A common complaint from church people about digital communication is that because Internet and computer access is not distributed equally, lauding the use of such technology in church communities is neither fair nor just. How can we hold up technological innovation in congregations and institutions as examples of good ministry when it is next to impossible for many people to even get online? Computers are expensive. Not everyone has a Starbucks around the corner at which to access Wi-Fi. Do we leave people behind who cannot afford or cannot access this new digital world?
Fair questions. Good, ethical questions that demand theological reflection from the church, indeed. I recently returned from a trip to South Africa, which is both a highly developed country and home to some of the worst poverty in the world. One of our hosts said that South Africa has the best of the first world and the very worst of the third world, as evidenced by the increasing gap between those who prosper and those who don’t. While the country has made incredible progress since the end of apartheid in the early 1990s, it continues to struggle with a majority population that is undereducated, underserved, underemployed, and suffering terribly. We experienced this stark contrast as we moved from our well-equipped hotel in Cape Town to the corrugated roof shanties of Khayelitsha township. In the first world experience at our hotel, we found ourselves complaining about the intermittent and weak Internet access. But the whining subsided quickly when we visited our brothers and sisters in townships who do not even have access to clean water or a working toilet. What they do have access to is epidemics like HIV/AIDS. The ministries we witnessed in South Africa, led by remarkable people like Bishop Kevin Dowling in Rustenberg who works diligently to stop the spread of HIV and comfort those who are living with and dying of AIDS … this is excellent ministry to laud as an example to us all.
While we should demand theological reflection from the church about access to communication technologies, and never get to enthralled with the bells and whistles of Facebook and Twitter, we should also note new articles and studies that track access to and use of digital communication, studies that might expand our assumptions.
In a November 15, 2012 New York Times article about the recent election, Richard Parker reflected on President Obama’s win: “Yes, demographics helped Obama beat him. But so did the changing landscape of media consumption. The very groups — young women, Hispanics, African Americans, Asian-Americans — that made the difference are among the fastest adopters of social and mobile media.” He cites the Pew Research Center, Nielsen, and The Washington Times to describe how rapidly these groups, who are generally less prosperous than older white people, are gaining access to digital communication and how they use it differently than traditional media. Parker explains that Hispanics have a higher usage rate of mobile and social media than white people. Women of color have embraced smartphones faster than their white counterparts. More than three in four Asian women believe smartphones improve their lives as compared to one in four who think the television improves their lives. Speaking of television, Parker reports that less than one in five adults under 30 watch cable television news, while over half of people over 65 do.
Part of what’s happening is that mobile technology is providing Internet access through cellar networks without computers and without broadband cables, landlines, or Wi-Fi. Access in the United States is increasing rapidly among populations many may think have unfairly been deprived of access. This changes how we reflect theologically, ethically, on digital technology today. And raises all sorts of new questions. What do you think those questions are now?
Verity A. Jones is the executive director of the Center for Pastoral Excellence at Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis, and project director of the New Media Project which is now part of this new Center.
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