Religious Nerdism

A few years ago trying to get a church or religious institution to take the internet or social media seriously was uphill work. Many took the view that it was something the Church didn’t need to bother with or could safely leave in the hands of a few eccentrics who liked messing about with computers. There were exceptions. Early adopters of podcasting, for example, were frequently fired with evangelistic zeal. Most of us can probably also remember some rather inept YouTube videos with similar messages. It wasn’t so much the Word that drove the technology as the technology that drove the Word. To members of the mainstream Churches, it was all slightly shady. Now, religious nerdism has become respectable. The resources available online have multiplied, many of them excellent (e.g. those provided by Premier), and conferences on Christian engagement in the media are two a penny.

The question no one seems to be asking is, to what purpose? Our stated purpose, that we want to proclaim Christ online, is not always the real driver. Sometimes when I look at Twitter I am made uneasy by the number of Christian pastors and teachers who use it as a form of self-advertisement and wonder whether it is becoming also a form of self-advancement. Facebook and Pinterest tend to be light-hearted by their very nature, but just occasionally I look at a day’s religious offerings and the word ‘drivel’ comes to mind. When everyone has a voice, it can be difficult to hear what is worth listening to.

These somewhat negative thoughts may be attributable to incessant rain or dyspepsia or something, but I am working on a relaunch of our own websites and doing so has made me think again about what we are trying to achieve. Our online engagement began when we sat down as a community and prayed about how to interpret the teaching of St Benedict on hospitality. I have an inkling that it is that more receptive model that will ultimately prove the most fruitful. It is not exhortation but experience that draws people to Christ. The challenge is how to create an opportunity for that to happen online.

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Minimal Geekdom: Blogging by Request

A reader asked if I would do a post on ‘what it means to be “tech savvy” as a regular person, not as a blogger or professional’. She went on to say, ‘What should a person know, and what should a person be able to do in their personal lives, in terms of the tools they use and how they use them (cell phones-computers-televisions-printers and more advanced devices and other things on a stand-alone and integrated basis)
What are the must-haves and the nice-to-haves, for example.’

My first thought was, one doesn’t actually need anything; but then I began to reflect  how we shop and do our banking, how we research subjects we do not know about (from how to repair the flap-valve on a water cistern to the theology of Theodore of Mopsuestia), how we communicate with others, how many Government services have to be accessed online, and so on and so forth, and began to see that, in fact, we do need to be ‘tech savvy’ if we are to accomplish everyday tasks safely and well.

Being ‘tech savvy’ is not the same as owning equipment. Skills are more important. If you live in the UK, for example, your public library (where it still exists) will usually offer you free access to a computer and the internet, but it will not teach you how to use them. I’d say that everyone ought to be able to work a computer, get online and observe basic safety drills to avoid viruses, phishing sites and the compromising of any passwords. As to software, I’d hope everyone could use some form of text processing (writing to the rest of us), a simple spreadsheet, simple photo editing for those who love photography, and email. Those are the basics, and for many people they are quite enough. They are the three ‘r’s for our age.

It is consideration of what is desirable that is interesting, because that is where technology and skill come together. An old Windows computer + printer would enable you to do all the things I think essential; its Mac cousin would enable you to do them more enjoyably and intuitively: the main problem would be the built-in obsolescence of hardware accessories such as printers and the limitations and security risks of aging operating systems.

I am a great fan of OpenSource software, which will provide you with office software such as OpenOffice or NeoOffice, for example, at negligible cost. Keep an eye on sites that do a round-up of what is currently available: you might be surprised by how much is on offer. Alternatively, if you don’t mind becoming part of the Google empire and possibly running up your broadband bill, you can access all your software online, in ‘the cloud’. A firewall is essential, and if you use Windows, some form of anti-virus software, which must be kept up to date. (Macs do get viruses but not so often.) Often your computer will come with pre-loaded software, some of which you may actually use.

If you want to connect with a wider world via social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc), express yourself via blogging/podcasting/video-making, run a business online or simply find a way of reducing all the paperwork you store at home, you are plunged into a more complex world, but it needn’t cost a fortune.

I find both Facebook and Twitter useful but have never got around to LinkedIn or any of the other networking possibilities. We self-host our blog, but there are free platforms such as Blogger and WordPress.com which are perfectly adequate, depending on what you want to do. Audioboo is great for short podcasts, but for longer items, you can record onto your computer using its internal microphone, process the results using the free Audacity software and feed to iTunes without much difficulty. Similarly, if you have a video camera of any description, you can upload to YouTube and share your genius with the world. Video conferencing is now widely available (think Skype or Tinychat) and requires negligible technical skill: even five years ago that was not the case. Only if you want a more professional edge to your productions do you need to think about more sophisticated input and editing methods, and you must expect to pay accordingly.

Archiving documents and storing information is important. Backups are essential. I always say that, after the computer itself and a printer, the most essential item is an external hard drive on which to make a copy of everything on the computer, and some form of online backup for when, not if, the hard drive fails. (We have multiple hard drives here, and multiple off-site backups plus backups online because we run a business.) To keep these safe, one has to acquire some knowledge of encryption. After all, what is the point of having backed your information up, only to have the hard drive stolen and accessed by a thief who didn’t even have to crack your password?

I think everyone should have a mobile (cell) phone. If you can afford an iPod Touch or something like it, there are an enormous number of useful little apps/books/music that you can carry round with you. For example, when out of the monastery, I always have the bible and the whole of the Divine Office with me, plus a free SatNav, a First Aid guide and various other ‘essentials’ in digital form.

And so we come to dreamland. I think an iPad would be first on my list of luxury items, but there is quite a lot of software we cannot afford that I would also like to have. It is just as well that we have strict rules about these things! If I look back on how our community has used computers and developed its online presence in the past few years, I can say that everything has been done on a minimal budget, with no formal training, but it has been time-consuming. Online forums and search engines have been a great help but we have often wished we could have gone on a course or two in order to understand how certain things work. Now I think that less necessary. The use of computers and online services has become simpler and more accessible to all.

Ultimately, however, one has to ask oneself: why do this at all? For us, it was a no-brainer. How could a small and financially challenged community fulfil the obligation of hospitality except online? Personally, I am no great fan of surfing the internet aimlessly or filling other people’s inboxes with cute video clips or animations. For me, the computer is the modern scriptorium and the internet as much a sacred space as any other. I hope we bring to our use of technology some of the traditional Benedictine values, including a sense of restraint and minimalism. Perhaps the most important part of being ‘tech savvy’ is to recognize that we are the same people at the computer as we are away from it. We reveal more about ourselves than we realise.

 

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