Remember the first time you heard about the internet?
If you're under seven, your dad probably Facebooked a photo of you within hours of your birth, while under fifteens mostly grew up in houses with a modem, and people my age first encountered the internet through primitive online connections at school.
Back when I was still potty-training, this report appeared on San Francisco's KRON network:
With the benefit of hindsight, the KRON report is amusing.
But, while hindsight is fine, what we really need is foresight.
Eric Schmidt, co-founder of Google, says that the era of a smooth universally-accessible internet is a temporary phenomenon.
In The New Digital Age, Schmidt describes the coming 'balkanization' of the internet:
“What started as the world wide web will begin to look more like the world itself, full of internal divisions and divergent interests. Some form of visa requirement will emerge on the internet. This could be done quickly and electronically, as a method to contain the flow of information in both directions, requiring that users register and agree to certain conditions to access a country's internet."
He goes on:
"Some states may implement visa requirements as both a monitoring tool for international visitors and as a revenue-generating exercise – a small fee would be charged upon entering a country's virtual space, even more if one's online activities violated the terms of the visa… Under conditions like these, the world will see its first Internet asylum seeker. A dissident who can't live freely under an autocratic Internet and is refused access to other states' Internets will choose to seek physical asylum in another country to gain virtual freedom on its Internet.”
Schmidt even notes that the Iranian government is seeking to build a "halal internet", which contains only the content approved by the state.
This may - at first glance - sound like science fiction, but then so did the internet itself back in 1981.
If Schmidt is correct, though, and the internet does begin to fragment into several regionally-controlled zones, it raises a question of how Jesus' followers can 'work cross-culturally' in an online context.
Is there a way for us to enter the "halal internet" to practice and speak of Christ's love in that context?
Or will future missionary agencies require a computer hacking department and a network of secretive websites?
I'm sure we'll figure out best practice after all this happens, but maybe we could begin doing that thinking right now and prepare to engage such a situation more meaningfully.
Do you have any thoughts about how we can continue to engage people from a range of cultures and places once/if the internet fragments?
Jesus' followers do quite well at negotiating a division-riven physical globe; what might be the unique challenges of a fragmented virtual world?