This month's QuakerQuaker blog carnival asks about Quaker DIY, especially around technologies. There's a shout-out to Northwest Yearly Meeting! (That's my husband, by the way--"Communications & Resource Coordinator"!)
I thought I'd add my two cents about Quakers, technology and Quaker process.
First, there are many things that are very Quakerly about using the technology available to us. As we've seen in the recent movements for liberation in Africa and the Middle East, technology can be used to subvert oppressive forces and for liberation. Technology right now has the effect of empowering people, or perhaps flattening the power structure--disempowering those who are using their power oppressively, and empowering those who speak out with liberating truth that is recognizable to the whole world. As Friends, I think we should be really excited about this! This morning I heard on NPR about a Chinese artist who's been detained by the Chinese government, not allowed to leave the country as planned, because he's been tweeting about things like the names of school children who were killed in the earthquake in Szechuan a couple years ago due to cheaply-made structures. (I don't care if people want to have a Communist government, but I don't want governments to create and then suppress knowledge of the creation of poorly-designed architecture. If it was an accident, fine. But if they're trying to cover up their mistake just so people won't rise up against their government, it seems like there are deeper issues going on.) At any rate, the fact that he has access to this technology makes it possible for him to have a voice about the problems he sees, and to embolden others to speak out as well.
Another thing about Quakers and technology that seems important: although Friends lost their cutting edge somewhere along the way, at the beginning of the movement Friends were actually using new technology to their advantage really effectively. Because of the availability of printed Bibles, and because they had recently become available in English, Friends were able to read the text themselves and encourage people to read it in order to know what God said themselves, rather than through the intermediary priest, who previously had been the only one (or one of a few in each community) with access to the written word. Friends also wrote many tracts and pamphlets about their beliefs and experiences and self-published them in quantities. These were popular means of communication at the time. Friends, of course, also wrote journals, which was not a practice limited to Friends, but was a fairly new idea for relatively-common people.
Along the way somewhere, it seems that Friends grew wary of technology, and to be sure there are things of which we should be wary. We can get addicted to "the next new thing," we can get distracted by keeping up with all the technology and not spend time with God, and in our fast-paced society it's easy to get so caught up in statuses and blogs and news articles and YouTube videos that we don't get enough sleep, let alone spend time in silent meditation or face to face with real people. (I myself am guilty of this at times!)
But I've found technology really helpful in my own life and in my work in Quaker circles.
Personally, I've been encouraged by blogging and reading others' blogs. I've appreciated QuakerQuaker since it began, and the informal connection it provides for conversations across the Quaker spectrum. I haven't been particularly vocal in the "Convergent Friends" conversation, but I consider myself a convergent Friend, and am grateful to know there are kindred spirits out there in all branches of Friends. Although I do have a platform from which to speak to a few people because I'm given the opportunity to preach now and again, blogging is a way I can share messages I hear from God, or at least to process what I'm thinking and hearing with others. This a) gives me the opportunity to share with a larger "audience," and b) lets people who don't care not listen, because they're not obligated to read my posts (whereas they're obligated by politeness to listen if I'm the one preaching where they are on a Sunday morning!).
For my work among Friends, technology has also been really helpful. Joel and I were the full group gathering coordinators for the World Gathering of Young Friends 2005, and we couldn't have done this without email. The entire planning was done via email. Probably now if we did it, we would be able to communicate even more effectively, but we used the tools we had at the time. I created an e-group for those helping with leadership during the full group gatherings, and I communicated with people from every continent (besides Antarctica) before we all arrived in the UK.
When I worked for NWYM as Peace Education Coordinator I wrote a blog about peace education, and it was actually really funny because at the time our e-groups were hosted through a Christian missionary organization with which we didn't have anything to do, but anytime someone posted a blog entry, the title showed up on the site's homepage. This organization was considerably more conservative than we are (read: pro-military), so people actually got really upset that all this stuff about Bible-base peace kept showing up on the main page! But I thought it was a good tool for getting our message out there, even though (or perhaps especially because) it made people upset: it forced them to think about a perspective that wasn't in their normal radar.
Now I clerk the NWYM Peace Education Subcommittee, and all the boards, committees and subcommittees of NWYM have their own group's site on a program called Basecamp. It's really easy to use. It's like a new-and-improved e-group. You can email everyone on your committee through it, but you can also upload files, create a calendar with due dates and timelines, create "Writeboards" that everyone can add to, etc. All these can be done in GoogleDocs, but I think Basecamp is easier to understand and use. This has helped our committee work tremendously. it helps us be much more organized to have everything in one place.
Also, our committee is spread out over a large geographic area: Oregon, Washington and Idaho, and one of our members currently lives in Australia! So we've used a mixture of phone conference calls and Skype so we can all be "present" at meetings. This has been really helpful in that people can participate even if they don't live in the same areas.
Using technology in this way has also been difficult, however. Basecamp and other technologies are not intuitive for everyone! I don't consider myself terribly tech-savvy, but for some, technology is pretty challenging to try to use. People forget their passwords or forget how to get to the site. Using email is nice except for with people who don't check their email often. It's also easy for people to ignore email, so if I can't actually go see them face to face, it's hard to get them to commit to something via email if they're really not excited about it. It's easier to avoid accountability by just ignoring an email.
I think the hardest part is that it seems like those who conference-call in or Skype in are not usually as invested as those who are physically present. For one thing, many of the things that need to be done are easier to do from the central location (our Quaker Mecca, as we in NWYM like to call it!). If there's a mailing, we have to do it. If there's something that needs to be communicated with the NWYM staff in person, we have to do it. So it still makes people from other places seem less needed, and therefore they're less invested. Also, it's easier to be doing something else during the meeting if you're on the phone. You can be driving or playing video games or whatever, and no one knows. (We might suspect, but we don't know for sure!) It's harder to build relationships with those who aren't physically present, so it's important to go visit them periodically to get to know them and help them feel included and appreciated. (I'd like to go visit Australia, but so far haven't had the chance!)
Another thing that is somewhat unfortunate about using technology is that I wonder if I send my thoughts and leadings out into cyberspace instead of speaking them and working on them with the people around me. For a long time I didn't even tell very many people I know that I had a blog. Then I could write whatever I wanted and not have to worry about what my community thought. Like-minded people would find my blog, but not-like-minded people weren't likely to. So I could safely give voice to my opinions and still have nice (but surfacy) relationships with those around me who might not think so well of me if they knew what I really thought. (Then NWYM started publishing links to blog posts on Facebook and it was all over!) I'm glad to have those in my community reading my blog, but I still wonder if I just write instead of actually DOING something in the world sometimes. And perhaps using technology enables that.
So to sum up, I think using technology can give us a voice as Friends that can make a difference in the world, and it helps with administrative work of committees and planning groups. It helps people who are distant know they are not alone. God can speak through us and encourage us through the words of others we've never met in person. At the same time, it can be used either as a distraction or as a way to avoid real relationships with those near us.
As with almost everything, we can use technology for good or evil. It seems like as Friends we're doing a pretty good job of utilizing it as a tool, but we must be ever-careful that we allow space for the Spirit to work among us, even across vast distances.