Bring Back the Circuit Rider

Part Two – “Digital Circuits and Riding the Flows

            The early circuit riders crisscrossed wide swaths of terrain on horseback. 21st century circuit riders are traveling a new global mission field accessed through internet connected screens.

            In Fresh Expressions in a Digital Age: How the Church Can Prepare for a Post Pandemic World, we suggest that digital space must be considered a new kind of missional frontier.

Manuel Castells described the emerging social structure of the digital age as the network society. Microelectronics-based information and communications technologies make possible a network of interconnected nodes. Nodes are the analog and digital places, the connection points that make up the network. The network consists of two kinds of space: the space of place and the space of flows.

Castells believes that space throughout human history has been experienced as “the material support of simultaneity in social practice.” So, cities, for instance, are communication systems, increasing the chance of communication through physical contiguity (direct contact). He calls the space of place the space of contiguity. The internet, along with computerized transportation, creates the possibility of simultaneity introduced in social relationships at a distance (distanced contact). This means that humans no longer need to interact face-to-face in a physical place to have “contact.”

This transformation of the spatiality of social interaction through simultaneity creates a new kind of space: the space of flows. Flows are the means through which the movement of people, objects, and things is accomplished from one node to another in social space. Castells defines the space of flows as “the material support of simultaneous social practices communicated at a distance.”[1]

Enabling us to connect across geographies and time, flows of capital, information, organizational interaction, images, sounds, and symbols move along a complex web of interconnected networks. The network society is an interconnected matrix, activated by these technologically-enabled flows. The flows are the social organization, the expression of processes dominating our economic, political, and symbolic life.[2]

In the same way that cities provide opportunities for encounters in the space of continuity, the digital ecosystem facilitates distanced contact in the space of flows. A city is a built environment that both facilitates and limits the movement of people through a space. The web is similar to a city; it is a digitally built environment that facilitates and limits the movement of people through a virtual ecosystem. Connections, passions, and relationships are all formed in the built digital environment of the cyberscape.

The web and wireless communications are more than traditional media, they are a global means of interactive, multimodal, and mass self-communication. The virtual space is no less “real” than the physical. For digital natives (those born with screens in their homes) social networks, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest, MySpace, Second Life, and Friendster, constitute a very real part of our lives.

Timothy Luke, building on the work of Castells, shows that cyberspace is an expression of the nodes, hubs, and flows of the network. In other words, the digital space of bits and bytes is the result of the “machinic infrastructure of boxes and wires, cables and satellites, servers and relays that anchor the built networks, which, in turn, generate such new, hyperreal electronic environments.”[3]

Luke refers to cyberspace as a meta-territorial, and meta-national domain. The meta-nation of cyberspace “is inside of each nation, but also outside of it; for each nation, but also not for it; by each nation, but also not of it.” In this space, face-to-face interactions between persons become online events with digital beings. Currently, the digital venue mainly supplements offline practices, but increasingly face-to-face practices will be supplanted by online alternatives.[4]

Luke shows that cyberspace, is more than mere clusters of code experienced as audio, graphics, text, or video out on the network. But, rather, that these digital objects constitute portals into the experience of new types of community, work, identity, sex, utility, knowledge, or power in e-public forms of life. In short, the network is the machinery that creates the web, enabling a new form of space, time, and in a sense a new global nation. It is a world that transcends the world. It is the infrastructure for what has been called the digital age.

If we take this transformation of space and time seriously, we can easily see that ministry in the digital age requires more than simply streaming worship services. That is perhaps a new form of Colonialism, as we project ourselves into the digital space, a place we have not been invited, speaking a language that only we understand, in a time predetermined by us.

Digital missionaries are taking on bits and bytes in a form of online indigeneity that I have called elsewhere a posture of digital incarnation. This involves employing a process of listening, loving, deepening relationships, forming community, discipleship, and worship in digital space.

            The new “circuits” are a combination digital and analog. Digital circuit riders are equipping and guiding teams of lay ministers who spend time in the space of flows, traveling cyberspace, making connections, asking questions, prayerfully finding ways to create community online.

            In my next post, I’ll share some practical examples of what this looks like!


[1] Castells, Manuel. The Rise of the Network Society (Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2000), xxxi.

[2] Ibid., 442.

[3] Timothy W. Luke, “Cyberspace as Meta-Nation: The Net Effects of Online E-Publicanism.” Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, vol. 26, no. 2 (2001): 113.

[4] Ibid.

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