Since the mid-1990’s, the development of the internet has opened onto the world a series of innovations that have radically altered many aspects of its ordered life. Search engines like Google or Yahoo have ushered in a new era in the way information is gathered and disseminated. Napster turned the music industry up-side down. Blogging now presents an unprecedented challenge to the hegemony of the mainstream media. Twitter has been cited as a key tool for Iranians protesting the recent election. Online fundraising allows political candidates to rely on a broad base of small donors rather than a small set of wealthy special interests. And this is to say nothing of such contemporary giants as Facebook or YouTube. The established order of things existing at the end of the twentieth century has been shaken up and, a decade into the twenty-first, is increasingly being restructured using web-based tools.
Simultaneously, the Baha’i world has undergone dramatic changes in the way it organizes itself and inter-relates the three participants of its plans: the individual, the institutions, and the community. Though the spirit and mission of the Cause remains the same, the outward forms by which it surges forward are unlike those that have been seen in the past. Baha’i activities are increasingly open to the public. And more often than not, only a portion of their participants are enrolled members of the community. Whereas the Faith was once dominated by and directed towards adults, now young people are playing a more central role in the conduct of its affairs. A culture of learning, experimentation, and ceaseless endeavor has imbued the Baha’i world with a dynamism that rivals or surpasses even the proudest moments of Baha’i history. However, there is one easily overlooked aspect of this framework of action: its stalwart indifference to the internet. Sure, participants can consult more frequently over email. Nowadays, individuals are more likely to read the guidance of Baha’i Institutions on websites than through paper copies mailed to their homes. Certainly, Facebook has opened up new ways of connecting people and organizing activities. But for the most part, the current framework of action operates the same way if one has an internet connection or not.
So why is this?
At this moment, I see three main reasons. The second and third suggest, against the prevailing mood in the world today, that use of web-based tools is not necessarily a mark of social progress. Perhaps, the reader will approach this issue from other directions.
Firstly, the backbone of the current framework, the sequence of courses developed by the Ruhi Institute, was developed before the advent of personal computing. And its entire purpose was for reaching out to the isolated rural communities where large numbers were entering the Baha’i Faith. If this is the Baha’i world’s primary model, then clearly the internet would not become a conspicuous instrument within its activities.
Secondly, and this is related to the first point, a high degree of replicability from community to community is essential to the mode of systematic learning at the heart of the current framework. Participants in different parts of the world can learn from each other very easily because everybody is laboring to achieve the same goals, through the same sorts of activities, with more or less the same set of materials. Junior Youth animators use "Breezes of Confirmation" in all corners of the world. And the basic aims of these groups, regardless of location, are all spelled out in "Releasing the Powers of Junior Youth," the fifth book in the Ruhi sequence. What is learned in one community can be transmitted through Baha’i Institutions (and certainly directly over the internet as well) to Baha’is across oceans and continents laboring along similar lines. At this juncture, there is still an enormous gap in technology between the global north and the global south, and within the global south between urban and rural communities. If Baha’i activities for this age group were conducted primarily over the internet in one part of the world and face-to-face in other parts of the world then it would be difficult for either set to learn from the other. They would be doing entirely different activities, and most likely, towards very different ends. Not only would communities be limited to their own process of trial-and-error, this could endanger the unity and cohesion of the global Baha’i community.
Thirdly, the reality Baha’is seek to transform is still best dealt with through face-to-face interactions. This isn’t a question of authenticity, as if face-to-face interactions are more real than those over the internet. Both just as easily concern an engagement with the real conditions of our collective existence. But rather, a great many of the issues facing the world today are best dealt with, not by connecting people across nations and hemispheres, but rather down hallways and across streets. Individuals might spend less time seeking social or spiritual change over the internet if their immediate surroundings were not so barren in that regard. A like-minded friend in Denmark may be a good person to chat with online. It’s easier at first to strike up a conversation with him than with the cranky neighbors next door. But he can’t look after your kids in an emergency. He can’t drive you to the airport, or help you round up kids for a neighborhood children’s class. But the cranky neighbors next door can do these things; perhaps they won’t at first. But with perseverance, the current framework of action facilitates activities that can rapidly transform neighborhoods from places of isolation and mutual indifference to vibrant sites of personal devotion and collaborative action. These activities have ripple effects that can transform the life of a given locality beyond the immediate confines of its core activities. This is because, first and foremost, this framework advances by people developing interpersonal relationships. But this is done by focusing on people who are already close-by, rather than searching the corners of the earth for new contacts. For that reason, web-based tools are likely to play little more than a marginal role in the development of such activities.
These are some of my thoughts on the question. I’d like to hear those of other people. In closing, I’ll offer a second question: What future role might the internet play in the current framework of action, or those that may come after?