Thursday, December 28, 2006

Presbyterian Outlook: Presbyterian mission in a flat world, part 2

Presbyterian Outlook: Presbyterian mission in a flat world, part 2
by Scott Sunquist
"Last issue we started to look at how Thomas Friendman’s “flat world” might have implications for our new patterns of missional involvement. Let me describe four of the ten “flatteners” that have changed our world and should change our missiology.

1. 11/9/89: “The New Age of Creativity: When the walls came down and the windows went up.” The Berlin wall fell on 11/9. Friedman says, “I realized that the ordinary men and women of East Germany peacefully and persistently had taken matters into their own hands. This was ‘their revolution’”
The second part of this flattener was “Windows” from Microsoft. The 3.0 series was a major breakthrough which bridged people and machines as never before. ..."
Whatever opinions one has about Microsoft and its methods, this is true. The events leading to Tiananmen Square involved a lot of faxing of information back and forth (email was not a major player yet). And repressive regimes are starting to employ firewalls at their borders to restrict the content that their citizens can access.

"... 2. 8/9/95: “The New Age of connectivity: When the Web went around and Netscape went public.” Brit “Tim Berners-Lee posted the first Web site on Aug. 6, 1991 to foster a computer network that would enable scientists to share their research more easily.” (p. 59) As Friedman notes, “He designed it and he fought to keep it open, nonproprietary and free.” What made this even more valuable and freely accessible was the development of Netscape (went public Aug. 9, 1995); a way to search and find information across the various Web sites. This innovation opened up the portal to information to all people in the world as never before. The openness of this new world of information (remember: knowledge is power) gave power to common people like you and like me, as never before. “Open, nonproprietary and free:” this was truly revolutionary in the history of knowledge. ..."

An excellent point here. I've been involved with web sites since I first put one up in Fall of 1993. There was a point in the mid-1990s when the daily traffic using the http protocol exceeded all other internet protocols -- including email, telnet, and ftp. And the web usage has continued to dominate the internet. I heard Tim O'Reilly (of O'Reilly and Associates book publishers) speak at one of the Open Source Conferences in the latter 1990s on "killer apps" -- those applications that make people want to embrace a new technology. For the personal computer it was a spreadsheet called Lotus 123. What was the killer app for the World Wide Web? People who had no interest in spreadsheets, word processors, or even solitaire had a web site they could not live without. Since that time there have been other "killer apps" like Ebay,, and now any one of a number of blogs that are revolutionizing how we acquire and pass on information.

"... 3. Work flow software. Animation today is produced through a global supply chain, not by a bunch of techno-artists in a Disney studio. Work flow software made it possible for people all over the world (in Starbucks, my home, a factory or an internet café in Timbuktu) to add on ideas, concepts or to make critical decisions.
Consider how this applies to our missionary activity. When it comes to Presbyterian missional work, we have many standards in place, but we need to have a “work flow software” mentality that would allow us all to work together and to listen together. The General Assembly Council’s mission division can be and should be the “clearing house” for the standards, values and strategies of Presbyterian-Ecumenical mission. But their job, like eBay, is to free up “the People” to be more effective; to have more power and control of their work. ..."

Here is where software has shined. The 217th General Assembly used a business tracking website named "Les" which had its growing pains, but gave not only the commissioners on the floor access to information, but interested Presbyterians anywhere in the world could track the progress of bills and overtures and watch the plenary sessions live using streaming video. Les could be improved, but is a major step forward, at least from the perspective of one who observed the goings on in Birmingham from my dining room table in Columbia, Missouri.

"... 4. Uploading: Harnessing the power of communities. Friedman notes that the “great shift from audience to participants” occurred with the new freedom people had to add or contribute directly (p. 95). It is remarkable to note that the underlying web server for e-commerce software is a global community-built software (share-ware) known as “Apache.” ..."

For better or for worse we have seen a year when You Tube has acted a a clearing house for home-made videos covering a wide variety of subjects, including politicians and their unguarded moments. Blogs have broken news stories which main-stream media have ignored -- and then belatedly covered once the bloggers have placed it before the public. If people are frustrated that stories are not being told, or that the media have decided what is important for us to know or not know, they can get that information out. The downside is that the reader or viewer must exercise some discretion in evaluating the sources. There are good blogs and there are not-so-good blogs, but the alternative is to go back to the way things were. Nobody wants that (except, perhaps, some news organizations).

It is refreshing to see people in the Mission field recognize the power of information technology. Scott Sundquist has demonstrated clearly how technology has empowered people in ways they could not imagine 20 years ago. How are we going to use this power?

I await part three of Sundquist's series with anticipation.

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