STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 07/12/2013

Up Front | Facing Up to the Internet

A few months after the Internet broke into popular culture, Ken Olsen took me aside. This Gordon trustee emeritus, a giant in technology, and a man some have called “the ultimate entrepreneur,” said this: “Uncontrolled, the Internet will make virtually everything accessible to Gordon students. At the very least, it will be a huge time-waster and distraction.” Ken had as much to do with the invention of the personal computer as anyone, but he was deeply skeptical about its applications. Today I’m still asking myself, “Was he right?”

When email first came to campus, yellow notepads quickly became obsolete. Interoffice mail dropped off dramatically. Now that the Internet and email are part of every waking hour, it’s hard to remember when they were novelties. About the only places I can’t be reached instantly are remote corners of an Indian reservation in Arizona and on a plane at 37,000 feet. And even that will change soon!

On balance I feel I’m a more effective president because of the technologies at my fingertips. But what used to be a trickle of email has exploded to several hundred messages hitting my inbox each day—40–60 of them requiring a response if I’m not to fall behind. Little wonder I’ve not been eager to adopt Facebook, text messaging or YouTube!

I find it ironic that with all the emphasis in our culture on transparency, intimacy and honesty, technology allows us to hide. We literally don’t have to show our faces to communicate—creating the potential for distortion, deception and manipulation.

But communication researchers tell us that up to 90 percent of all communication in face-to-face settings happens nonverbally, through cues that would be missed entirely in electronic communication. That’s why I insist those on my leadership team have frequent face-to-face interaction with me, both formally and informally. That’s why I urge my trustees to attend every meeting and be in touch with each other on a personal basis between meetings. Cyberspace is no substitute for being together in the same room.

I have another worry, and it is a pragmatic one. I love to read historical biographies, and an important source for biographers is the handwritten letter. Right now the Jane Austen exhibit at the Morgan Library in New York City is displaying some of the 3,000 personal letters the author is believed to have written during her 41 years. They provide glimpses not only into her life but into the details of everyday life in early 19th-century England. In today’s technology-driven world, Jane Austen’s treasured letters might simply have disappeared into the ether.

Is all of this technology good for us, or is it mainly a distraction? The faculty and staff reflecting on such questions in this edition of STILLPOINT conclude it’s up to us to decide. But we must be disciplined in our use of social-networking media if we are to honor God and others.

Perhaps the best advice we have for this struggle was written by hand by the Apostle Paul (or by his amanuensis), probably with a reed pen on parchment, to the Church at Philippi almost 2,000 years ago: “Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
Philippians 4:8 (NIV)

R. Judson Carlberg, Ph. D.


President Carlberg