Underground Internet?

20 Feb

At Vanderbilt University, like many other campuses, we plunged into spring semester by observing Martin Luther King Day on January 20th. The Office of the University Chaplain and Religious Life, along with the Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center and VU’s Office of Active Citizenship and Service, began methodical planning a year ago. As a result, we were able to offer our campus, and the Nashville community, a series of service learning opportunities, an invitation to parade-walk in the Freedom March at Tennessee State University, a lunch symposium and three teach-in’s throughout the afternoon culminating in an address on MLK’s legacy given interview-style by actor and activist Danny Glover. What an amazing way to begin the year!

While our MLK Weekend of Service and Day of Commemoration was a huge success, the most poignant lesson I’ve learned this year about African American history was conveyed on February 3rd among a smaller gathering of students and faculty at our Student Life Center.  Professor and award winning journalist, Dr. Sybril Bennett, wove a fascinating story about the genius of the Underground Railroad seen in juxtaposition to today’s Internet— a technology that holds great potential for human liberation and transformation. I commend her book Innovate as a good source for teaching, discussions and programming.

Many of us become befuddled as we ponder the downside of this virtual, high-speed technology that races us along. And for many good reasons! We often find ourselves, and our students, enmeshed and mesmerized by the breadth and efficiency of broadband’s enormous power to convey information, purvey consumer goods of all varieties (Amazon Prime allowed me to avoid malls altogether this holiday season!) and set the tone, rhythm and organizational patterns of our daily lives into place. Is this a good thing, or a bad thing? Of course the answer is: it all depends. If I am enabled to avoid malls, this may be a good thing. But if I am also enabled to avoid peers, friends and family by similar means—and this becomes a chronic feature of my personality—then these technological means can produce outcomes that diminish the quality of relationships upon which friendships and community are built.

The good news is that we have choices. And the wisdom that I gathered from Professor Bennett’s lecture on the Underground Railroad was that wise choices were part of how the quest for freedom, the rejection slavery’s mental and physical conformity, and the flourishing of creativity came about because brave men and women forged a sophisticated “network” that served to disrupt the status quo of human bondage.

My lesson from Black History Month is that technologies are always tools—tools that can isolate, distract and dehumanize our world, or tools that, with purpose and prayerful imagination, can write chapters of history worth celebrating.


Mark ForresterReverend Mark Forrester is University Chaplain and Director of Religious Life at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.


One Response to “Underground Internet?”

  1. Nan February 25, 2014 at 11:29 am #

    After reading your post, I watched Sybrill Bennett’s TEDx talk and purchased her book (all online, of course). Thanks for posting.

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