Monday, November 06, 2017

Today's Internet is too big to provide warmth and intimacy

Communities are supposed to be places of intimacy, warmth, and relationships that sustain... In the Middle Ages, monasteries that grew to more than 500 monks would send some off to create new foundations. More than five hundred brothers could no longer be a true community. The globe is too big a place to provide for warmth and intimacy. The more we connect with those far away, the more we seem to disconnect from those close to us. Will the Internet do on a global scale what the telephone did to the French in Algeria?

When telephones were introduced in Algeria, the French army's Arab Bureau got lazy. The Arab Bureau was responsible for maintaining good relations with the indigène [local people] and for knowing what was going on in the villages. Traditionally, this had been done by officers riding their horses into the bled [backcountry] for several weeks, traveling the circuit, sipping tea with the local leaders for long hours, and building personal relationships. But the telephone made it possible to do away with long, hot, and dangerous rides into the backcountry, thus weakening the ties that only effort and face-to-face relations can create. It was considered more efficient simply to call, have a little chat on the phone, so officers didn't have to waste all that time.
That was written in pre-social media 2002 and comes from The Monks of Tibhirine by John W. Kiser. There is much we can learn from monastic communities: limiting social media contacts to 500 would shift the balance in virtual communities from quantity to quality and suppress the all-pervasive mob rule that blights online discussions. It would also destroy the business models of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram which depend on scale to drive their obscene tax-exempt profits. Which is why it will never happen.

Some readers will have seen the deeply moving film Of Gods and Men about the murder in 1996 of seven Trappist monks from the monastery at Tibhirine by unidentified Algerian terrorists. The film, from which the header image is taken, was based on John Kiser's book which contains far more background research and detail than could be included in the cinema version. The Algerian War of Independence from 1954 to 1962 and the subsequent Algerian Civil War from 1991 to 2002 are largely forgotten. But John Kiser reminds us that important lessons about the dangers of post-imperial religious extremism could and should have been learnt in Algeria. As President Bouteflika of Algeria explained to the French National Assembly in 2000:
The colonialism of the past century opened for us the doors of modernity, but it was a modernity that came into our home like a burglar, a modernity that caused fear, uncertainty, and frustration. And it is true, as well, that modernity discredits itself and denies its own essence when it presents a face that is vicious by its oppression and rejection of others who are different...
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