A theological reflection on integrated information networks

Richard Thomas MIPR


Three major world religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, have as their focus a God who communicates, and who created us to belong to supportive and loving communities. In the Christian tradition, the integration of the individual into his or her family, community and place of work is an essential part of his/her ‘shalom’, or peaceful well-being. This integration is founded on good communication; knowing yourself, knowing your immediate family and friends and being known by them, knowing and being known by those with whom you work, and knowing and being known by God. We are not meant to be consumers, but to be contributors in a common purpose – the good of the communities to which we belong.

Information Technology has the potential for increasing this ability to know and be known. The popular theory of GAIA, which suggests that the earth is an inter-connected system where the ultimate good is the regulation of the planet by the process of knowing and being known by all the other elements of the system, is reflected in the inter-connection of individuals and groups by electronic means. Yet within the Jewish and Christian traditions there is also the story of the Tower of Babel – where the same connectivity by a common language led to the people ‘becoming like Gods’; and the breaking of that connectivity to create small, discrete communities was seen as essential for the ethical and moral good of humanity. The origin of languages was a protection against unrestricted evil, rather than a frustration of unrestricted good.

Whilst Information Technology has the ability to create new networks of knowing, it also has the potential to separate us from human contact and creativity. At the heart of real human satisfaction is the ability completely and fully to know, and be known by, another human being. Information technology cannot replace that warmth of knowing, and is in danger of supplanting it. The resulting isolation can create a false substitute for knowing that is ultimately destructive of human contact. Art and Music, good food and wine enjoyed with friends, loving sexual relationships and the enjoyment of nature are all essential for human health and happiness. They cannot be replaced by technology. Where they are, as for example in the growing demand for computer pornography or internet relationships, individuals and communities are diminished. The intrusion of the electronic work place into the home may bring benefits to the avoidance of travel, but it also brings dangers for family life and welfare.

The benefit of information technology is that it can release us to be more fully human. It can help create space and time for the human enjoyment of ourselves, our families, our communities and our work. As a means to an end – specifically, the end of improving the common good – information technology can assist us to create small scale village communities. But as an end in itself, Information Technology will become the Babel that will need to be resisted and frustrated for the protection of human contact.

The Revd. Richard Thomas is an Anglican Priest, and Director of Communication for the Diocese of Oxford. He is a member of the Church of England’s Internet Reference Group, and Chairman of the Churches’ Advertising Network. He is an elected member of the Institute of Public Relations, and has spoken at several conferences on the nature of Christian Communications. He has one published work, ‘An Introduction to Church Communications’, and is currently working on issues to do with the way people belong to religious communities.