Technelogia, the Virtualization of Culture, and the Theology of Artificial Intelligence (Videos)

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of delivering a series of lectures on technology for Dallas Theological Seminary‘s Arts Week. Arts week is one of my favorite times at DTS because there are art installations on campus, evening events with artists and theologians, and a series of talks on the arts. Normally, there is a fantastic outside speaker, but this year they took a risk on having me to it and trying to pull together theology, the arts, and technology.

Why Pastors and Theologians Need Artists and Coders

For the opening talk, I connected technology and the arts through the Greek term technē, which forms the root of our English word technology, but covered both the mechanical arts and the fine arts. I also introduced the basic concept of Social Shaping of Technology as a model for understanding the mutual shaping process between culture and technology/arts as well as the social meanings we assign to the things around us.

The Virtualization of Culture and the Need for Embodied Places and Practices

For the second talk, I drew a connection between the sense of placelessness that people often feel in modernity and in technological culture and the placelessness of Isreal when they wandered through the desert. To give Isreal a sense of place, God gave them an entire set of physical, visual, and linguistic cultural elements to ground them in the world and form them into the people of God. In our own placeless cultural moment, I think one of the greatest gifts the church has to offer to the world are our physical, embodied practices especially communion which evangelicals have tended to avoid.

Theological Reflections on Artificial Intelligence

For the third talk, I abandon the suit and tie to explain the emergence of Artifical Intelligence (AI) and lay out some of the opportunities it brings along with the unintended consequences, ethical issues, and theological issues that it will surface. I wish I could have gone deeper into each one, but I was grateful to be able to introduce these ideas in a setting like a seminary chapel. (Kevin Kelly recently gave a great talk on AI at Q Conference and there are some wonderful similarities in our approaches).

What Your Chapel Architecture Says About Your Theology

To end the week and reconnect theology, technology, and the arts, I discussed DTS’s coming project to build a new chapel space on campus with our VP of Campus Operations. We were able to briefly introduce the history of Christian worship spaces, some of DTS’s guiding values in past projects, and the kinds of considerations one needs to think through in building a worship space. Although we weren’t able to go in depth on these topics, I hope it introduced our students to the kinds of questions they may one day be asking in a ministry about how to embody their faith in the world alongside artists and technologists.

The History of Bible Software (Infographic)

Surprisingly, it’s fairly difficult to find a clear, chronological accounting of Bible software development. Wikipedia, of course, has some of the major applications organized by operating system, but it doesn’t include release dates or offer much commentary on how they fit together.

UPDATE: Initially this post had a graphic timeline and some commentary on the major waves of development, but it was far too incomplete. I’ve since converted this to a chronological list that should be a bit more complete.

Major Events and Releases

Academic Inquiry (1950s onward)

  • 1957 – The world’s first computer generated concordance for the RSV by John Ellison
  • 1963 – Andrew Morton’s use of computational models to challenge Paul’s authorship
  • 1920 – Yehuda Ridday’s analysis of Isaiah, concluding that there were at least three authors
  • 1971 – Transcribed Leningrad Codex (Francis Andersen)
  • 1976 – Launch of the GRAMCORD project (D. A. Carson, Indiana University, Trinity International University)

Desktop Era (1980s onward)

  • 1982 – Verse Search – First commercial Bible app (“THE WORD processor” family, Kent Ochel and Bert Brown, Bible Research Systems, Georgetown, TX)
  • 1982 – Bible Windows – Microsoft forced a name change to Biblio
  • 1980s [many from Bits, Bytes, & Biblical Studies by John J. Hughes]
    • 1984 – The SCRIPTURE SCANNER (Michael L. Brandex, James W. Collins, W. David Jenkins, and T. Vick Livingston, Omega Software, Round Rock, TX)
    • 1985 – compuBIBLE (Delmer Hightower and Chris Epps, SASSCO, Borger, TX)
    • 1985< – Bible Search (Thomas L. Cook, Scripture Software, Orlando, FL)
    • BIBLE-ON-DISK (Logos Information Systems, Sunnyvale, CA)
    • COMPUTER BIBLE (Computer Bibles International, Inc., Greeenville, SC)
    • 1986 – The Powerful Word (Dewey Hatley, Hatley Computer Services, Springfield, MO)
    • 1986 – EveryWord Scripture Study System (Dave Sorensen and Jay Ekstrom, Echo Solutions, Inc., Provo, UT)
    • 1986 – GodSpeed (Brian Moore, Kingdom Age Software, Plano, TX)
    • ComWord 1 (Word of God Communication, Thousand Oaks, CA)
    • Wordworker: The Accelerated New Testament (The Way International, Knoxville, OH)
    • KJV on DIALOG (DIALOG Information Retrieval Service, Palo Alto, CA)
    • COMPUTER NEW TESTAMENT (The Spiritual Source, Manorville, CA)
    • INTERNATIONAL BIBLE SOCIETY TEXT (The International Bible Society, East Brunswick, NJ)
    • VERSE BY VERSE (G.R.A.P.E., Gospel Research and Program Exchange, Keyport, WA)
    • MacBible (Encycloware, Ayden, NC) – from Accordance founder
    • MacConcord / MacScipture (Medina Software, Longwood, FL)
    • New Testament Concordance (Midwest Software, Farmington, MI)
    • BibleWindows
    • Bible-Reader
    • Online Bible
    • Ask God (Integrated Systems, Kirkland, WA) – natural language input, verse output
  • 1987 – WORDsearch (James Sneeringer, acquired by LifeWay in 2011)
  • 1988 – ThePerfectWord
    • Later renamed MacBible (Roy Brown, went on to found Accordance)
  • 1988 – QuickVerse (acquired by LifeWay/WORDsearch in 2011) (history)
    • Originally called Logos Bible Processor (Craig Rairdin, Creative Computer Systems), became QuickVerse in 1989.
  • 1988 – PC Study Bible
  • 1988 – The Bible Library 1.0 (Ellis Bible Library, page) [first to use CD-ROM?]
  • 1989 – CDWord (Dallas Theological Seminary) – Sold to Logos Research Systems
  • 1991 – Logos (Bob and Dan Pritchett)
  • 1992 – BibleWorks

Internet Era (1990s onward)

  • 1993 – (Nick Hengeveld at Calvin College, acquired by Zondervan/Harper in 2008)
  • 1993 – Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) (Harry Plantinga, Wheaton College now Calvin College)
  • 1994 – Sword Searcher (first called Bible Assistant, Brandon Staggs, StudyLamp Software LLC)
  • 1994 – Accordance (Roy Brown, OakTree Software)
  • 1995 – Epiphany Bible Explorer (acquired by WORDsearch in 2004, become the foundation of WORDsearch 7, 2005)
  • 1996 – BlueLetterBible
  • 1997 – The Message for Apple Newton MessagePad (David Fedor, Servant Software). In 1998, David released Scripture for Palm OS, which was purchased by Laridian in 1999 and renamed MyBible.
  • 1997 – World English Bible (WEB) (Michael Johnson)
  • 1997 – Theophilos (Ivan Jurik of Bratislava, Slovakia, acquired by Laridian)
  • 1998 – OliveTree BibleReader (Drew Haninger, acquired by Zondervan/Harper 2014)
  • 1998 – Laridian launches PalmBible, forced by Palm, Inc. to remove “Palm” from name. Relaunched in 2000 as “PocketBible” on Microsoft’s PocketPC.
  • 1998 – SWORD Project (Troy A. Griffitts)
  • 1999 – iLumina (closed by Tyndale)
  • 2000 – e-Sword (Rick Meyers)
  • 2000 – New English Translation (NET) (professors from the Evangelical Theological Society, iLumina website)
  • 2001 – Digital Bible Society‘s first Treasures Library sent to China
  • 2001 – Zondervan Bible Study Library/PRADIS (closed in 2011)

Mobile Era (2000 onward)

Please add your thoughts and additional details to the comments.

Certainty vs. Risk – Why We Value Handwritten Notes and “Craft” Beer More than Texts and Budwieser

*disclaimer: I don’t really like beer.

Risk and Certainty

In 1968, David Pye, then a professor at Royal College of Art in London, wrote a book called The Nature and Art of Workmanship in which he distinguished between two modes of craftsmanship.

  • The craftsmanship of risk
  • The craftsmanship of certainty

For example, writing with a pen and paper falls under the category of risk because there are many potential points of device and human failure (poor handwriting, etc.). In contrast, pressing the print button on a computer produces an infinitely replicable result with identical fonts. Similar comparisons could be made with any handmade item which has a high degree of risk compared with a mass produced or 3D printed items.

Risk and Creativity

The point of Pye’s categories is not that mass-produced items have no value or are inherently inferior. On the contrary, they often save us money and give us security and stability.  Instead he is saying that the reason we tend to be attracted to handmade things is not merely that they are handmade or unique, but because in being handmade, we intuitively sense that they are imbued with the risk of their creator took. Handwritten notes, locally brewed beer and coffee, a child’s painting, or a quilt purchased from an Etsy artist all bear – to varying degrees – that essential quality of risk that grounds the objects and experiences more deeply in reality.

That’s not to say that texts can’t communicate deeply, or that reproductions of art don’t have the capacity to shape the soul, or even that a mass-produced drink can’t nourish the body. It’s merely to give us language – risk vs. certainty – to describe why we tend to feel a connection to things with with a few flaws and why a box of letters can bring a wave of feeling that searching one’s email inbox cannot.

Sadly, marketers have realized this and started slapping “handmade” or “craft” on everything way that they used to label mass produced cookies with “old fashioned” or “homemade.” But the fact that marketers have co-opted and trivialized the idea doesn’t mean we can’t learn from the original concept.

Risk and Love

This is more obvious when we consider that our deepest, most meaningful human relationships also bear this quality of risk versus certainty. When a relationship has a degree of certainty to it, such as neighbors or co-workers, they can still be meaningful and important, but they don’t require that initial risky step that we find in romantic and friendly love.

I remember practicing and practicing that first phone call with my future wife. There was so little certainty and so much risk: Would she say yes? Would the date go well? Would it eventually end the way all the others had, or would it be worth the risk of present rejection or future pain?

More than ten years later, I’m so glad that I took the risk and dialed those 10 numbers, because it has made all the difference in my life.

Similarly when we approach new potential friends or mentors, we are taking a risky first step toward building a relationship, unsure if the result will be rejection, indifference, or something unexpectedly wonderful.

The Christian story of the world also plays on the dynamic between risk and certainty with theologians differing on how an infinitely powerful God who could create with certainty also managed to build risk into his creative work, allowing humanity to embrace or reject him. The most risky communication proposition God could make would be to allow his son to become a fragile child who would grow to be a man and experience sorrow and joy, pain and resurrection.

Imbue Your Communication with Risk

All of this is to say that to create a more meaningful life that bears the image of God, we must learn to communicate love and meaning to those around us, and to do that we must intentionally accept and even embrace risk.

That might mean writing a note every now and again, even if your handwriting is terrible.That might mean inviting people over for dinner even if your dwelling (or cooking) isn’t perfect and could invite criticism. Or it could take the form of playing a game with a group when you know you’ll lose or be terrible at it.

And at the same time, we must learn to communicate a kindness and openness to others that says it’s okay to take risks around you. You might offer needed critique at times that makes your friend’s risk even more valuable, but this must be infused with grace and cultivated over time.

When was the last time you took a risk in your relationship or creativity?

Why Referring to “Screen Time” May Not Be Helpful to You or Your Kids

Recently, I had a brief, but eye-opening interaction with one of my kids:

“Dad, can I use the iPad?”
“Sure, if you want to create something or draw for a bit, that sounds great.”
“But daaaad, I just wanna watch a show. I don’t want to do anything.”

How should I respond? Is saying, “You have 23 minutes left of ‘screen time'” a sufficient response? Are there more instructive tools can I use to help my child grow and mature?

Worries about Technology and Screens

TIME Magazine recently name the iPhone the most influential gadget of all time, and yet a recent survey found more than half of teens feel they are addicted to their smartphone. But let’s not be quick to judge just our youth. Other studies show that its actually older Americans who the ones most likely to use their phones during meals. The studies go on and on, with researchers finding that up to 33% of people feel depressed after using Facebook (everyone else is having more fun), and even simply having a screen visible during a conversation can make people feel sad and anxious.

We obviously need help navigating this new world, so what should we do with these devices that appear to be causing us so much pain and suffering?

The common response has been to regulate the amount of “screen time” or to commit to going “screen free” for periods of time. While this response can be helpful to a degree (and as a parent, it’s super easy to implement), I think it can also hide a chance for more careful and thoughtful reflection.

How “Screen Time” Became Outdated and Unhelpful

The term “screen time” was created in an earlier era when “screen” referred to just one thing – a television – and “screen time” referred to how much time we spent watching TV shows. This changed in the 1980s, when the television grew an appendage – the video game console – and “screen time” expanded from referring exclusively to passive consumption to include some form of interaction and perhaps even social participation.

In the 1990s, as personal home computers became more common, “screen time” became even more ambiguous. Families now had a “screen” that was primarily suited for new kinds of creativity, writing, drawing, video editing, 3D modeling, and information gathering.

Today the passive consumption of television, the interactive nature of game consoles, and the utility of computers have all been merged into the portable, glowing rectangles of various sizes we now use for everything from communicating with relatives to filing our taxes to recording and posting our child’s first steps. Unfortunately, screens are also use them to bully classmates, consume pornography, and falsely glamorize our lives.

With all these activities collapsed into one device, the blunt force tool of “screen time” doesn’t really do much to help us avoid the damaging uses of screens or habituate us away from the tendencies toward vapidness and self-focus that are so common on screens.

Axes for Thinking about Screens

So if  “screen time” is no longer adequate, what should we use instead? Below are several categories or axes (plural of axis, not axe :) of thinking that can help us think more deeply about how we’re using our happy little glowing rectangles.

Creation vs. Consumption – This is what my child was getting at in the opening conversation. Sometimes you just want to passively consume something, and in moderation there’s a place for that. But in that moment, I judged that we’d had enough consumption for the weekend, and I wanted to encourage my kids to find something that would express their God-given creativity rather than sit passively and consume more. However, my criteria is not “on screen” or “off screen”; rather, it’s creating (with Lego, paper, iPad, playdoh, dolls, etc.) vs. consuming (television, YouTube, etc.). “Screen time” alone would limit both indiscriminately. (Note: you can see this breakdown in Common Sense Media’s four categories of teen screen usage)

As helpful as this first axis is, alone it is just as insufficient as “screen time,” because there are certain important forms of consumption that we shouldn’t deny, but should encourage. For example, quite a bit of what we do at church (reading scripture, listening to a sermon) are good, edifying forms of consumption. And this leads us to the next axis.

Entertainment and/or Enrichment – I want my kids to avoid harmful immoral material, but I always want them to think about how something shapes them. A history book can be enriching, but it’s not always entertaining, while a LEGO Star Wars book can be quite entertaining, but not very enriching. In other words, in screen or in print, a diet of Captain Underpants and Twilight (“At least they’re reading!”) is not the same as a diet of Little House on the Prairie and The Hobbit. But notice this one has “and/or” instead of “vs.” because some works like The Hobbit are both entertaining and enriching at the same time. (You might also use “edifying”)

Individual vs. Near Social vs. Distant Social – Screens can be used just by one person or by a group to do something together, but neither is necessarily positive or negative by itself. For example, when I read the Bible for personal devotion, whether its print or on a screen, it’s very much an individual activity and still a good one. Conversely, when I play a video game with my kids, we usually play cooperative games which have at least some social significance (that said gazing at a screen together is different than gazing at one another across a board game). We can also further delineate social activities to consider if they are with those physically near us (playing Risk on a tablet) or with those far away on another device (video chat).  The point is that individual activities are not necessarily bad and social activities aren’t always amazingly deep, but learning to recognize the difference can help us grow in our decision making and avoid either/or thinking about screens.

Bonus Categories

The three above are probably a great start for helping us and our kids think more clearly about the place of screens in our lives, but I’ll offer a few more just in case it helps.

Outward vs. Inward – This category is designed to help us consider whether we are using social media to promote ourselves vs. actually interact, uplift, and encourage others.  It’s easy to put Instagram in the “social” category above, but I often find myself using tools like Instagram to try to direct others toward me, rather than build them up. This category can also help us think about how screen use affects those physically around us. Recently, when I got home from work, I opened my computer to work on a plan to build a treehouse for my kids. This is creative (not consumptive) screen use that is “outwardly” focused, but I discovered that my screen usage was communicating that I didn’t want to help my wife with dinner or play with my kids during a prime time. One can’t always avoid this – work and taxes sometimes call – which makes this one of the trickiest categories, but it also gives us another tool to think about our screens more deeply.

Movement/Body vs. Stationary/Mind – This weekend I let son use my laptop to write something while my daughter and I went for a jog and recorded it with a phone. The first was a stationary activity of the mind, the second had movement and bodies. One of the potential dangers of using any media, whether creating or consuming, entertaining or enriching, is that we forget that being human means having both a mind and body. Our world of screens and pages tends to focus on us on our minds, so we need to compensate and reclaim our bodies (even if we use a screen as part of the physical activity).

Evaluating Screen Activities

So let’s see how various activities might fall on the scales above.

  • Playing Angry Birds/Watching YouTube
    consumption, entertainment, individual, inward, stationary
  • Letting child use the Peppa Pig painting app
    creationentertainment, individual, inward, stationary
  • Listening to a podcast while running
    consumption, enrichment (maybe), individual or social, inward, body and mind
  • Reading a Bible app with kids
    consumption, edifying/entertainment, near social, outward, mind
  • Reading on a phone in the bathroom
    consumption, entertainment, individual, inward, mind
  • Scanning through Instagram feed
    consumption, entertainment, individual or distant social, inward, mental
  • Using Facebook to find things going on in people’s life to talk/pray about
    consumption, enrichment, distant social, outward, mind
    (I’ve successfully done this about 1 in every 38,000 times I’ve used Facebook)
  • Looking up a recipe for dinner and making it
    creative, enrichment, individual or near social, outward, moving/body

So Let’s Retire “Screen Time”

I hope these categories and examples demonstrates that teaching our kids that “screen time is bad and should be limited” while “anything other than screens is good and unlimited” doesn’t really help them navigate today’s world.

Certainly, there are times when we need to unplug, disconnect, live in the moment, and hide the phone. But as screens become more and more ever present, we adults and the children in our care need to learn more complex forms of discernment.

I hope you find at least one of these axes useful and that you add your own (near vs. far?) as you think through how to flourish in this world, appreciating the wonderful tools at our disposal, while constantly evaluating how they shape us as we use them.

The Shocking/Sobering Reason There Are No Trump Supporters on Your Facebook Feed

If you’re anything like me, you probably have Facebook friends across the political spectrum, and over the past few months you’ve seen a range of posts from young idealists feeling the Bern to staunch conservatives who Trust Ted.

But there is one glaring exception: the bewildering avalanche of articles denouncing Donald Trump and the mystifying absence of a single pro-Trump post.

So what accounts for this? Why do many of us see people posting pro and con on all the other candidates, but only negative things about Trump?

Where Are All the Trump Supporters?

When you think about it there are only a few options

  1. Trump supporters don’t actually exist
  2. Trump supporters aren’t using Facebook or the Internet
  3. I’m not Facebook friends with any Trump supporters
  4. Facebook isn’t showing me any pro-Trump news

Yes, Let’s take these one at a time.

A few months ago, the first option might have seemed plausible. Surely this is all just a fun stunt for Trump, and he might have some supporters, but he won’t actually get votes, right? However, primary after primary has proven this to be yuuuugely wrong. Donald Trump has tens of millions of living, breathing, voting supporters. The are real, and they are making their voices and votes count.

So what if Trump supporters just don’t post on Facebook? That doesn’t seem likely because this map of candidate Likes (HT: Tim Hutchings) shows that there are indeed many, many Facebook users who support Trump. And they aren’t avoiding anti-Trump articles either. Whenever I click on a “Why Trump is Bad for America” post, I see dozens of pro-Trump comments below the article. As his support grows, it’s also apparent that some people are embarrassed to be supporting him and so they keep quiet about it, but that doesn’t yet appear to be a majority of his supporters.

Is it possible, then, that I (and presumably ‘we’) don’t have any Trump-supporting friends on Facebook and that’s why we don’t see any posts in his favor? In person, I’ve only heard one couple friend (or really acquaintance) of mine offer strong support of Trump, so it seems very likely that few of the Facebook friends I’ve accumulated over the years support him.

This all means its possible that there are Trump supporters among my 500+ friends, and that leads to the another possible explanation for why I don’t see their posts — Facebook just isn’t showing them to me. Is this a Zuckerbergian conspiracy, or is something else going on?

Your Facebook is a Mirror

No it’s not a conspiracy. If Facebook isn’t showing my any pro-Trump posts from friends, it’s because it knows I probably don’t want to hear that message from those people.

My patterns over the last ten years – whose baby pictures I’ve liked, whose articles I clicked on, who I “respectfully disagreed with,” what ads I’ve clicked, even the posts I scrolled to and paused on for a few moments without clicking anything – all of that has been recorded, analyzed, and processed in order to create something Facebook knows I’ll like.

That Facebook’s job. Figure out what I like, and keep it coming, so I’ll return again and again. This might be a time to trot out fun statements like, “If a service is free, you’re the product,” but in this case, I think something deeper is a work.

Who Are “Those People”?

In his article, A Message from Trump’s America, Michael Cooper reminds us the majority of Trump supporters come from a large, neglected group of Americans – working class white people. They don’t make a lot of money, they are struggling to put food on the table, and they are frustrated that no one seems to be listening and no one seems to care. He writes:

His supporters realize he’s a joke. They do not care. They know he’s authoritarian, nationalist, almost un-American, and they love him anyway, because he disrupts a broken political process and beats establishment candidates who’ve long ignored their interests.

When you’re earning $32,000 a year and haven’t had a decent vacation in over a decade, it doesn’t matter who Trump appoints to the U.N., or if he poisons America’s standing in the world, you just want to win again, whoever the victim, whatever the price.

What’s worse is that there is a popular narrative that says only working class people are racist bigots and can be dismissed easily. However, in reality there appears to be plenty of racists among the highly educated as well. So it’s easy to say those working class supporters are wrong, but the shocking and sobering reality of Trump’s rise is that it exposes how utterly cut off most of us are from an entire class of people in need. People in need of compassion and grace, not condescension and more anger.

When I read Cooper’s description above, it doesn’t sound like the kind of person I seek out regularly. And it certainly doesn’t sound like the kind of person who could entertain me on Facebook, post an amazing photo on Instagram, or have a super interesting Periscope channel.

We tend to see only what we want to see, and social media is very good and showing us what we want to see.

The media we consume is so good at regurgitating the story we want hear, that an entire nation has been caught off guard by the presence of a class of people so desperate for change that they would support anyone – literally anyone – who will listen.

Post script: As Trump amasses more votes, he also seems to be getting more vocal supporters who don’t fit the original demographic – Chris Christie, Ben Carson, a pastor in my area who seem to enjoy media attention, lots of embarrassed people, educated people, etc. It’s likely that this “Trump as pragmatic choice” will continue right up to the nomination and possibly election.

But don’t let that distract you from the strange truth that from July 2015 to March 2016, many, many people thought Trump didn’t have a chance, and they thought this because they (including me) weren’t aware of the feelings of a massive group of people, some of them hurting quite badly. And our media echoed that back to us so strongly that for a time we believed they didn’t exist.

New Year’s Technology Resolutions of the Internet Famous

You might have noticed that I spent very little time writing here last year. This was a conscious decision on my part to spend more time on things that I felt were priorities, one of the largest of which was the research portion of my PhD.

Since it is a new year, I thought I’d spend some time reflecting on other technology related resolutions that I’ve seen around the web as well as a few of my own.

Selected 2015 Social Media News and Resolutions

In the past few years, dozens of high profile celebrities who decided to quit social media (or who don’t use it in the first place). I think these are helpful reminders of how difficult it is to handle social media.

To me this doesn’t show that social media is inherently evil, but that it’s incredibly hard to moderate even for those who make a living at it. Just as our abundance of food and lack of physical work makes it hard to regulate our bodies, internet news and social media make information and social reaction challenging to regulate. And while I applaud those who make bold decisions to fully quit something, I am personally more inclined to look for small, but important changes I can make that will help bring my life back into balance.

A few resolutions of my own

Rather than start a bunch of things cold turkey on January 1, I started some of my 2016 social media resolutions in late 2015.

Facebook Changes – For the month of December, I decided I would not post anything myself, but I would check Facebook on occasion to like and comment on things from my friends and family. What I found was that I pretty quickly started feeling like I had really hilarious stuff that I wanted to post and see how many people would like it. Instead, I would tell my little jokes to my wife (and occasionally to twitter). I also found that I checked Facebook less often which tells me that a major reason I was checking it before was just to see notifications of responses. By focusing on responding, I was also able to notice when a friend who lost a loved one and respond to them off of Facebook.

Speed and Mindfulness Changes – In 2015, I’ve experimented with some mindfulness practices, using apps like Calm and Headspace to work on exercising my mind’s ability to focus and slow down. Although I’ve been inconsistent at it, I think doing this even intermittently helps me be more patient and less frenetic. I also find that when I do it in the morning before my family wakes up and then follow it with a brief scripture reading, and some daily planning, the day is much smoother.

Phone Changes – As I reflect back on my recent phone usage, what I am most embarrassed about is where I’ve wasted time. Downloading a little game to fill a few spare minutes turned into falling right into the trap of modern game design which is largely based on addictive patterns. I have also watched myself teeter into overconsuming certain feeds of information (Google News, funny meme sites, etc.). I had considered switching to a dumb phone but for now, I’ve attempted reset my phone to be primarily a tool that I use to perform tasks it’s really good at (podcasts in the car, depositing checks in the bank, directions and maps, workouts, air travel, etc.). This means removing any news type apps and avoiding web browsing. Also, I dropped and cracked my phone at Christmas so it’s become a bit more dumb all by itself.

Paper tasks – A common habit among key people I respect is that they have at least one area of their lives where the go more “analog.” Digital calendars are wonderful and powerful, but I know several people who find paper calender much more manageable. I personally have tried dozens of task apps, but I always come back around to sticky notes. At the beginning of each day, I transfer incomplete tasks from the previous day’s stick note to a new sticky note and then keep that on my laptop. Recently, I moved this all to a small moleskin-like notebook which I plan to use more of and use fewer sticky notes. There are lots of great techniques for this (GTD, Bullet Journal, StrikeThru), but I’m not quite disciplined enough to do any of them 100%. However, I do enjoy a walk to our local Starbucks (my phone tells me its 0.32 miles away) taking nothing but the notebook to work through what’s important.

If you have resolutions or small adjustments you find helpful, I’d love to hear them in the comments!

Declining Religion in America? There’s an App for That

Image: Hugh McLeod –

This week, the Pew Research Center released a sweeping study tracking the precipitous decline in religious affiliation in the US since 2007. While commentators are debating the role of factors like theology, birthrates, and immigration, it’s also interesting to note that 2007 was the same year that Apple released the iPhone and Google announce Android.

Of course, it’d be silly blame the smartphone for the decline of religion and the rise of the “nones,” but it’s hard not to think that our collective worship of the glowing rectangles in our pocket doesn’t play at least some representative part in these broader cultural shifts.

Technology and the Secularization Thesis

To explain the decline of religion in Europe during the 19th and 20th centuries, sociologists of religion posited the Secularization Thesis, which argues that when education, democracy, and science spread, religion eventually loses its authority, and secularism becomes dominant. In other words, the more Europe modernized, the less religious it became.

However, for much of the twentieth century, the Secularization Thesis never quite worked in the US. Religious faith here remained strong, and the growth of Islam around the world and Christianity in Latin America, Asia, and Africa forced sociologists to reconsider just how secularization works.

And yet, while secularization doesn’t appear to work in a simple manner in all cases, it’s also important to note how deeply it is tied to technology. In The Homeless Mind, Peter Berger, wrote that modernization is essentially, “the transformation of the economy by means of technology.” In this understanding, it would seem that technology would have to play at least some role in the move toward secularization and the rise of the “nones.”

The One Perk No Googler Wants

I recently saw a visible representation of how technological progress can squeeze out religion, however unintentionally. A few months ago, I had the chance to tour Google’s main campus in Mountain View, CA, and a bright, articulate, young Googler pointed out interesting details such as the first servers Sergey and Larry ever used and the much talked about perks like free food around every corner, Octobikes, full service laundry, child care, nursing rooms, and on and on.

As we walked, it occurred to me that just about the only thing lacking from the Google campus was some visible, physical representation of faith. Of course, most employers don’t provide chapels in their workplace and in that regard Google certainly isn’t exceptional. But Google and other Silicon Valley companies are exceptional in the number of perks and benefits they offer to entice and keep employees. Other multi-cultural centers of commerce like airports and universities have interfaith spaces, so why don’t big tech firms?

I think part of the answer is simply that no one asks for a chapel. And no one asks for a chapel because it would be at odds with the central selling proposition of Silicon Valley—progress. Unlike an Octobike or a massage pod, which reinforce the idea that technology can solve problems, a chapel might remind us of long-forgotten needs that technology cannot meet.

The gods in Our Pocket

Today, the mythology of progress, long championed in the business and tech sectors, calls to us moment by moment from our pockets. As a culture, we spend enormous amounts of time discussing the growth of screen sizes, increases in Internet access, the development in apps—progress, progress, progress we tell ourselves.

At the same time, we fill nearly every waking moment with beeps, vibrations, and reminders, drowning out any chance that our soul might surface a needs no device can meet. The more we use our devices, the more we find ourselves inculcated with the idea that our primary needs in life are those things that technology can meet. “There’s an app for that” thinking is so ubiquitous that when there’s not an app for something, it seems like it might not even be a real problem. How many of us have tried to solve our business or lack of spiritual discipline with an app?

Perhaps in this climate, it’s not so much of a stretch to say that technological culture in general and the smartphone in particular was at least partially responsible for cutting off the vestigial limb of religion dangling from many Americans at the turn of the century. Now that progress-oriented technology is a permanent fixture in the life of nearly every person in the country, it’s not surprising fewer are finding a need for religion in their lives.

Does the Church Have Anything to Offer?

Cultural change always feels threatening to the church, but past upheavals have also provided a chance for the church to refocus on its core identity. In a world where many people already have their physical needs met by technological means, the church has to figure out what it uniquely offers the world.

Google will always have more information, Spotify will always have better music, and Starbucks will always (arguably) have better coffee. But information, music, and coffee are not the trade of the church. Ours is truth, worship, and communion which together offer us not a product we can download and consume with diminishing return, but an inexhausible encounter with a living being, the risen Christ.

What Moby Dick Can Teach Us About What We Click, Read, and Post

“Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States.”
“Whaling Voyage By One Ishmael.”
“Bloody Battle In Affghanistan.” [sic]
— Moby Dick, Herman Melville

My wife is a literature professor – but not the typical read-a-few-texts-and-give-a-quiz kind. She’s that rare gift to the world who can give students an experience in class so profound that it makes math majors want become English scholars. She even inspired me to start reading the classics, and when I finally cracked open a copy of Melvin’s masterpiece, I was surprised to find the above headlines in the first few pages.

I’ve been told that one of the marks of a work of great literature is that it captures something universal about the human experience, and Melville certainly did that with these headlines. At this point in the story, the character named Ishmael creates these three headlines as a way of imagining his whaling trip being a part of the major headlines that one might read in a newspaper on any given day.

It’s amazing and a bit eery to see how similar the typical events of 1850 were compared to the big news of our day. There are always wars in the Middle East, and there are always presidential controversies. I’m not the first to notice how tragically evergreen these headlines are, but I think Melville also offers us a chance to see something about our relationship to media itself.

If we think back over the links we click every day, does it seem as if they mostly to take us to articles and videos that rehash things we already know? Every once in a while something new happens, but in between we’ll settle for a “fresh angle” or a “new spin” that temporarily satiates our media hunger. Sometimes we know we’re just looking for fun GIFs and listicles, but even when we click on something that promises a serious exploration of a current issue, it’s often just a repeat of the same old things that get posted every year and every century: “Why the ‘X’ in X-Mas is a good/bad thing”  “10 reasons the guy from the thing is wrong about the deal” “Why Easter isn’t really about the thing the other article talked about” and so on.

But Ishmael’s thought exercise isn’t just about media consumption. I think it also tells us something about the media we produce.  Ishmael is engaging in a mental exercise not unlike modern social media, imagining his life as equally important as international events. Like many people today, I enjoy posting photos of my children and places I’ve been, but when I step back and consider what’s happening, it seems strange that modern media puts the everyday moments of my life alongside world events — very much like Ishmael imagined almost two centuries ago.

This Saturday, it’s worth thinking about the media we’ve consumed and produced over the past week, and asking ourselves, “Have I enriched my mind and soul with what I’ve consumed?” and “How have I portrayed my life and the lives of others?” The deeper we are immersed the the world of media and screens, the more we are encouraged to consume articles that say very little that is meaningful and to post things that make us feel significant for a few moments.

I’m encouraged by Ishmael to know that these are not necessarily new struggles for humans, but I also realize that the technology we have access to today affords actions that were once only possible in a person’s imagination. In Moby Dick, Ishmael eventually abandons the fantasy and choose to go on the whaling voyage. While you’ll have to read the book to get the whole effect, the result is that it reconnects him with the incarnate life and gives him a story that just might make the headlines.

Perhaps if we are a little more careful with what we click, read, and post, we might find the same in our own life.

What Can We Learn about Video Churches from Mars Hill’s Closing?

It’s been a while since I’ve written here, but I did put together a piece about the video satellite model of churches for OnFaith. As I write in the piece, I’ve always been a bit skeptical of the model since I want to favor in-the-flesh personal encounters and avoid celebrity preachers and branded models of church.

However, when I actually talked to churches using this model, I found that some of them had actually thought through a lot of the common objections and come up with creative ways to overcome them. Here’s how it starts:

At the Acts 29 Conference in Dallas, Texas last week, the recent events surrounding Mark Driscoll and the network he founded were in the air. But as one attendee commented to me, the pastors there weren’t focused on Driscoll himself so much as what they could learn from Mars Hill Church’s recent decision to dissolve its video-powered network of 13 churches.

As of January 2015, each Mars Hill Church location will either become an independent church or will cease to exist. And as the satellite model of churches continues to develop nationwide wide, the larger question, not just for Mars Hill but for churches and denominations of all kinds, is whether the video satellite model is a viable way to do church.

Continue reading: Is the End of Mark Driscoll’s Church a Sign for Satellite Churches?

A Technology Fast from Everything *Except* the Internet

A few months ago, I moved my family from hot and sunny North Texas to cold and rainy northern England so I could start a PhD on digital Bible use. I hoped to learn a lot about technology, but I what I didn’t expect on was how much the move itself would teach me.

Technology Fasts and Sabbaths

Almost anytime Christians discuss the internet or mobile phones, someone suggests that it is important to take a break from technology from time to time in the form of a short-term fast or a regular Sabbath. If you feel yourself checking your phone a little too often or feel overwhelmed by our modern, always-on world, pulling the plug can help you reconnect with God, people, and even creation.

As helpful as this advice is, there is something a bit peculiar about it.

When we recommend a “Technology Fast,” we are using the word “technology” to refer only to relatively recent things like phones and social media. No one seems to feel a compulsion to “unplug” from air conditioners or heaters. No one takes Sunday as a time to free themselves from the tyranny of toilets or dishwashers. And I’m pretty sure no one has said, “I bet if I hang my wet laundry outside, I’ll sense the rhythms of God’s creation more clearly.”

Well, I’m writing this post because this kind of “Sabbath” is exactly what my family and I are doing right now. If you’ve ever felt like it’s hard to go more than a few minutes without checking your phone, imagine the challenge of giving up a dryer and a car for the summer!

Moving to a 1920s Mining Town

Framwellgate Moor bus stop

In April, my family and I moved to set of terraced houses about two miles from the Durham city center. The houses were built around 150 years ago for miners, and at that time they were one-story dwellings with approximately 250 sq.ft. of living space. Since then, a second story with two small bedrooms has been added, along with electrical lighting and an extension on the back for indoor plumbing and a bathroom. The stove and chimney that kept several generations of families warm is still there, but it has been superseded by a gas powered heater that connects to several radiators in the house. The oven has also been electrified (until it broke mid-summer), and the landlords have added two important modern appliances – a four-foot tall refrigerator (small by American standards) and a washing machine (that worked pretty well until it also broke a few weeks ago).

What this means is that we’re now living in a place that was largely the same as it would have been a century ago except for the refrigerator and on-again-off-again washing machine. I’d love to say that this has been nothing but a fun adventure for my family and me, but we’ve actually found it pretty challenging, and the experience has shown me just how much we take for granted common appliances that I don’t even think of as “technology.”

Let’s start with the easy one – there is no coffee maker. Instead, we’ve found that the British kettle and the French press make a pretty great combination.

But then it gets a little harder.

I ask you in advance for forgiveness of my recitation of what are decidedly #firstworldproblems – but that’s sort of the point!

My wife is a master meal planner, and part of that involves making larger meals and eating leftovers the next day. However, we found this is quite a bit harder when you have a tiny refrigerator and no microwave. There is an urban legend that microwaves remove nutrients from food, but that’s just bad science. Microwaves are great, and we miss ours. But we’ve learned to live without it.

We’ve also managed to adjust to not having a dishwasher. We spend more time in the kitchen doing dishes, but we’ve adapted by reusing plates and cups more often being creative when we have friends over for dinner.

The most challenging of the missing 1950s appliances has been the clothing dryer. We’ve become very adept at hanging clothes on just about any kind of hook, hanger, or notch we can find. When it’s sunny (1 or 2 days a week), we try hanging them outside, but even then a light drizzle sends us dashing outside to pull everything off the line. When the washing machine started acting up, we really felt like we had gone back to pre-war England!

The One Thing Americans Can’t Live Without…

As much as I hate to say it, the hardest adjustment has been the lack of a car. I personally enjoy my 30 minute walk into school much more than my 30 minute commute in Dallas, but for my family. While I have a place to go and study, they are left without a way to get to a kid-friendly place without walking at least a mile. But more challenging is doing daily tasks like getting groceries (my wife is strong, but she can only carry so much with children in tow). Thankfully, there is a small grocer down the street alongside a butcher and a baker (sadly, no candlestick maker!). However, these shops tend to be more expensive than larger stores that are further away. We could hop a few buses to get there, but the fare would be higher than the difference in cost for the local items.

To top it all off, the exchange rate from the US dollars to the British pound is about as bad as it gets, so we can’t simply buy our problems away. Before moving, I had romantic notions of strolling down the street, picking up a baguette, a roll of salami, and some beverages, and taking my family out for a picnic. But when it turns out an unfavorable exchange rate makes that $30.00, you’re in the middle of what your neighbors refer to as a “semi-slum,” it’s cold and rainy outside, none of your clothes are dry, and the path to the grocery store is littered with cigarettes and lottery tickets … one’s outlook begins to shift.

How many times I’ve wished I could just put on some fresh clothes from the dryer, drive my family to Chili’s, and present the waiter with a buy-one-get-one-free coupon I printed from the Internet!

The Joys of the Big Red Button

Of course, that last paragraph or two is a little over the top. But in our first few weeks in Durham, I really considered sending my family home since we were having such a hard time. The city is beautiful, my studies are great, and the people have very kind, but we just found it really hard to live without some of the machines that seem to fade into the background at home.

One day, when we were finally starting to get settled, my 5-year-old said something that started to put things into perspective for us. After an outing to see some amazing castles and cathedrals, I asked him what his favorite part of England was so far. Without hesitation, he answered, “Pressing the big red button on the bus to make it stop!”

My wife and I shared a knowing glance and a laugh, delighted by the window into our child’s universe, but also because of what this statement represented to us as a couple. We had been focusing on the challenges, but those very challenges were what led to the thing that delighted him most. And once we learned to adapt to a few of these challenges, we’ve begun to really love our simplified life together. Making things even better have been our lovely neighbors and fellow PhD students (like Andy Byers, whose books you need to buy right now!)

Learning from Our Low-Tech Experiment

So what does our visit to the turn-of-the-previous-century mining flat tell us about technology and culture today? Or put a different way, why was it so much more challenging for us to give up our dryer than it is to give up checking our phones?

1. Digital Technology Blinds Us from Other Dependencies

First, I think our experience demonstrates the way we use the word “technology” renders important aspects of our lives invisible to us. Alan Kay famously quipped that most of us think of “technology” as “Anything invented after we were born.” Slightly older machines like vacuums, radios, cars, and running water are just “stuff,” no more advanced or noteworthy than chairs, doors, or tables. So when we take a “Technology Fast” we are using the word “technology” in a very limited sense to mean “Internet stuff.”

One of the troubles with this narrow understanding of technology is that it can blind us to our dependence on older technologies that were magical in their own time and, more importantly, which still powerfully shape the structure and pace of our lives today. In Durham, we ran head first into this when we found ourselves in possession of some amazing modern technology (laptops and high speed Internet), but almost went home for lack of a car and dryer. If the practice of fasting is intended to show us our dependence on good things (like food) above God, our unintentional “Low-Tech Fast” has shown us that we live our lives in such a way that we need a car more than we need God or the Internet.

2. The Pull of Digital Technology Is Unique

Second, the fact that the “Technology Fasts” are limited to “Internet stuff” might indicate just how uniquely powerful that Internet stuff really is. Since the advent of industrialization and urbanization, there have been calls to return to nature, to leave the hustle and bustle of city life and surround ourselves with nature. But so far I haven’t seen any evidence that people called this sort of thing a “Tech Sabbath” or that anyone recommended turning off steam-powered machines or electrical devices as a spiritual practice.

I think this means that there is something distinct about “Internet stuff” and the pull that it seems to have upon us. The studies that show how each retweet, like, and comment triggers an addictive dopamine release suggests smartphones are more physiologically and psychologically powerful than, say, a dishwasher. And the fact that we give them up as a spiritual practice suggests that they may have a kind of spiritual powerful as well, at least in the sense of their capacity for idolatry.

3. Technology and Economic Power Go Hand in Phone

Third, my family and I have seen firsthand the deep relationship between technology and economic power. Because the US dollar is so weak in the UK, and because we are not rich people to begin with, we had to “do England on the cheap,” renting the least expensive place we could find and using public transportation to get around. This meant that every so often we experienced the look that people of means sometimes give (often unintentionally) to those economically below them.

In our suburb in the US, the haves and have-nots are separated by the size of house, the brand of car, and the style of clothing. But I am now more aware that in many parts of the world, the haves and have-nots are separated by actually “not having” the economic power that would grant access to technology that would in turn free up resources to gain more social status and power.

4. Technology “Fasting” Might be a Misnomer

Finally, it is worth considering if the Christian concepts of “Fasting” and “Sabbath” really do map as well to technology as I and others have argued.

When I mentioned our family’s unintentional “Low-Tech Fast” to some friends, several of them commented on how disconnected they felt from friends who, for example, give up Facebook for Lent. Apparently when someone chooses to temporarily forgo a social communications technology, their “fast” then becomes a public form of anti-social behavior. Although it’s unintentional, this public declaration seems to me to be at odds with Jesus’s admonition not to draw attention to our fasts. In the modern world, then, how can we enact this practice when the very thing from which we are fasting sends social messages? I don’t think we can easily shift toward fasting from technologies that don’t send social message like dryers or coffee makers. But we could refrain from using the term “fast” to describe our attempts to curtail internet usage and instead categorize it under “discipline” or “self-control.”

What about the concept of “Sabbath” and “rest”? While fasting seems to be for the individual’s spiritual maturity, the Jewish Sabbath was and is very much a social activity. A Sabbath rest declares that the world can go on without me, but that I am still valuable to my community as a human being. The Sabbath is something the entire community does together, and the lack of work creates space for alternate social practices that deepen community and relational bonds. But when we use the word “Tech Sabbath” to refer to something we do exclusively as individuals for our own benefit, it doesn’t seem to really fit the biblical concept quite as well. Certainly, rest can be experienced on an individual level, but for ideally a “Tech Sabbath” should be something shared within a group, a family structure, or a living arrangement. Our family found that experiencing a technological change together was difficult, but also a rewarding and binding experience. The stories of companies with email-free-Fridays or families that put all their devices away for a few hours each night seem to offer a richer Life Together like experience of rest than what happens when we go it alone.

As for my family and I, I hope that when we return to the US, we are able to appreciate our unintentional Tech Fast/Sabbath and take what it taught us back in to what is for us the “real world.”

I asked my son again recently what his favorite part of England was.

His answer, “The Cathedral! … and football!”

Family by the Cathedral