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Book Review – Virtual Integrity

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The internet is a minefield–there is no doubt about it. For every blessing it brings (and there are many) there seem to be innumerable dangers. For every relationship forged and strengthened, there is another damaged or destroyed. For every minute of time saved through some great technological advance, there are hours wasted in distraction and procrastination. For every good use, there are uncounted evil uses. Such is the fate of technology in the hands of sinful human beings.

We hear a lot today about identify theft and the loss of privacy it brings, but we hear far less about an associated problem–the loss of personal integrity. Daniel Lohrmann, who directs Michigan’s Office of Enterprise Security, is concerned about integrity theft. “As individuals, institutions, and a nation, we spend significant time battling identity theft online, but we neglect to fight other negative aspects of Internet life that I call ‘integrity theft.’ We need a new approach to virtual integrity.” The focus of his new book Virtual Integrity is on improving, not removing, virtual experiences. It is not about fleeing the internet, but about using it wisely and with integrity. It is about learning “to recognize and repel the many, many challenges to integrity faced by anyone who goes online.” The book seeks to introduce the challenges of cyberspace, to propose a way that Christians can use the internet while maintaining integrity, and to look forward to a hopeful, bright future of the internet.

After defining integrity theft, Lohrmann begins the heart of the book by looking to the filtering programs many people install on their computers–parental controls, passwords, accountability software. While he appreciates these programs for what they are, he shows how they inevitably fall short of perfection. A person cannot place his confidence in software that is so easily countered, so easily avoided. Such programs can provide a false sense of security. Technology is not enough and will never be enough to avoid the internet’s pitfalls.

A series of chapters look to specific online temptations: online deception, cheating and stealing, identity theft, issues related to business and career, and so on. After this survey, Lohrmann introduces his suggestion for those who would seek to use the internet wisely and with integrity–his “Seven Habits of Online Integrity.” The habits he advocates are: (1) refresh your values in cyberspace by comparing your online life with your offline life to see if the values you take online are the same you hold in real life; (2) pledge personal online integrity, simply creating and adhering to a pledge that you will maintain your values online; (3) seek trusted accountability to ensure that you will maintain your integrity; (4) apply helpful technology that will protect you and help steer you away from some of the internet’s seedy underbelly; (5) balance online and offline life to ensure that you are not being consumed by addiction to the internet; (6) practice humble authenticity through self-examination and by avoiding “virtual cliffs” in cyberspace; (7) become a cyber ambassador for good by extending Christian values and Christian character into cyberspace.

As Christians grapple with issues related to digital technology, they often tend towards one of two opposite camps–Luddites or technophiles–those who scorn all technology or those who recklessly embrace it. For all his best efforts to avoid the extremes, Lohrmann, undoubtedly because of his familiarity with internet technologies, leans perhaps just a little toward the latter. Near the book’s end he writes of the great value of a central repository of personal information which could be accessed by certain trusted companies such as Microsoft and Google. This database would have extensive information about each of us, and would be provided to certain corporations so they could help us as we seek to surf our values. The information we would voluntarily provide them would help them steer us toward content we would approve of while keeping us far from content that would tempt our integrity. Such advances are possible and perhaps even probable, but they reveal just a little bit of bias. We must very carefully weigh and balance giving away so much data about ourselves, even to “trustworthy” companies like Google.

Virtual Integrity deals well with issues related to internet technology. Lohrmann knows the internet and he knows both its challenges and its blessings. This book is a useful primer to those issues. It is perhaps not philosophical in the vein of Neil Postman, but is instead primarily practical. It would be well worth reading for any Christian who spends time on the Internet (which, by the very fact that you are reading this review includes you) and especially for parents who seek to protect their children as they explore the virtual world that exists before them.

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