Friday, September 3, 2010

Sharing our lives in a connected world

Villagers in Manjama, Sierra Leone, welcome a
group of United Methodist visitors in August.
Two weeks ago as we drove into the village of Manjama, Sierra Leone, after a four-hour drive from Freetown, I tapped notice of our arrival into my iPad and posted it on Twitter and Facebook. The import of this led me to flashback more than 20 years ago.

I was in a remote village in east Africa. Back home, my son was in need of emergency surgery and my wife was attempting to reach me to discuss how to proceed. I was two days from the nearest telephone service, which was housed in the post office of a regional city.

A Lutheran World Relief staff person got the message from Sharon, drove two days to reach me, and I went to the post office to schedule a telephone call. All told, the effort took three days.

By the time I would return to the U.S., my son would be recuperating. That's what life was like before cell phones and satellites. For rural Africans who could not get to a post office, it was a disconnected, isolated world.

Now, using a relatively inexpensive device and equally inexpensive airtime, I was messaging my arrival at a remote point in the most unremarkable way. Moreover, I had spoken with Sharon earlier using the iPad and a free app called Whistle.

Beyond noting the obvious — my, how things have changed — there is within this tale a more significant learning. The world has shrunk. We are not disconnected. Our destinies are interwoven in ways never conceived by our parents and grandparents.

Our hopes and aspirations, dreams and desires — even our arrivals and departures — can be shared globally. Knowledge is no longer contained in hierarchical institutions or organizations. Relationships are no longer limited to the people in our geographic village. We are influenced by an emerging global culture that sometimes battles with and sometimes complements our own local culture. We can tell our stories without the mediation of professionals who add their own judgments and analyses.

How we understand ourselves and our place in the world is changing, and it will continue to change and evolve as new technologies become affordable, dispersed and accessible. Forms of this technology have already penetrated the most isolated places. It's no longer just the elite who are connected.

The key question that will be answered, perhaps generations from now, is this: How will this technology change the quality of life, especially for those who have been isolated and voiceless? We don't know how. We've only scratched the surface.

It's a theological question. A faith question. A question about community. As I looked into the faces of the people of Manjama, I thought, "Things have changed. And it's only just begun."
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