Living on Caldey Island off the Pembrokeshire coast, the Monks have been hit by problems typical of rural Britain. Where once they were essentially self-sufficient, selling a wide range of food products and welcoming thousands of visitors every year, this has slowed due to ever tightening farming regulations and increasingly competitive foreign holidays.
However, they do still make chocolate, shortbread, and perfume which they currently sell on the island and across the water in Tenby. But they hope to improve sales by offering their produce to a global market through their webshop.
As the day of the launch approaches the monks and their commercial manager meet each challenge with both anxiety and good humour. Stormy seas threaten to prevent the local press arriving and technical hitches delay the webshop’s online opening.
From the perspective of a social scientist, the Modem Monks programme raises two key questions:
To what extent have ICTs changed the rural isolation of the monks?
Are ICTs merely part of longer term trends in the West towards increased mobility, tourism and location within a global market?
These are not simple questions - nor are there simple answers to these questions. What we can say for certain is that the Monks are experiencing a sense of change and that the need to change may be in tension with a desire to preserve the traditional life of a very old community indeed.
What the producers of Modem Monks did was interview people on the island over a period of days. They made observations about the Monastery, the geography of the island, its climate and relation to the main land. While the research they did wasn’t exactly ‘scientific’, it has certain similarity to some of the approaches that a social scientist might take.
So, based on what the programme shows, what can we say in answer to these two key questions?
In one sense, the Monks’ rural isolation hasn’t changed: the island hasn’t moved anywhere and the Monks don’t leave the island on any regular basis. But, as the programme showed, the Abbot has made contact with other groups of Cistercian monks using email and that the new website is hoped to bring new buyers to the Monks’ mail order business. In addition, the Monks use phones and the Internet which bring them different kinds of news from the ‘outside’ world.
So, while the Monks aren’t ‘going’ anywhere, there is, apparently, more of the world coming to them. This might suggest they are less isolated in some ways, but the picture is not yet clear.
The second question forces us to broaden our perspective:
The Monks are using the Internet in order to locate themselves in a potentially global market. But, in the West, at least, there has been a longer term trend to identify specialist goods to sell to niche markets. While the Internet makes the spread of this trend increasingly possible, it is in fact improved transport, particularly international subsidisation of air freight, that have enabled massive increases of trade across international boundaries. Specialist delivery companies have been instrumental in the development of world niche trade.
Of course, the Monks have made good use of the monastery’s and the island’s tourist appeal. We know that many thousands of tourists make their way to the Island throughout the summer months. Although a web presence may draw further attention to the monastery, both the off-shore trade and the summer season tourists have played a part in the monastery’s financial survival for years.
That leaves mobility. As we’ve noticed: the Monks aren’t going anywhere, but the world is, perhaps increasingly, on their doorstep. The distance between the Island and the rest of the world is less and less. In social science terms, this is a question of ‘time/space compression’. Even in their isolation, the Monks knew about the events of September 11th on the day, almost experiencing it. Time and distance are, apparently, an increasing irrelevance.
Of course social scientists need to dig deeper than this, the question is how? When social scientists become interested in a topic, such as geographical isolation and the Information Age, they look for evidence that supports or refutes their hypotheses. In order to find evidence, researchers use certain methods, such as interviews, questionnaires, observations and even participating with others in their everyday activities. They also include forms of research like compiling statistics or measuring different kinds of activity. The idea is to build as fair and accurate a picture of the topic under investigation as possible.