Anabaptists presents the following excerpts for your consideration. Thanks to Ron Helmuth for allowing me to do so!

How are we different because of computers? How, as humans and as Christians, are we being changed by electronic information technology? By the "information superhighway"? And by all the modern media--print, audio, video and digital?

These media, these forces, are radically changing human existence, what we are. Yet I seldom hear this question discussed. In my opinion, it's a question that must be asked by thoughtful persons who would understand the human experience.

Now is a pivotal time to ask the bigger question--How are we as humans and as Christians being changed by today's electronic information technology? The question has a much bigger scope than computers alone.

Let me introduce a new and practical way of thinking about these forces and how they might change us. I hope to offer a new vocabulary and a new way of thinking about this topic. I hope that we can all become critical and aware.

I like technology. It's my career, first in 13 years with IBM and now at EMU. I love the hectic pace, the complexity, the rapid change. This career has consisted of helping people acquire and use technology. I like to think I've helped my clients become more efficient by providing a good return on their investment and by freeing them from the mundane to be more creative and effective.

To be in academia today, to be in business today, to be in many careers today, we must be connected. We must take advantage of information technology. The reasons are compelling, and I support and advocate that we participate.

The benefits of technology are obvious. They are easily discovered and need no advocacy from me.

Let's look, though, at the less obvious, the less attractive side of computers, indeed of all media--print, audio, video and digital. This is important, for it deals with information technology's effect on us. I call this effect virtualization--the virtual human experience.

The term virtualization comes from the word virtual, and its use in our context here is from computer technology itself. It also comes from virtual reality, which refers to computer games or multi-media presentations that simulate reality. While not real, they are as though real.

And the term comes from virtual memory, where programs too large for your computer's memory are mapped to an addressing scheme. Only the part of the program running at the moment is in real memory. The rest is on a disk where it resides until its turn to run. So, for example, you might have a computer with eight megabytes (or a million characters) of memory. But you can run a database software program which is 20 megabytes in size. This addressing scheme is called virtual memory. Not real, but as though real.

What do I mean by the virtualization of experience? Simply, the substitution of virtual experience for real experience through today's print, audio, video and digital electronic media.

I must define what "virtual" does not mean. We commonly use virtual to mean "almost" or "approaching," as in "virtually the entire student body" to mean almost the entire student body. As we're using it here, virtual does not mean almost. It means not at all, but as though. If the entire student body were in chapel virtually, they would not be there at all physically but be experiencing the event another way, perhaps by radio.

The virtualization of experience has been a fact of people's existence since language first allowed us to tell stories. The listeners of those first stories participated vicariously. With their imagination, they experienced the first virtual reality. It was an intense and emotional participation. It wasn't real, but virtual, or as though real.

Virtualization of experience has been around for centuries, but its pace for the last generation has intensified. We see it everywhere all the time. Children play Nintendo baseball rather than actual baseball. To the extent that we listen to professionals rather than sing or play, our music has been virtualized. The intense interaction between family members has been virtualized by TV. Families now watch other people having a life, with interesting and funny dialogue. Face-to-face interaction has gone through successive waves of virtualization, first with phones, now with voicemail. Written interpersonal communication has been virtualized by the typewriter, then by fax, now by e-mail.

Let's get something straight. Not all exposure to the various media is virtualizing, and not all virtualizing is bad. There are times when you engage these media in an intense way. And there's nothing virtual about it, as when you write an essay using the computer and keyboard, rather than a typewriter of a generation ago or a pen two generations ago. You're completely engaged and there's little "virtual" about it.

But the fact remains that every encounter with today's print, audio, video and digital electronic media can be a virtualizing event. And any encounter with these media carries with it the risk of virtualizing, removing us from reality.

So how can you tell that virtualization is happening? The first thing to consider is the matter of how much time we devote to the potentially virtualizing media. A one-time indulgence is one thing; quite another is when we put time into our daily and weekly schedule for the media of virtualization. This is an important point. We Americans spend many hours per day engaging the media of virtualization.

A good way to tell whether you're being virtualized is to apply three criteria. Ask yourself if this encounter is causing dilution, passivity or substitution, for these are the effects of virtualization. Let me explain the three.

Dilution: We have a primary activity, perhaps a homework assignment. But we also listen to the radio. Or we look at a magazine while having a conversation. We dilute our primary activity by engaging secondarily the media of virtualization.

Passivity: Do you become passive? Are your mind and body passively rather than actively engaged?

Substitution: We substitute the real for something that's not real, such as watching a sporting event instead of participating.

But is virtualization bad? Is it bad to experience a virtualized version of an event? Is it bad to put on a pair of headphones and listen to music, rather than playing guitar and singing? Is it bad to be diluted, passive and substituted?

Technology is morally neutral. It has nothing to say about good and evil. We repeat this as a mantra, citing as proof of neutrality the contrast between good programming and bad programming on TV.

And it's true as far as it goes. The media of virtualization cares nothing for the morality of the content. Whether for good or for evil, these technologies carry the content without discrimination. Nonetheless, this technology carries the potential to destroy our souls. Oh? It's amoral and yet it can destroy our souls? Absolutely!

Our soul is the essence of our being. It's what makes us who we are. Let's define soul in terms of doing instead of being. When we think of the soul in terms of action or process, what is the soul? What are the activities or processes most essential to who we are? What is our essence doing?

Let me suggest ten of these essential activities.

Meditation: Our inner dialogue with ourselves. Our inner stream of consciousness.

Spirituality: Experiencing God, however we conceive of God.

Intimacy: Sharing ourselves without reservation with those we love.

Fellowship: Enjoying our friends through conversation and presence.

Play: Actively engaging our bodies and minds.

Celebration: Being glad-hearted, giving ourselves to wild abandoned joy.

Artful expression: Music, painting, poetry, prose. The realm of beauty and aesthetics.

Learning: Reading, listening, observing, studying, analyzing.

Debate: Articulating and testing our ideas on others. Being the citizen of a community.

Building/crafting: Producing goods and services. Work.

These are the essential human activities. These are what we do. And we do them all for a balanced life. Everyone's list of what is essential might vary a bit, but for the most part, these are what we do. These are our soul.

We've defined virtual, but what is real? Real is the opposite of virtual. In our context here, real means direct, physical, intense, present, measurable and face to face. It also means actively and intensely involving our list of activities which are the soul, for the soul is the real you.

But now let us ask, what happens when we apply the media of virtualization to these activities which are our soul? When we browse a catalog, listen to a CD, watch TV or surf the Web, what part of our soul are we doing?

That's the point. When we engage the media of virtualization, we cease doing the soul. If it were a matter of minutes a day, who cares. In American society, it's hours a day by the overwhelming majority. During these hours, our souls become inactive because of dilution, passivity and substitution. During these times, our souls are dead.

When we browse a magazine or a catalog, is it of the soul? Could be. But often it's not. It's filler, pleasant to the eye, but with no further purpose.

When we listen to a CD, is it artful expression? Maybe. If we give it our full attention. But in fact, we rarely give it our full attention.

When we watch a sitcom, is it play? In no sense. Our mind may be passively engaged, but neither mind nor body is actively engaged, which is play.

When we surf the Web, is it learning? Maybe. It depends on the purpose. We may be researching something very specific, but we may be in search of eye candy and pure entertainment, and that is quite irrelevant to learning.

So it is that when we engage the media of virtualization, we often cease the activities of the soul or, at best, engage in a watered-down version of the soul. Thus, the media of virtualization--the combined print, audio, video and digital electronic media--can kill the soul. This is not a theoretical possibility. It's happening all around us. It absolutely dominates the 20th-century Western psychic landscape.

The biggest villain in the media of virtualization is TV. It's the biggest villain because of how passively we engage it. But more than anything else, it's the biggest villain because it commands so many hours per day for so many people.

Early in my career, I spent a month in training in Dallas with a number of other new employees. Being fluent in Spanish and having lived several years in Latin America, I cultivated the friendship of four young Chilean trainees. One day toward the end of our month together I asked them this question, "In your country, if you were to take a similar group of young people like this class--recent college graduates, highly motivated, very intelligent, extremely competitive--how would the Chilean group differ from the North American group?"

Without hesitation they answered, "We would never allow TV to be a part of our being together. You Americans are stupid. You are without understanding. For all your education, you allow the TV to be on when we socialize." And it was true. We often got together during free times in someone's apartment. The TV was always on--always. No matter the time, day or night, it was someone's favorite show. The TV always had to be on.

My Chilean friends made no attempt to hide their contempt for this practice. "In Chile," they said, "if you had friends over, and you turned on the TV, it would be considered an insult. Your friends would take the act of turning on the TV as a sign that they are not worthy of your full attention. Watch yourselves in the presence of a TV. Though you might be in a conversation, inevitably your attention is partly drawn to the TV, and you give the TV a part of your focus. As a result, your conversations are bland, your parties are boring. TV robs your conversation of chispa, of spark."

It was a defining moment for me. What my friends were describing was an effect of virtualization, that of dilution. They perceived that our fellowship was being diluted and destroyed. They saw that we Americans had not a clue what was happening to us.

If you doubt TV's power, watch yourselves. Take any group of people being together. Turn on the TV and watch how the conversation dies, as inevitably people's gaze is drawn to the TV. What's on is irrelevant. It could be CNN, football, Seinfeld or the 700 Club. The programming is irrelevant.

Watch the mesmerizing effect of TV on children. Look at their faces. Compare their demeanor with our definition of the soul. Watch how family life ceases when the television is turned on. No dialogue, no intimacy, no play. Nothing occurs in the family when the TV is on. The cleverly coined term "family television" is a contradiction in terms. Family life ends when the TV is turned on.

In most homes in our society, the television is on for many hours a day. What this means is that for all those hours, the activities of the soul are not being carried out. The soul is dead.

My generation is not as talented as my father's generation in conversation and dialogue, and the new generation is less skilled yet. The reason is simple. We didn't do it as much as the previous generation. Instead of spending our evening talking on the front porch, we watched television. The current generation watches even more. It's simple: you get good at what you do a lot of. The skill that television provides is passive reception.

TV is the worst of the virtualizing media. But it's not only TV. The Web, electronic games, the newspaper, catalogs, the radio, are all potential virtualizers.

The effects of virtualization are no respecter of persons. If you don't do the activities of the soul, you will have no soul. And when you devote so much time to the media of virtualization, you have no time or energy left for the soul. This is true whether you're young or old, whether well or poorly educated, whether rich or poor, whether from a healthy or dysfunctional family, whether righteous or evil. To the extent you engage the forces of virtualization, you will lead a virtualized life, and your soul will die.

Virtualization is closely related to another term that for many has described their struggle for meaning over the last century. That term is alienation--the feeling that we are alien, separate, foreign from that which has meaning in life. Virtualization is only a new twist on alienation, but it's alienation just the same.

How are we different because of computers? Because of information technology? What does this mean for us?

Because of technology, we face more potential for virtualization and its resulting alienation than any previous generation. What should we do about the media of virtualization? Should we burn our CDs, live without TV, disconnect from computers and the Internet? Some of us may choose that route.

For the rest of us, let us understand. Let us understand virtualization and its dangers, for they are powerful. Let us not be ignorant. Let us for every encounter with the media of virtualization, every time we pick up a magazine or catalog, every time we flip on the radio or play a CD, every time we turn on the TV and every time we send e-mail or surf the net, let us apply the tests of dilution, of passivity, of substitution.

Let us take care that we do the things of the soul--meditation, spirituality, intimacy, fellowship, learning and artful expression, knowing that virtualization kills the soul.

Finally, let us consciously decide how real we want to be and how virtual we're willing to be. How much alienation through virtualization are we willing to risk? Decide for yourself how real you wish to be, and insist on it. Be a techno-realist. Do the things of the soul.

Have a real day and a real life.

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