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Community & Computers: Babel, Bytes & Bits

by William Willimon

Dr. Willimon, a Century editor at large, is minister to the university and professor of the practice of Christian ministry at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. This article appeared in the Christian Century, September 9-16, 1987, p. 740. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


A couple of years ago, my mother received a birthday card inscribed "With Love, Tom." Because it was her 78th birthday, she didn’t take too kindly to receiving a birthday card from anyone, much less, someone who addressed her with such familiarity. Besides, she couldn’t think of anyone named Tom who knew her well enough to send her a card. She called her friends. "Do I know anyone named Tom?" she asked. Perhaps it was a joke, someone trying to be cute.

When she asked me who this mysterious Tom might be, I broke into laughter and told her that it was undoubtedly a card from her minister. The church had recently purchased a new computer. Someone probably thought it would be nice to set up a file of everyone’s birthdays. The computer had called up her name, thus the birthday card from Tom.

My mother was not amused. She preferred to have her pastors refer to themselves by something more formal than first names. "That’s Dr. Smith to me, thank you."

The church had been told that its new computer would "personalize" the church’s relationship with its 2,000 members. Now, everyone enrolled can receive a "personal" birthday card from the pastor and a quarterly "personal" financial statement from the treasurer:

Dear Sarah:

According to our records, Sarah, your giving to your annual pledge is $156.52 in arrears, Sarah. Now Sarah, we know that you want to keep your giving current, Sarah. So Sarah, how about going to your checkbook right now and write the church a check, Sarah? Thanks, Sarah, for taking the time to . . .

My mother knew better. She could tell a phony expression of concern when she saw one. The "personal" birthday card backfired.

At a recent conference at Duke University on "Science, Faith and Technology," we pondered the computer’s significance to our quest for community. J. David Bolter, author of the widely praised Turing’s Man: Western Culture in the Computer Age (University of North Carolina Press, 1984) , noted that computers are not morally neutral. Our technology is a tool, yes, but all tools allow the user to do certain things and not others. The tool, in a sense, encourages the user to undertake some tasks and exclude others. Some people have bought the notion that our tools are morally neutral; they argue, for example, that the hydrogen bomb is neither "good" nor "bad." It is rather a tool which we put to either good or bad use. Bolter is interested in the ways in which the computer, by the way it works with data, influences our perception of and interaction with the world.

"I believe that we get the technology we deserve," commented Duke professor Stanley Hauerwas. "The American people deserve Ronald Reagan as a valid expression of who they are. Likewise, we deserve our bombs and our computers as extensions of ourselves. It isn’t an issue of bad people corrupting innocent machines; the machines mirror ourselves. We want efficiency more than we want community. Now we’ve got it."

I remember a man in my last parish who explained his marriage problems by referring to his job as a computer programmer. "I work all day with computers. They don’t talk back. They always do what they’re told. They don’t forget or make mistakes. So, when I come home to my wife, I can’t stand it." I suggested that he and his computer made a great couple.

When we left for our summer vacation, I went to Bailey Bank to withdraw $100 for our trip. My withdrawal was to be for $100 because that was all the money we had in our account. But when the teller shouted over to the manager, "Guess where the preacher’s going for his vacation?" the manager came over and assured me, "You can’t get from here to Greenville for $100. Let’s just make that check for $200 and you can pay the rest back when you get paid next month." I left with $200 and an uneasy conscience.

Miss Helena Pitts told me that during the Depression when times were hard, she had to use her family’s silver tea service as collateral on a loan. Even though the silver was kept in Mr. Bailey’s vault, they always allowed her to take it out if she was having a party -- as long as she brought it back sometime the next week.

The bank that keeps my money today doesn’t know me from Adam, and if I forget my card or my number, then even if I had a million dollars in that bank I wouldn’t see a dime of it. My bank has numbers so it doesn’t have to remember my face. Now it takes me only a few minutes to make a transaction. There is no backslapping, no coffee cake -- and no trust. I don’t have to trust the tellers and they don’t have to trust me. The computer has given the bank and me fairness, accuracy and efficiency -- but no community.

So Pastor Hubert Beck, Lutheran campus minister at Duke, noted, "Every advance in technology increases time, decreases space and destroys community." We have created the machines we deserve. Before long, experts tell us, we will not have to go to the office or school, the bar or the church for our community. We can stay home at our terminal, punching the keys and watching the screen, and we will not need anybody. We will now be members of the "computer community."

If I see one more article extolling the virtues of computers for churches or telling us how the computer can help us organize our sermons, I’ll blow a circuit.

When a society has absolutely nothing to hold it together, it settles for fairness and accuracy rather than community. There is more talk about justice and less talk about togetherness. Our technology is at last giving us what we’ve always wanted -- nameless, faceless, isolated individuals living by bureaucratic rules, entitlements and balanced self-interest. I can no longer expect you to know me, much less trust me. Now it’s enough for you simply to be fair, to treat me as equal to all the other numbers in your data bank.

Computers didn’t create this world; we created the computers to match the world we already had.

Walter Brueggemann’s book Genesis, in citing the biblical chapter 11:1-9, suggests that the story of the Tower of Babel describes humanity’s attempt to organize itself around an instrument of its own creation. The tower and the city are misguided attempts to achieve unity on human terms rather than on God’s terms. Since our earliest technological achievements, the story suggests, we have been trying to attain a spurious oneness derived from human self-sufficiency and autonomy. It didn’t work then, and it doesn’t work now. True community is described in Acts 2, when the holy wind blew through our dry desert and God called us together, not by means of a new communications technology but by tongues of fire. The Spirit descended, creating a community so new, so utterly beyond human capabilities, that the world figured the group was drunk.

We call it church.


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