“It’s all about networking.” Do you want a job? Network. Do you want some open doors? Network. Do you want to be successful? Network. Do you want to be better equipped for life? Network. Is the old concept of networking still valid in 2013? What do we mean by networking? Are we talking about people or about virtual information technologies or about both?
Anthony Elliott’s Contemporary Social Theory (2009) is a timely – and tough – read. Social Theory as a discipline tries to understand and explain the ways humans relate to one another. In his text, Elliott gives us a lot to think about in regards to social order. Unlike our readings in theology, which focus on God’s role in the history of humankind, social theory focuses on a diversity of thought on how humans function in groups and in societies – without a concern for God. However, the similarity between theology and social theory is that even though the theorists often build on each other’s thoughts, they do not always agree with one another. Even as there are different denominations to delineate among theological perspectives, so are there different schools of thought in the diverse models of social theory. I wonder, after reading Elliott’s work, if theology will go the way of social theory in its scope and pace. Will technological advances transform theology to the extent it is shaping contemporary social theory? As was asked in our last recent online chat, what will be the focus of Christian theology “books” in the 22nd century?
One section that caught my interest was in Chapter 9 of the text. Here, the author explores the thoughts of Manuel Castells on “The Network Society.” According to Elliott, Castells believes, “that advances in information technology and especially the rise of the Internet are fundamentally transforming the core structure of networks in our own time.” Castells challenges his predecessors, notably Max Weber and Karl Marx, by arguing that, “communication, computers, and information technology are at the center of global production networks.” But although this seems obvious to the 21st century mind, Castell “systematically analyzed the global structures through which the economy became networked.” Castells further stated that one could not understand what is going on in the world today without factoring in “timeless time” and “placeless space.” He continues, “In the network society, identities, organizations and cultural life – whether in marketing, technology, biomedicine or higher education – are increasingly restructured by accelerated space of flows, particularly in the major metropolitan centers.” As Elliott further explains the primary core features of Castell’s account of the “space of flows,” I was especially struck by his notion of the need for “people interspersed and interconnected within networks.” Although he goes on to call these people “gold-colored class professionals,” I found myself asking some questions. How can there be any social structures at all without people? Will computers and technology ultimately eliminate the need for human networks altogether?
I was in an important meeting recently that had to do with the question of how to best proceed with creating online courses at the college where I teach. There is an obvious split in the faculty on the issue of online education. Some of us see its value; others are terrified that completely online programs are not effective for epistemologically sound education. In other words, can anyone learn when one is not “present” with one’s teacher and classmates? These professors have research to back their position – but so does the other side. The debate continues among the faculty and I hope it will not turn into caustic, warring factions. I (as always) see benefits in both perspectives. At the end of the meeting, the department chair concluded, “Well, perhaps you can teach a class online, but you cannot disciple someone online.” Another prof then replied, “Sure you can; I do it all the time.” And the discussion went into round two. Round three happens this week at our monthly faculty meeting – it should be interesting!
Can one learn online? Can one disciple another online? Perhaps these are not even the right questions. It is not about the goodness or badness of the media or the technology. I think the better questions are about purpose, motivation, goals, and outcomes. If these are sound – if there are networks based on real human compassion, wisdom, and values – then why is it wrong? Why are we so afraid of the new ways of doing things? I don’t have all the answers to these big questions just as theologians and social theorists don’t have all the answers. But like each of them, I can add my voice, my thoughts, my theories. And ultimately, as Castell has conjectured, people are the ones who are responsible whether the ideas end up being a success or a failure.