Erasing Angela

Angela Bennett has a big problem. Someone has erased all electronic evidence of her existence: her driver’s license, her credit cards, her Social Security number—even the mortgage on her house. Angela’s friends and family can’t vouch for her either. She has no family (except a mother with advanced Alzheimer’s disease), and her only friends—if you can call them that—are fellow computer nerds who converse with Angela over the Internet. This is the plot of the 1995 hit movie The Net—and it’s a bizarre parable of some of the ways the Information Age could be distorting our lives. Bennett, portrayed by Sandra Bullock, is a computer consultant who works out of her home. Angela’s lifeline to the outside world is her computer: She buys her airline tickets, makes grocery lists, and even orders her dinner through a web-site pizza parlor. Angela is so isolated that even her neighbors don’t know what she looks like. One day Angela stumbles across a computer disk containing information about a massive criminal conspiracy. When the criminals retaliate by deleting Angela’s electronic identity, she has nowhere to turn. The plot of the film may sound far-fetched, but it’s a world the architects of the Information Age are already planning for. In his book What Will Be, computer scientist Michael Dertouzos, director of MIT’s Laboratory for Computer Science, predicts that physical proximity between people will one day be replaced with what he calls "electronic proximity." In the information marketplace, Dertouzos writes, distance is measured not in kilometers but in keystrokes. Thanks to what he calls "electronic bulldozers"—that is, information technology—physical propinquity will become irrelevant. Our real-life neighbors will be replaced by what Dertouzos calls "info friends"—strangers we meet over the Internet—and they will assume many of the roles now played by our physical neighbors. Dertouzos acknowledges that the Information Age will greatly accelerate the trend begun in the industrial revolution: the weakening of families and communities. But Dertouzos writes this off as the price of progress. Wait a minute; not so fast. Dertouzos seems to have forgotten that families and communities are the critical institutions in the transmission of morals and values from one generation to the next. These institutions provide what no "info friend" can: eyes that hold kids accountable and reinforce what children learn at home, at church, and in school. Many of us can recall the adults in our own neighborhoods who didn’t hesitate to tell our parents when we got out of line or hung out with the wrong crowd. When it comes to restraining our sinful impulses, "electronic proximity" is no substitute for the eyes that only physical proximity can provide. As Dertouzos writes, the Information Age will change our lives dramatically, in many ways for the better. However, if you and I want to keep the Information Highway from running roughshod over our ability to instill morals in our kids, we have to understand what we’re up against. Stay tuned for the rest of this series about the Digital Revolution. If we don’t learn more about the information marketplace, those "electronic bulldozers" may end up destroying our moral community.


Chuck Colson



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