I am a recently convinced Friend, and I want to become a pastor, so I tend to have a lot of conversations about Quakerism. While I enjoy these opportunities a great deal, there are some rather humorous myths that I frequently encounter. A persistent one is that Friends reject the use of technology. One of those exchanges went something like this:
“You’re a what?”
“Huh. . . . You know, you’re the first Quaker that I’ve ever met! So do you like, not use electricity or something?”
“Nope, you may have us confused with the Amish.”
I’m sure many Friends have been in conversations where they were the “first Quaker” that someone has met. But it is safe to say that many Americans’ first exposure to Quakers has been a particular brand of oats! If all one has to go on is a picture of a jolly-looking man in plain clothes with shaggy white locks, it is easy to see how we may be seen as a people from another time.
It may be true that early Friends of the seventeenth century more closely resembled our outmoded representation depicted by the Quaker Oats logo, but even then the myth didn’t hold. From our beginning, Friends have been adopters of technology.
Our modern openness to technology is evident when walking up to a Quaker meetinghouse and passing a parking lot full of hybrid vehicles (accessorized with all manner of bumper stickers). A green technology had appeared that was helpful for us to live more fully into our testimony as stewards of creation, and it was adopted. My own meeting has recently started to use microphones for vocal ministry in open worship. While at first waiting for a runner with a microphone to arrive was hard, we’ve begun to see that using a microphone helps members participate more fully in worship. I’ve seen the Spirit moving through technology in all expressions of Quakerism. Recently at a quarterly meeting of Ohio Yearly Meeting (known for retaining traditional Quaker customs), there were Friends participating via Skype video. Yes, even Quakers that use “thee” and “thou” instead of “you” and “yours” use Skype.
William Penn said, “True godliness does not turn [people] out of the world, but enables them to live better in it, and excites their endeavors to mend it.” I think the Spirit doesn’t lead us to abandon technology but enables us to better use it. Our Society began with the clearness that the entirety of God’s teaching and truth didn’t end on the last page of the Bible: that God is still teaching! Can we still listen to the Inward Teacher when we impulsively check our smartphones throughout the day? I think that we can. God’s truth isn’t locked in a book or in a specific moment in history; that truth is also not locked out of our modern technologies.
When I was young, the line between what was called “real life” and technology (in my case a Nintendo 64) seemed distinct. I could plug in a cartridge, turn on the console, enjoy the story, turn it off, and then go outside. I am more aware of the lack of the distinction today. From my interactions with children today, I notice that they see their presence on the Internet in a different way: there is less of a separation between a digital persona and a “real life.” I worry about how our middle school-aged children should deal with having constant connection to their social networks in their pocket. I worry too about cyberbullying. My worry isn’t because I think they aren’t a capable generation, but because I don’t know how to deal with it perfectly either. We are all figuring it out. There are no elders to turn to for answers.
Although I feel some fear, I don’t want the world to return to the way it used to be. This new lack of the separation in our lives is probably a good development. As we venture into this unknown territory together, I believe that the Friends tradition of collective listening and discerning is more needed than ever.
Older Friends sometimes talk about how an effective presence on the Internet is going to be the thing that keeps young adults from leaving. This presumption may have originated from putting younger people into a simplistic “Internet generation” box.
I hope the online presence of Friends will be what it has been offline: small, but potent. Internet controversies tend to squish people into two-dimensional caricatures that are easy to attack. Friends need to be aware of that temptation. If we can remember that there is that of God in everyone, we can remember that people are complex. This realization may stay our hand before we click the send button on a virtual attack, or invite hatred into our hearts when someone shares an image or statement with which we do not agree.
The Spirit can lead us to a better use of technology. Our understanding of nonviolence, whether witnessed in person or across a digital network, is powerful. The technology of the Internet has provided a new set of tools and opportunities to subvert systems of oppression. One example of inspired use of technology is Olympia (Wash.) Meeting’s efforts to support and assist LGBTQ Ugandans who are being horribly persecuted. Would this effort have been possible for a meeting to take on 30 years ago? I doubt it. Does this effort feel deeply connected to the same Spirit that guided Friends of the past? Absolutely.
In the eighteenth century, John Woolman sought the Spirit’s will concerning his use of technology that came from slave labor. Today, we use his example of discernment to understand whether and how to use devices filled with conflict minerals. How do we balance our use of tools that are useful to ministry but that also act as status symbols for the world’s privileged few?
Quakers have always and will always be using technology. It is a myth that we have avoided it, but there may be truth in that Quakers strive not to misuse technology. We must be considerate and intentional as we go forward and not shortchange the process.
Watch: Author video chat with A.J.
Watch: Are Quakers Amish?, a QuakerSpeak video with Max Carter
Watch: Quakers and the Light (a QuakerSpeak video featuring the author A.J. Mendoza)