Saturday, July 12, 2008

Masonic Tech: Skype

Yesterday, I was presented with a pleasant surprise. As I was wrapping up my day's work, I was instant messaged by Brother Simon R. LaPlace, Right Worshipful Grand Junior Deacon of the Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Connecticut. R:.W:. Brother Simon and I have chatted from time to time via the tangled web of electronic tubes that connect these mechanical thinking machines. I consider him to be the premier techno-enlightened grand lodge officer and most of our conversations have focused on new technology and how the Grand Lodge intends to use it. Readers of the Movable Jewel may remember Brother Simon from this interview, where Brother Movable Jewel and Brother Simon had a great conversation about what it's like being a Grand Lodge officer and the future of the craft.

After our typical pleasantries, R:.W:. Brother Simon asked me if I had a webcam. Luckily they come standard on all MacBook Pros, however my camera has rarely seen use except for the occasional funny faced photo or software avatar (see the right side-panel for an example). The purpose of Simon's IM session was to test drive his video-chatting capabilities. So, he had me quickly download Skype and we ventured off into the world of video conferencing.

In the past, I have used screen sharing software at work to troubleshoot and train clients with my company software. However, I have only used video-conferencing on a few occasions, but never with a Brother mason. We spent about half an hour testing the capabilities and working through some of the minor technical problems that we encountered. We then spent some time discussing Masonic Tech and how video-conferencing would help Masons.

Simon plans on inviting the Grand Master to a meeting of the legal affairs committee being held this morning in Wallingford, CT. However, he is fully aware that the Grand Master will be in Massachusetts on other fraternal business and will be unable to travel the several hours back to Grand Lodge for this committee meeting. Brother Simon then plans to surprise the Grand Master with a technical solution, using Skype to telecommute to the meeting! This could be the Grand Lodge of Connecticut's first foray into telecommuting.

As a clarification, I in no way condone using this technology as a replacement for the social or ritual aspect of Freemasonry. Webcams have no place at our Stated Communications or at our social events. Freemasonry is a personal organization and will stay this way. However, there is a lot of administrative overhead in Masonry. Brothers, especially Grand Lodge officers, have to continually go to committee meetings and planning meetings. This can be a huge burden.

Quite simply, there are two main benefits of telecommuting to certain types of Masonic meetings; time and money. First, if it takes you an hour to drive to and from a half-an-hour meeting, it's extremely inefficient. Many lodge and Grand Lodge officers encounter this problem quite frequently. Huge amounts of time are spent traveling for planning and committee meetings, which rarely require a physical presence. This is time away from family and friends. Furthermore, it's time that could be spent on more Masonry. If a brother could save two hours of traveling several times a month, that time could be spent on a plethora of other worthwhile activities, like Masonic education, communicating with other brothers, charity, blogging, etc.

This brings us to the second point; money. Transportation costs money and these prices are sky-rocketing. Freemasonry is a volunteer organization. Lodge officers and Grand Lodge officers do not get gas stipends. R:.W:. Brother Simon uses 70 gallons of gas every month on Grand Lodge activities. With gas prices at $4.50 per gallon in Connecticut, Brother Simon spends approximately $315 a month. That's almost $4000 a year, which he spends out of pocket. Now, if each of the 18 primary Grand Lodge officers in Connecticut use a comparable amount of gas, that is $72,000 a year in gas used by the primary Grand Lodge Officers. This amount does not include the District Deputies, District Grand Lecturers or Associate Grand Marshals. If we include these approximately 50 brothers at half the gas usage of the primary Grand Lodge officers, it is another $100,000 a year. Therefore, the Grand total of approximate volunteered gas costs for the entire Grand Lodge is $172,000. Wouldn't this money be better spent on our lodge buildings or our charities? Telecommuting can help limit some of this unnecessary expenditure. If these officers telecommuted to %25 of their required duties, there would be $43,000 extra for other expenses.

Video-conferencing is far from perfect. Simon and I experienced some lagging and syncing issues that we're trying to rectify with different protocols. However, for many meetings, only audio is needed, which works perfectly. Some brothers will feel uncomfortable about talking with a brother via the internet, but this discomfort quickly subsides as the user gets used to the software and experience.

Although I name Skype as the Masonic Tech in this post, this is just one of hundreds of audio and video conferencing applications available. One of the benefits of many of these pieces of software, including Skype, is that they are free. Brother Simon and I plan on trying some of the other ones for ease of use and compatibility issues. If there is one that you can recommend, please drop a comment onto this post.

I'd like to thank R:.W:. Brother Simon for his hard work with modernizing the Grand Lodge. He has been a major force for technology in Masonry, as the editor of our state-wide publication, e-forum moderator, website designer and promoter of us crazy bloggers. It's great to see a Grand Lodge officer embracing technology. Yesterday, Brother Simon told me via AIM that "we have to get everyone 'connected'." When it comes down to it, that's what Masonry is all about: connections. We connect to our family, our friends, our brothers and God. The aim of the internet is also about making connections, so Masonry should strive to continue using this valuable tool to help with bringing people together in new, interesting and efficient ways.

7 comments:

The Palmetto Bug said...

That is a very informative post. By coincidence, I just bought a headphones/mic combo today for my computer and it came with the Skype software. I may have to try it out. I have no webcam, however, since I am afraid my looks would probably cause a total shutdown of the internet!

Tom Accuosti said...

Hey Vee-Dubya -

This post, along with the SRJ review of blogs, serves to give the impression that Masons are behind the times, at least with regard to technology. This is surprising on some levels, since one would expect that Masons have been in some kind of business setting most of their lives.

Since buggy-whip making has long since left Connecticut, why do we act on the assumption that Masons are frightened or put off by the new tech?

Charles Tirrell said...

Hey Tom,

Thanks for the question. Although, many of our brothers have been in some kind of business setting from most of their lives, it does not mean they have had much experience with the new technologies that are out in the world right now. Business savvy does not equal technology savvy. As an example, a large percentage of executives know little to nothing about personal computing, because of extensive use of executive assistants for their day-to-day operations. I would also counter that most of the active men in my lodge have not been in business most of their lives at all. My lodge is predominantly police men, teachers, state employees and students. All of which are vocations that are traditionally slow to adopt new technology.

Furthermore, I act on this assumption from my own experiences in Masonry. Let's take my own lodge as an example. Our secretary wants to step down this year. His stated reason is because the Grand Lodge wants him to use the computer more by having to send his secretarial updates via email. Email is no new technology, it's over thirty years old, but it's scaring a secretary into retirement. There are still several secretaries in my district that only use a typewriter and not a computer. Several members of my lodge still argue that a website is not needed and that we shouldn't have to pay the Grand Lodge the approximately $15 a year to maintain it.

Men my age, who were raised with computers in their homes and schools, find this opposition to technology baffling and very off-putting. We also find it frustrating that the reason we joined Masonry (brotherhood, enlightenment, philosophy) is commonly sidelined for the sake of outdated business practices combined with a reliance on outdated technology. A good example of this is the countless state communications, where all that occurs is paying bills, reading minutes and eating donuts, when what we really want is the enlightenment that Masonry professes is at its center. I feel that we are losing some younger members because of this. Masonry is inherently a contradiction, we need to be both modern and ancient at the same time (no pun intended). We need to hold onto those ancient ideals which are immutable throughout time, while using the modern tools of today to transmit our principles in the most effective way possible. But I'm afraid that some people confuse our tools for our reason to build. Sure, our tools may change, but why we build will always stay the same.

I want to clarify that obviously not all Masons are scared of technology. There are many brothers, young and old, who are very technologically oriented. However, the majority of masons are not. This can be directly attributed to the fraternity having for the most part missed a full generation of men during the 1970's through 1990's. As I've stated before, many lodges are suffering from a saddle effect, where we have a bunch of really young guys coming in, but have mostly guys in their 60's and 70's as the veterans. This causes a lot of problems, especially technologically. This problem is also apparent on the Grand Lodge level. Our leadership is of a different generation than most brothers who are now joining. Masonry is a meritocracy. We place men who have worked hard and shown their dedication into positions of leadership. To show this dedication and to earn the craft's trust takes time. I don't fault this process, in fact I agree with it. But it does yield some problems that should be addressed. Technology has been growing at an exponential rate. More and more, we find that a generational gap is a technological gap. No Grand Lodge officer, no matter how techno-savvy, grew up with cell phones, web sites, palm pilots, laptops, etc. But the men who are joining Masonry now have grown up with these tools. This causes some disconnect between the new men joining Masonry and the Grand Lodge. It's important that we recognize this difference and try to adapt to close this gap.

The plain fact is that technology scares some people. On average, it scares older people more often than younger people because they didn't grow up with it. Masonry is run by older people and therefore the leadership of Masonry will be less likely to adopt new technology, because of the shear nature of technology and change. I apologize if this is blunt, but sometimes to fix a problem, you have to name it.

Just some food for thought.

Charles

Simon LaPlace said...

On Saturday I heard of a Lodge Secretary who just obtained his first "electric" typewriter. Whoo Hoo!

The Palmetto Bug said...

Charles,

I think you're on it other than I'm not sure the older generation is so much scared of technology as much as they just don't see the need in it.

I probably am part of the classic example of of the saddle effect you mentioned. I became Lodge Secretary 4 years ago (37 at the time) and followed a 10 year veteran Secretary who was about 72 years old. He was a great Secretary, but he didn't even use a typewriter - all hand-written. I now run the Secretary's office with spreadsheets, databases, templates, on-line USPA mailing list uploads, etc. But I did learn a very good lesson from him. Technology can and will fail you. Everything I do is also backed up in hardcopy and I know how to go back to the stubby pencil if I have to. I even still hand-write the minutes out of nostalgia.

Charles Tirrell said...

Brother Simon,

I think that was my secretary ;)

Brother Palmetto Bug,

You bring up a really good point, that I believe I didn't express properly. It's not so much fear, as it is not realizing the usefulness or necessity of it. That's one of the main reasons that I write so often about "Masonic Tech" because I hope that our brothers will read something I write and realize that computers aren’t just for the office anymore.

Thanks for the information on being a secretary. I could sure use as many pointers as you are willing to give on how best to be a lodge secretary, because it looks like I will be in the hot seat next year. I certainly agree about backing up everything on a hardcopy. If I've learned one thing, it's that Murphy's Law loves electrons, but fears paper. In my opinion, there's still no single piece of tech that is more important in world history than the printing press.

The Palmetto Bug said...

Charles,

I'll be happy to share what I can about the job of Secretary. Just drop me a line at palmettobugblog@yahoo.com if you want to carry on a discussion about the subject.