Digital Wisdom: the Bird from an Article by The Very Revd Michael Sadgrove, Dean Of Durham  Like the organisations we belong to, the digital world brings us into structures and networks that far transcend our own intimate relationships. The difference is that it does this without our always being fully conscious of it. There is a wisdom text in the 10th chapter of Qoheleth that is made for the Twitter age. ‘Do not curse the king, even in your thoughts, or curse the rich, even in your bedroom; for a bird of the air may carry your voice, or some winged creature may tell the matter.’ So bird-wisdom means being careful what we disclose, where, and to whom. Even where I think I am most alone, most anonymous, reckon I am seen by no-one and leave no traces, some little creature with wings can exploit my laptop, my phone, my tablet and give me away. Our need for digital wisdom is not simply important, but urgent. Ours is the first generation to be living with the real and complex changes that are happening to us as a result of almost universal electronic connectivity. That the invention of the internet has brought us huge benefits is something I do not need to argue today. Access to information on a scale undreamed-of to any previous generation is an asset without price. But neither do I need to remind you of its dark side. The well-publicised exploitation of the web to fuel ideological extremism, terrorism, violence and pornography is well known. We don’t need anyone to tell us not to venture into places with big red ‘keep out’ signs. If we go there and come to harm, we have only ourselves to blame. [expand-contract expand-title=”Read-More” swaptitle=”Read-Less” trigclass=”expand-highlight” trigpos=”below” tag=”readon”] But there are less visible hazards out there too. I am thinking of the threats posed to personal privacy and security through digital surveillance, something we have heard a lot about in recent weeks. Not only are smartphones sophisticated tracking devices, but we leave indelible traces in cyberspace through our emails, our visits to websites and the content we share through social networking sites. We are right to worry about the as-yet unforeseen consequences of this for politics and society in the 21st century. And it should make us think very carefully about how we behave in a world where there are no secrets, where everything is in principle open, public and disclosed. This is where bird-wisdom comes in: be careful what you say when you think you are on your own. Someone is probably listening. In the history of ideas, it may turn out that whenever any new invention or discovery leads to an intellectual revolution and significantly shifts a culture into new ways of thought, the risks are greatest in the first and second generations. It was in the aftermath of the invention of nuclear weapons that the cold war posed a particular threat.  The mechanisation of labour that the industrial revolution ushered in is another example of the inevitable time-lag in realising the threats it brought as well as the opportunities. The inventions of printing and photography may other instances. Technology always accelerates away from our ability not only to use it responsibly and manage it safely, but even more importantly, to give it shape and discipline by placing it a landscape of values and ethics. Wisdom has a special emphasis on the care, nurture and protection of the vulnerable. Among these are the young. Their formation and upbringing is a major, perhaps the major preoccupation of this kind of reflective biblical literature. In the first few chapters of Proverbs, the writer develops the imagery of a young man walking along the street trying to find his way through life. From houses on either side, two ladies call out to him and attempt to entice him into their homes. The one is Lady Wisdom, who promises a life-giving banquet of bread and wine, an environment in which to flourish and grow as a human being. The other is Dame Folly.  She also offers a feast of a kind to delight the senses and promises immediate and easy rewards. But her way leads inevitably to corruption and death. The trouble is, they both sound plausible to a young man who is easily led. These chapters tell us what the purpose of Proverbs is: to educate the young by informing their hearts and consciences and minds. This it does partly by encouragement and promise, partly by warning.  How we protect young people in the largely ungoverned environment of the internet, how to steer them towards Lady Wisdom rather than Dame Folly, is already a very major concern to policy-makers and parents alike. At the same time as the web builds up and plants, it also destroys and overthrows. I need to declare at this point that I am an enthusiastic user of social media, especially tweeting and blogging. The little tweeting bird Ecclesiastes warns us about is my symbol of the gifts and dangers of social media. I have been reading about a book I have not yet seen called The Psychodynamics of Social Media by Aaron Balick. He argues that a tweet is more like a thought than a statement, and yet, as we have seen when things de-rail in spectacularly public ways, it is also a statement that has legal existence and carries consequences, specifically libel; and if not that, then outcomes that can damage reputations, including your own, for good. We are not used to a world where thinking aloud can put us at risk; but as psychologists recognise, it is the way in which the instant feedback of social media acts as a kind of addictive intoxicant that raises the stakes alarmingly. It does this because it privileges the instant over the longer-term: this minute over the next half-hour let alone tomorrow or next week. Add to that the disinhibiting aspects of being, as we imagine, alone with our computer.  As Ecclesiastes says, a little bird is waiting to carry messages far and wide. Earlier this year, I encountered this worrying aspect of social media for myself. Having married into a Sunderland-supporting family 40 years ago, I was concerned, with many others, about the appointment of their new manager Paolo di Canio. As you know, he had proclaimed himself as ‘not a racist but a fascist’, had given a notorious fascist salute at a match in Italy, and proudly wore a tattoo honouring Mussolini. I wrote an open letter on my blog asking him to clarify his position. I don’t say that the blog ‘went viral’ but it was picked up by the national and local media and evidently put him under some pressure. His helpful clarification came the next day. So in a sense, the story is over. All the nationals welcomed it, some of them making uncalled-for flattering comments such as ‘the Dean hitched up his cassock, took aim, and scored spectacular goal’. I had a lot of grateful emails and tweets from supporters. But the unpleasant surprise was how much digital vitriol was flung in my face, this too mainly from fans. How dare the church interfere in something it knows nothing about. How dare I take on the role of the North East’s thought-police. How dare I assume that the club’s fans weren’t able to think for themselves. And so on. If you read the blog, I dare say some of this stuff is still there in the comments. I didn’t respond to the abuse, but I did try to engage in dialogue with the more measured critics. I said that all I was doing was to point to what di Canio had said and done on the record and, given the vast influence football has on the young, this was a matter of public interest. I mentioned my own German-Jewish ancestry, with my particular awareness of the fascism poses to the world. Some of this has become an intelligent debate about football, politics and faith and of course I welcome this. If you follower The Secret Footballer in the Guardian, or have read the book, you will find that there is at least one thoughtful Premier League player somewhere who asks himself these kinds of questions, and this evidence of reflective football is most welcome. I am telling you this because the boundary between the supposedly safe internet domains we tend to inhabit and the places of hatred, abuse, trolling and bullying is gossamer thin. Touch it, and it is as if the entire web trembles. I am not saying that sometimes, social responsibility may need to take us close to a dangerous edge: there are always risks in trying to do something good. ‘Evil happens when good men and women do nothing’ said Edmund Burke famously. But I have learned that even a relatively blunt tool like a personal blog can get caught in an undertow that can quickly drag you away from the safety of the shore into very turbulent waters indeed. We need, says Balick, to become acutely self-aware in our use of social media, to retain our sense of individual responsibility and educate our consciences rather than lose our own identities to the digital black hole. The internet is very much a place where we are in danger of gaining the whole world and losing our own souls, our deepest selves. So where is digital wisdom to be found? Last year I wrote another blog called The Responsible Tweeter.This was an attempt to frame some basic principles of good tweeting, not only how to get the best out of 140 characters, but to draw proper boundaries around the use of a tool which, because it is so powerful, also poses significant risks. It seems to me that we simply have to know not only what is legal and what isn’t, and what is ethical and what isn’t, but what is wholesome, life-affirming and wise. I love Twitter for its elegant miniaturism, how so much can be said in so little.  This is wholly in the spirit of wisdom literature: most of Proverbs could be encapsulated in tweets, as could the Beatitudes and many other sayings of Jesus. Like photography, the discipline puts a frame round the content and powerfully focuses its point. But this can be for good or ill – and for interesting or boring. So I thought I would try my hand at twelve principles or commandments of Tweeting.  Others have offered good online guides to Twitter that contain many or all of these.  However I’ve encapsulated each principle in 140 characters or less so they can be lifted out of the blog and tweeted self-referentially in the very medium for which they are, not so much a set of imperatives as a series of hints and nudges. The emphasis is on the positive: mostly ‘dos’, a few ‘don’ts’.  And while they were written for a particular form of social networking, most of the principles can I think be transferred to any other.   [/expand-contract] Here then are twelve precepts.

  1.  Be judicious. Powerful tools need careful handling. You are on a public stage.  Apply the same criteria as you would to any public medium.
  2. Be chaste. Promiscuous tweeting suggests addiction. Only press ‘send’ when you have something to say. If not stay silent.
  3. Be courteous. Don’t disparage or insult others (you risk libel as in any print medium). In dissent, be questioning rather than assertive.
  4. Be disciplined. 140 characters impose a verbal boundary. Stick to it and don’t sprawl lazily across multiple tweets on the same topic.
  5. Be conversational. The art of tweeting is to engage with others, not hurl speeches into the void. Invite responses and give them.
  6. Be interesting. Life is not all information, observation, profundity or humour, but don’t bore followers with trivia. Try to be original.
  7. Be tentative. The question-mark is a great way of turning bald statement into an invitation to explore. Better to travel than stand still.
  8. Be communitarian. Social media are at their best in creating online communities and relationships. It is good not to be alone. Join in.
  9. Be discreet. Don’t break confidences, substitute for meeting, hold private conversations publicly or disclose improperly. Keep boundaries.
  10. Be self-aware. Twitter can raise awareness, affirm spiritual and humane values and inspire others. Serve wisdom, truth, goodness, justice and wholeness.
  11. Be generous. Share your own good things: stories, photos, blogs etc., and others’ too.  Retweet/favourite the best. But don’t self-promote.
  12. Be relaxed. Don’t obsess about follower numbers (sins of pride or envy). Small communities are often the best. Learn, grow, chuckle, enjoy.
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