Monday, April 02, 2007

3/30/07, For Your Consideration: Q2 Limits of Modern Technology?

The other posts in the series are:
For Your Consideration
Q.1 Excommunication by Email?
Q.3 Immediate Excommunication?
Q.4 What is the standard Presbyterian procedure for excommunication?
Q.5. Scriptural Justification for a Three Week Excommunication Notice
Q6. Misinterpretation by Price, Barrow, and Dohms
Q.7 Why Read the Banns?

Dear Brethren,

Thank you for being willing to read the thoughts of an unworthy sinner such as myself. Below please find some additional points for your consideration.

Your brother,


2. Does modern technology replace the need for face-to-face communication?

Several weeks ago I had the privilege of hearing a lecture by Dr. Fred Brooks, a distinguished professor of Computer Science at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Dr. Brooks is the recipient of the Turing Award, which is often referred to as the Nobel Prize of computing, for his significant contributions to software engineering, computer architecture, and virtual reality. His work is highly regarded, and his classic text on Software Engineering is still widely read today more than 30 years after it was first published. (The book also contains an analogical reference to the Trinity, thus revealing his profession of the Christian faith.)

The subject matter of the lecture was collaboration in design, with an emphasis on telecollaboration (i.e., collaboration at a distance). One example he provided was the Airbus A380, the high-tech passenger jet that was designed by engineers scattered across Europe. The cabin interior and part of the fuselage are produced in Germany, the wings are developed in the UK, the tailplane and landing door gears are made in Spain, and the final product is assembled in France. Dr. Brooks related a conversation that he had with the chief engineer of the project. He asked, "What enables your engineers to work together on a project when they are physically separated from one another? How do you ensure that the wing designed in Britain will fit the fuselage designed in Germany?"

The response that he received was quite instructive. With a large budget, the engineers had unprecedented access to the best of modern technology, not only telephone and email, but also video conferencing, telecollaboration software, and the like. And they used this technology to its fullest potential. Nevertheless, the answer that he received did not involve technology but rather on an old-fashioned concept called "face time". In the opinion of the chief engineer, two things contributed to the success of the project. First, "ambassadors" were placed in the various design teams. For example, representatives from the design team in Germany were physically on site to help the design team in England interpret the specifications coming from Germany. Secondly, planes flew every day to physically carry the engineers and managers from one of the design teams to another, affording them daily face-to-face interaction. As Dr. Brooks so well summarized in the title of one of his Powerpoint slides, "Face to Face Interaction is Critical."

Here we have two men who are thoroughly acquainted with the capabilities of modern technology saying that face-to-face interaction is indispensable for effective communication. Now, if such interaction is crucial to building a lifeless, soulless piece of machinery like an airplane, how much more crucial is it to building spiritual growth in the body of Christ? If engineers with access to the best that modern technology has to offer cannot even get two pieces of metal to fit together without extensive face-to-face interaction, how can brothers come to know one another's minds and do their duties to one another through emails and telephone calls? Obviously I believe that technology has its advantages -- after all, I am using email right now -- but we would be wise to recognize its limitations as well. Although technology can be used as a *supplement* to traditional means of communication, it is not a *substitute*.

One insightful application of this principle can be found in a survey conducted by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the largest technical professional society in the world. It would be difficult to find an organization whose members are more familiar with the capabilities of modern technology than the IEEE. The question of the survey was, "How far would you walk to avoid talking with someone over the phone?" It turns out that the answer given by the respondents depended upon the purpose of the communication: The more important the matter, the greater the distance they would be willing to travel. For example, to invite a coworker to lunch, respondents said they would only be willing to physically get up and walk if the person were across the hall; but for more distant coworkers, they would pick up the telephone. To fire a secretary, however, respondents said they would actually get on a plane and fly across the country to avoid having to communicate such important and personal information over the telephone.

Such an answer reflects a light of nature principle, namely that important business is best conducted face-to-face, even if it involves great personal sacrifice to travel from one location to another. If these worldly engineers are willing to travel thousands of miles rather than relay bad news to a coworker in an impersonal manner, what are we to think of church officers who find no shame in casting out brethren remotely without making any attempt to communicate the matter in person? Is the human soul (and a brother's at that) less important -- and deserving of less dignity -- than a coworker's temporal job that is destined to perish anyway, like the grass? Are these elders more aware of the benefits and capabilities of modern technology than the engineers who developed the technology in the first place?

Perhaps unbelievers have something to teach us regarding the need for face-to-face interaction. Perhaps, too, we can learn from the faithful brethren that have gone before us. This need, for example, is echoed by the Presbyterians of the Westminster Assembly:

"It is ordinary for Synods to send Synodical Epistles and Decrees to particular Churches, not by the Commissioners who came from those Churches, but by chosen men, partly to express their great respect to the Church...." [The Answer of the Assembly of Divines (The Grand Debate), p. 63]

In other words, when a Synod makes a decree, it notifies the churches under its care by sending chosen men to deliver the message in person. Surely such a decree could be delivered by other means (e.g., a written letter), but the importance of the matter warrants a more personal approach in order to express respect to the people on the receiving end. To do otherwise would be somewhat discourteous and inconsiderate. Thus, this principle of insisting upon face-to-face communication for important business is not only found in the light of nature but also has been received into standard historical Presbyterian practice.

Obviously, in a church with members distributed throughout the world, thousands of miles from one another, one cannot expect to have as much face-to-face interaction as would be possible in more ordinary times. However, it has been acknowledged by all the members with whom I have spoken over the years that this church is sorely in need of better communication. And it appears that the heavy reliance upon technology as a substitute for face-to-face interaction is a fundamental hindrance to the problem ever being solved. Perhaps this provides one reason why this church has not grown since its inception eleven years ago, namely, because the elders have adopted a model of communication that does not generalize to larger groups of distributed people. Perhaps this church will never grow for this same reason. As much as one may wish to explain away circumstances by appealing to Providence, the fact remains that our beliefs and actions have consequences. If we neglect the various means available to us (even in the present extraordinary circumstances) to ensure more face-to-face interaction, we cannot expect the healthy growth of a body of believers. With these considerations in mind we should ask ourselves, Is there really no more expedient way to govern a church such as this one?

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