of Revelation, whose power is steadily bringing forward an ever-advancing civilization, a process which will take a considerable time and require endless adjustment of our understandings and behaviours. We can be patient, thoughtful and reflective, as well as alert to the impacts of such discoveries.
I wanted to end on a personal note, a note which I think reflects a quality of hopefulness about these communications technologies when they were fresh and new in the world. MY father wrote this essay when he was just a few months past his 16th birthday – just over a year beyond what we would refer to as a “junior youth” – when he was a first year student at St. Mary’s University in Halifax. The occasion for this essay in the student newspaper, in 1931, was the fact that there were now 16 originating and transmitting radio stations in North America. A radio station would be established in Newfoundland in 1932, a year after this essay, and it reflects the sense of real hope held by many for the expected benefits of these new technologies. So I will end on this note:
A Family Note on the Impact of Technology
…what a blessing Radio is to us. …Rich and poor, urban and rural, educated and illiterate, all are absorbed … with the same degree of interest. Every evening we are passing the time in the company of people of at least ten different nationalities. … No longer do we have to crowd around bulletin-boards to hear the latest dispatches. … At first the mere thought of sound picked out of the air fascinated us; now programs from foreign lands merely form part of the daily broadcast. The interest, however, has not diminished inasmuch as they contain an element of the unknown. ….It can be best left to the imagination to picture for itself what Radio holds in store for us. Myths at which our grandfathers scoffed have become realities within the century. Who, then, can say what Radio will not accomplish? It is full of possibilities and already glorious with success. When the fruit is ripe for the plucking, we shall see. (JJ Connors, age 16, St. Mary’s University, 1931)
How has this helped you understand the topic further? Post your comments below!