Accra’s National Arts Centre had everything an American could want as a souvenir–wood carvings, talking drums, colorful clothing, leather goods, glass jewelry and masks.
I wanted a Ghanaian mask to add to my collection of masks from Nigeria, Mexico and South Korea.
During an afternoon break from the annual gathering of the Baptist World Alliance meeting in Accra last July, I wandered through the seemingly endless stalls with several of my colleagues. I was searching for the right mask at the right price. I found what I wanted and asked how much it was. The trader gave me a price. I shook my head, indicating that the price was too much. He asked me what I would pay. I countered with an offer some 60 percent less than he wanted, knowing that I was willing to pay half the asking price.
We were engaged in the sporting practice of dickering, bargaining. The seller asked more than expected. The buyer countered with less than needed. One party edged downward. The other party inched upward. Each party sized up the other, seeking advantage, exploring who would give in first. It was gamesmanship.
When he refused to lower his price after I offered what I considered a fair price, I thanked him and walked toward another stall. I was confident that he would relent and agree to accept my offer. He didn’t, however, and that earned my admiration for him.
My problem was that I wanted that mask, really treasured it. The mask was different from any other mask in my modest collection. It was the right size to fit in my luggage. The price was affordable.
My pride kept me from circling back to buy the black wooden mask circled with metal beans. My covetousness kept drew me back to the market two days later in hopes that the seller would give in.
When I approached the stall, I realized that a different seller was manning the shop and concluded quickly that I had an advantage. I asked him what the price was. He asked me what his brother had given me as the price. I looked perplexed about how to answer, pretending to be confused about the final offer.
The seller pulled out his cell phone and called his brother to ask about the final stage of our earlier negotiations.
That act was a priceless moment. I was standing in red dirt, having stepped across open drainage ditches in a market where sunlight was the source of illumination. The seller was clan in torn shorts and a stained shirt. The market reminded me of Nigerian markets from my childhood in the 1960s. Over 40 years later, West African markets had not changed.
His usage of a cell phone told me that everything has changed.
At the same BWA gathering, I wrote a news story from a presentation to the Freedom and Justice Commission by Olu Q. Menjay, principal of Ricks Institute, a K-12 grade school in Virginia, Liberia. I emailed my story and photograph later that day to Bob Allen, our managing editor, in Nashville, who edited and posted the piece.
The next morning, shortly after breakfast, Menjay, who already knew about EthicsDaily.com, told me that he had read the story. He expressed appreciation for it.
His Internet usage reminded me that everything has changed.
Here are some hard facts about the explosion of cell phone usage and Internet access in our global community.
According to Worldwatch Institute, there are “more than 2 billion cell phone or mobile phone subscribers.”
The organization’s annual report on trends that shape our future noted: “Some 410 million new cell phone subscribers signed up in 2005 alone.”
Vital Signs: 2007-2008 reported, “The number of subscribers climbed an average of 24 percent each year over the past five years. At the same time, the number of fixed telephone lines (known now as land lines) has almost stagnated, reaching 1.3 billion in 2005, with an average growth rate of 5 percent over the past five years.”
The publication noted that cell phones “have little to do with their original function. In Japan, people can now pay for food and train tickets with their cell phones.”
In Bangladesh, villagers check the safety of the water supply with their cell phones. In the U.S., cell phone users can receive weather alerts and emails.
In addition to cell phone usage, Worldwatch reported that some 1.2 billion people were Internet users in 2006, representing a 13 percent increase over 2005. Iceland had in highest concentration of Internet users, ahead of the United States, as were Australia and South Korea. In some countries, fewer than one in 100 residents had Internet access.
Given these hard facts and my anecdotes, I must press the question to EthicsDaily.com readers about whether we are using with deliberation our technology power for the global good. Do we simply take for granted communication technology with little moral consideration?
How are those of us in affluent communities using our access to information and our ability to communicate to advance human rights?
Are we being good stewards of the technology entrusted to us?
Some within the goodwill Baptist network and the larger faith community have used the best of affordable technology to shape the public square–podcasts, blogs, Web sites, email, video clips. Unfortunately, too many organizations of faith continue to communicate the way they did in the 1970s. Some take timid technological steps, refusing to invest in visually compelling, content-rich, dynamic Web sites, for example.
Perhaps we need to start thinking more intensely about our moral stewardship of communication technology in the global village.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.