The Evolution of the Mobile Phone (as told by Christmas presents)

While out shopping with my kids last week, the toy phones caught my eye. I let the kids play with a toy guitar while I rearranged them in roughly chronological order. The original candy bar phones are still available (far left), but I couldn’t find a phone with a cord anywhere in the store. At the high tech end, Fisher Price now sells a “Smilin’ Smart Phone” that looks much like an iPhone.

This little evolutionary history lesson seems to show a movement away from the mechanical and physical toward something that mimics it. Early phone had rotary dials and wires, then they moved to buttons, then they lost the wires, and now they’ve replaced the buttons with a screen that mimics the original buttons. The phone mimics human speech and now the phone has a screen that mimics our interaction with the original mimicker – Inception!

Merry Christmas!

Dear Technology, Thank You For Cheeseburgers

Mashing Play-Doh

Last weekend, my kids and I whipped up some home-made Play-Doh. It’s not too hard – all you need is flour, salt, oil, water, cream of tartar, and whatever colors of food coloring you want, and you become super dad.

The kids had a blast both making it and playing with it, and afterward I marveled at how much fun it is to make something “from scratch” together. But at the same I starting to realize that I was not really making Play-Doh “from scratch” because, other than water, I have no idea where to get those ingredients other than Wal-Mart. I’m pretty adept at mixing the pre-purified ingredients, but it would be an enormous undertaking to actually plant grains, harvest them, and grind them down into flour.

Enter the Cheeseburger

As I was thinking about how nice it is to have all of those ingredients, I came across a blog post by Waldo Jaquith where he describes how much more impossible it would be to make a hamburger “from stratch.” Since he already raises chickens, he thought it would be fun to grow tomatoes and onions, make buns and mustard, and grind his own beef by hand. But the more he thought about it, he realized to be truly legitimate he’d need to raise his own cows. Then he realized that he’d need at least two cows, one for meat and one for milk to make cheese. As he continued to peel back layers, he came to this realization:

Further reflection revealed that it’s quite impractical—nearly impossible—to make a cheeseburger from scratch. Tomatoes are in season in the late summerLettuce is in season in spring and fallLarge mammals are slaughtered in early winter. The process of making such a burger would take nearly a year, and would inherently involve omitting some core cheeseburger ingredients. It would be wildly expensive—requiring a trio of cows—and demand many acres of land. There’s just no sense in it.

A cheeseburger cannot exist outside of a highly developed, post-agrarian society. It requires a complex interaction between a handful of vendors—in all likelihood, a couple of dozen—and the ability to ship ingredients vast distances while keeping them fresh. The cheeseburger couldn’t have existed until nearly a century ago as, indeed, it did not.

Think Outside the Bun

When we reflect on what we usually call “technology” (electronic gadgets like iPhones, tablets, etc.), it’s not uncommon to observe that those devices would have been impossible to manufacture a century ago. But it’s interesting to see how many other everyday things – like cheeseburgers and homemade Play-Doh – are almost as improbable as an iPhone.

So before you bite into your next cheeseburger (or take ingredients out of the pantry), take a moment to look at each part and imagine the vast constellation of technological resources that magically, seamlessly, and invisibly come together for our benefit. We live in exciting (and complex) times!

Christmas Technology & Faith Book Buying Guide

While pondering the perfect Christmas present for that someone special, you’ve undoubtedly come to the conclusion that there can be no better gift than a book on technology and faith. But you might be thinking, “There are just so many books are out there – how do I choose the right one for my special someone?” It turns out that Santa’s face is shining upon you, because I’ve put together a special buying guide just for you.

The Uber-Intellectual, Tweed Jacket Wearing Brainiac

Brian Brock‘s Christian Ethics in an Age of Technology is unparalleled in its depth of research (covering Augustine, Heidegger, Grant, Foucoult, and more), analysis of the conceptual roots of modern science and technology, and commitment to theologically “thick” answers. If you’re not really an academic type, this might not be the book for you. But if you’ve got an egghead who eats dissertations for breakfast, this is your book.

The Zen-Like Hipster, Emergent, McLuhanite

Before he was Rob Bell’s successor at Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, Shane Hipps was ad executive for Porsche. But he became disenchanted with the idea of using images to convince people to buy things they didn’t need, and so he became a pastor and studied the ideas and catchphrases of Marshall McLuhan. Eventually he went on to write the McLuhan-inspired Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith which, in addition to having one of the best titles in this round up, introduces several new catchphrases and gives a nice overview of McLuhan’s thought. (note: in Flickering Pixels, Hipps doesn’t address any of the typical hot button “emergent” issues. It’s focused specifically on media.)

The Hilarious, Pop Culture Guy with Hidden Depth

Adam Thomas‘s publisher labels him the “one of the first priests from the millennial generation,” but I would call him one of the funniest and most insightful people I’ve emailed but never met. His book Digital Disciple is the perfect match of insider tech humor and deeply reflective Christian spirituality. His book is just the right length for non-readers and it even includes discussion questions for small groups. I appreciate how he urges us not just to react against technology, but to strive to see God in it.

The Young, Restless, Reformed, Canadian Tech Junkie

Tim Challies is only in his 30s, but he’s undoubtedly the grandaddy of Christian blogging and a faithful representative of Reformed and Puritan thought. He’s also been involved in web design and computer consulting for years, and he brings that unique combination to The Next Story in which he applies Neil Postman’s thought swirled together with some healthy Biblical wisdom to issues like distraction, privacy, and anonymity. Tim and I even worked together a bit on a definition of technology, leading to my tongue-in-cheek endorsement: “As the co-author of 13 words in Tim’s new book, I’m very happy that he, with his skill as a writer, his experience as a web designer, and his deeply informed, discerning faith, wrote the other 60,000.”

The Sensitive Engineering Linguist

The title of Brad Kallenberg’s book is God and Gadgets: Following Jesus in a Technological Age. Yet while the book is definitely about “God” it’s not so much concerned with specific “gadgets” as it is with the powerful patterns of life and language that emerge when we surround ourselves with tools of all kinds. Kallenberg invokes heavy hitters like Heidegger and Wittgenstein, but he isn’t overly academic in his approach, and he draws from his diverse experience as a chemist, a campus minister, an engineer, and a philosophy professor. His unique emphasis on language makes this short book a nice addition to any library on technology and faith.

The Half-Amish, Half-Cyborg Polymath

What Technoloy Wants is one of the strangest and most thought-provocative books I’ve ever read (see my multi-part review). Then again, Kevin Kelly is about as close as they come to a real life “Most Interesting Man Alive” (complete with beard). A co-founder of Wired magazine who converted to Christianity while sleeping on the floor of an Israeli church, he offers a sweeping view of technology history drawing parallels between biological evolution and the progression of technology. For those who like way out there stuff, this is the book to get.

The Jack of All Trades, Theologian, Creative-Type “Honorable Mention”

Finally, I can’t help but mention my own contribution to the discussion. I hoped to have included some of Challies’s Postman-like critiques and Biblical insight, a bit of Hipps’s McLuhan-channelling, some good, light-hearted story-telling like Thomas, a glimmer of Brock’s academic and theological underpinnings, the breadth and depth of Kallenberg’s work, and maybe even some off-the-wall Kellyisms. In From the Garden to the City, I wanted to highlight how technology is a powerful, beautiful, and necessary expression of the Image of God present in all of us, while also grappling with how everything we make, use, and do – including technology – has the potential to shape us personally, spiritually, and relationally.

Feel free to add your favorites in the comments. Merry Christmas!

I Think Before I Tweet … Way Too Much

Like most social network users, I have occasionally given in to the temptation to post something that I later ended up regretting. The rush of being the first, of saying something funny or edgy, got the better of me. Within minutes I went back and deleted the tweet or Facebook update hoping and praying no one had seen it.

Over time, I’ve gotten better about trying to think through whether I really need to tweet something and if I’ll later regret it. If it passes the “regret later” test, then I’m free to tweet.

I’m so going to tweet that…

But I’ve noticed an interesting side-effect of this “think before you tweet” rule. As I go about the day, I find myself thinking of things about which I could tweet. When I see a strange person in line at a store, I think about something clever I could say. When a company offers me poor service, I think about how I could slam them and get something back from it. When I read about major world events, I think up little jokes to make light of them.

In other words, I’ve started to see the world through Twitter.

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail

When I was a youth pastor, I was always on the lookout for good illustrations. If something funny, sad, or interesting happened I made a note to use it in my next sermon for the kids.

Eventually, I noticed that “Illustrations” had become the lens through which I looked at everything and I decided I needed to turn it off sometimes, so I could just enjoy the moment. Now, I find myself needing to do the same with Twitter at times.

All of this illustrates that the tools we use tend to color the world we see, and sometimes we need to take a step back from the tool to see things as they are. In the mean time, come follow me on twitter: @johndyer

Interview at ‘Church Marketing Sucks’

Just wanted to point you to an interview I did over at Church Marketing Sucks:

So why isn’t technology neutral? Doesn’t how we end up using technology matter more?

The reason so many people believe “technology is neutral” is that it’s so obviously true. Any tool, from an iPhone to a shovel, can be used for good things (like building orphanages) or bad things (like axe-murdering), but the tool itself is amoral. The problem is that, while this is certainly true, it’s only half the story. And half-truths are tricky because they often blind us from seeing more important things.

The “other half” most of us miss about technology is that tools transform us regardless of whether we use them for good or for evil. Whether I use my shovel to build that orphanage or go on an axe-murdering spree, I’ll end up with blisters on my hands from the shovel. And just as physical tools reshape our bodies, digital tools transform our minds. I can use Twitter to follow Christian pastors like John Piper and Rick Warren or mindless celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Snoop Dogg, but regardless of the goodness or badness of the content they tweet, my mind will be transformed such that it gains the skill of consuming enormous numbers of short sentences, but looses the ability to read a book for more than a 10 or 15 minutes without feeling distracted.

So, yes, how we use technology certainly does matter, but we also need to be aware of how technology is using (or transforming) us.

So if technology is changing us as a culture and a people, is that a good or a bad thing? And what do we do about it?

I don’t really think technology fits cleanly into categories of “good” or “bad.” Instead it’s about “change.” These changes bring enormous benefits many of which can further the kingdom of God, but those benefits come with downsides as well. For some, it’s tempting to ignore the unintended consequences and focus only on the wiz-bang coolness of the latest shiny gadget. For others, it’s easy to say every new technology is designed to destroy your soul, but ignore that God is just as active today as in every age.

Read the whole thing

The iPhone Shaped Body: Earthen Vessels

“Always buy the most hideous house in the neighborhood, so at least you won’t have to look at it.” – Unknown

It’s difficult to get a good look at something when you live inside it, and this happens to be especially true of our physical bodies. Matthew Lee Anderson, author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith, says that when he told people he was writing on the body, they often looked at him quizzically as if to say, “The body of what?”

Our bodies touch everything we touch, feel everything we feel, and do everything we do, and yet from our perspective as bodies it’s difficult to know how or why to think about them (or why we should read a book about them!). But whether we are worshipping at church, talking with friends, getting a tattoo, expressing sexuality, or pecking away at our iPhones, we are using our bodies. And yet, the language I just employed – “using our bodies” – seems on second thought to be profoundly wrong. Is the body just another thing we use or is there something more profoundly human about it?

In his book, Matt addresses all the touchy issues related to bodies – worship, tattoos, homosexuality, church online – but he is more fundamentally addressing the deep connection between our bodies and our faith which is often ignored today:

The gift of God in Jesus Christ is a gift for and to human bodies, and as evangelicals, we need to attend carefully to the ways in which the Holy Spirit shapes our flesh. In a world where the body’s status is in question, we have an opportunity to proclaim that the God who saved our souls will also remake our bodies; that the body is nothing less than the place where God dwells on earth. (50)

This is why I think this book is so important and it’s also why I’m happy to write a bit about the fifth chapter entitled, “The Body as Shaped by the World.”

Chapter 5 – The Body As Shaped by the World

In chapter 5 of Earthen Vessels, Matt introduces several physical and cultural forces that shape how we conceive of our bodies.  He begins with the architecture of buildings noting the postures of worship, commerce, or activity we take depending on the structure and beauty of a building.  As he writes, “We shape our worlds, and afterwards our worlds shape us” (86).

Increasingly, however, our conception of the body is shaped less by buildings than by the images of bodies we see on screen and in magazines. Even those of us who try to have a biblically healthy view of the body cannot help but be influenced by the 1000s of images of strikingly beautiful people we see everyday.

Our conception of our bodies is further shaped by modern communication technology which allows us to connect to people in a way that seems to indicate bodily presence is unnecessary or at least unimportant. He writes, “The advantages of the Internet, of course, are incalculable” and yet it is a strange place where, “We are not present online – we present ourselves.” (92-93, Matt also writes powerfully about technology in chapter 11).

The Internet allows us to do all kinds of things that used to require us to move our bodies. We can talk to friends on Skype, order milk and books on Amazon, and send flowers to our mothers all without moving our legs (and soon without moving our fingers!). As amazing as all of this is, over time the net effect is that it seems as if we can live in the world without a body.

And yet as Matt argues, the body is profoundly and deeply connected to being human. The shape our bodies take is the shape our souls will eventually take, and therefore we must be careful to intentionally shape our body in accordance with the gospel rather than passively letting it be shaped by the forces he introduced above.

Intentional Removing Bodies?

To help counteract the negative influences upon our bodies, Matt outlines three ways of life that are helpful in forming and shaping to a gospel-shaped body: freedom, gratitude, and care.

Each of these is worthy of a blog post, but I’d like to focus on one quote in particular that highlights how our attitudes about human bodies are embedded in our worship practices in surprising ways. Under the concept of freedom, Matt writes,

When cleanliness and bodily order become required for entrance into our communities—as they clearly are in most evangelical churches—then we have adopted a standard inhospitable to those whose bodies either might intrude at inopportune times (such as infants and the elderly) or who lack the grooming that an affluent society has transformed into a requirement. Babies crying are not a “distraction” from connecting with God— they are a tangible reminder of our embodied lives and that God himself once cried as a baby, too.

I’d love to share my opinions on this, but I’d be more interesting in hearing what you think? Does removing babies and the elder promote or deny (or both) freedom? Is such action in accordance with a Christian view of bodies and worship or is it tinged with consumerism and perfectionism? And remember, Matt isn’t asking about “babies in church” as if that’s a key issue. He’s using the question to chip away at our everyday practices in order uncover the deeper unquestioned assumptions that guide our lives, churches, and communities.

Note: This post is part of a chapter-by-chapter symposium on Matt’s book Earthen Vessels, hosted by his blog Mere Orthodoxy and covers chapter 5, “The Body As Shaped by the World.” Matt is also available to hold discussions for groups of 7 or more who want to talk with him about the book.

Captivated: A Christian Documentary On Media Saturation

Reader Kevin Sorenson just told me about a new video coming out next month called Captivated: finding freedom in a media captive culture put together by the folks at ReelCast productions and MediaTalk101 both of which are Christian organizations whose goals are to help Christians live in a media saturated culture.

Captivated Trailer

The cast looks to include teens, young adults, and older adults who were at one time addicted to technology, media, and screen time, along with some well-known Christian thinkers like Kerby Anderson (Probe Ministries) and David Murray (Hebrew professor),  writers on technology culture like Mark Bauerlein (The Dumbest Generation), and other men and women from groups like the Parents Television Council.

I’m glad to see a high quality presentation of issues in media culture from a Christian view. I must admit though that I’m a little skeptical of the trailer because it presents very strong either/or scenarios where the narrator asks, “Is our social experience richer and deeper…” (images of sad families staring at screens) “… or more shallow and artificial?” (images of happy people grooming horses in great outdoors). But then again movie trailers – as a medium – are designed to pique interest, not offer nuanced views. So I’m hopeful that the finished product will be balanced and helpful to the church. You can order your copy here.

What did you think of the trailer?

Like to Wear Pink? Technology Made You Do It!

Everyone knows that pink is a “girly” color, right?

Well you might be surprised to you hear that less than a century ago, the opposite was true. Today, nothing is more obvious than the fact that pink is feminine and blue is masculine, but it turns out that American society used to see things the other way around (see Smithsonian Magazine). Here’s how the decades break down:

1900s – Gender Neutral

Before the 1900s, boys and girls alike wore white dresses until the age of 6 or 7 because they were inexpensive and easy to clean with bleach. Gender roles were clearly defined in those days, but those roles were not associated with the colors or styles of clothing for young children.

1920s – Pink is Masculine!

Around the time of World War I, catalogs and clothing manufactures began to assign gender to the color of clothing. Surprisingly, however, pink was considered to be a “stronger” color and therefore appropriate for little boys, while blue was more “delicate and dainty” and making it appropriate for girls.

In a June 1918 article from the trade publication Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department said:

The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.

And it wasn’t just this one article. Even magazines like Time printed colors charts for gender appropriate clothing – pink was always for boys and blue for girls.

1940s/1960s – Pink is Feminine!

Somewhere along the way, however, pink snuck its way from the floors of boys’ rooms and into the closets of little girls. Those interviewed by Smithsonian Magazine indicate that one of the reasons for the switch was that during the sexual revolution and women’s liberation movements, parents felt that they could empower their little girls by having them wear men’s clothing. At the time, there was nothing more manly than wearing pink, and so feminist moms everywhere who wanted their little girls to grow up as strong as a man had them wear pink.

Other accounts say the shift was in part due to the news that the Nazis used a pink triangle to shame a man caught in homosexuality. The associate with homosexuality caused made pink into a feminine color inappropriate for boys, especially in a world where homosexuality still had a deep social stigman.

Whatever the origin of the switch, clothing manufactures in the 1950s through 1980s still attempted to keep a healthy stock of gender-neutral clothing because parents needed these if they were going to have multiple children. But this all changed in the 1980s when a new technology became widely available.

1980s -It’s a Boy/Girl!

The big change happened around 1985 when Back to the Future came out when ultrasound became a routine part of pregnancy. Suddenly, parents-to-be were no longer motivated to buy clothing that would work for a girl or a boy. Instead, they wanted clothing that was taylor-made for their little bundle of joy.

Clothing makers immediately recognized that if they made boy cloths more “boyish” (not just overalls, but overalls with a bear holding a football) and girl clothes more “girly” (not just pink, but pink with frills and a princess print), they could move even more merchandise because parents couldn’t reuse the clothing for siblings of a different gender.  Baby showers were no longer about equipping parents with essentials for any child, but buying items customized to what the sonogram said about the child’s gender.

Gender in Society

I think this teaches us two important things. First, technologies like sonograms have incredible benefits like the detection of preventable diseases. Personally, my wife and I loved learning our children’s genders, because it allowed us to name them and pray for them by name before they arrived. But as with all technology, those benefits often come with intriguing unintended side effects like the booming baby products industry and seemingly random decisions about which colors fit which genders.

Second and more significantly, our expectations and understanding of massively important issues like  human identity, human personhood, and gender which seem to governed by obvious objective standards (pink is feminine, blue is masculine, duh!) can in reality be rooted in the god of our age – consumption. What we think of as a biblical portraits of healthy boys and girls may in fact be as informed by commercial factors as it is by Biblical examples.

What other ways have you seen important aspects of our identity (like gender) shaped by cultural and technological factors?

[HT: My brother for pointing me to the Smithsonian Magazine article]

The Church and Technology Survey and Infographic

Tyndale College and Seminary  conducted a survey of 386 churches in the Ontario, Canada area to find out how congregants viewed the role of technology in the churches. Below is the infographic from the article entitled, Church and Technology.

There are some a few interesting tidbits in the data:

  • On the one hand 35% believe church is “becoming too much about technology” and 11.5% say technology distracts from worship, but only 1.4% see theological problems with technology usage. To me, it’s interesting that there is little correlation or connection between theology (what we believe about God) and what we think about worship.
  • A whopping 84% of church members read the Bible electronically. I really would have expected the number to be lower in church, but I’m guessing this refers to “Sometime in the week”
  • Sound equipment is ubiquitous (99% use it). That means it’s not “technology” anymore to 99% of churches.
  • One pastor say that technology has “No trade-offs, only benefits.” Seriously? but other pastors acknowledge that technology is not just about right or wrong, it’s about “change” and that’s hard sometimes: “Introducing technology is a change. Change can be difficult. Our services are traditional in character, and there is no great desire to change that basic character.”

Tyndale should be applauded for pushing the conversation on technology, but I really would have liked to see the real data. It’s hard to interpret the numbers without knowing what the exact questions were, how many people answered the questions, when stats are related to pastors vs. congregants (the infographic shows 35% and 19.2% for “too much about technology” – which is which?).

Still, the survey approach shows how varied the responses and outcomes to technology can be. Pastors lament that, “clergy and others to spend more time at their desks and less time pounding the pavement of the community,” and yet we can’t help but feeling like it’s good thing when, “A member/leader in our church was serving in Afghanistan and we were able to include him in some of our services via Skype to encourage him and the church family.”

I think this kind of back and forth is helpful in seeing the pros and cons, good and bad, positive and negative that comes with technology. It helps us avoid blindly criticizing it or blindly diving in, both of which are unhelpful extremes.

Did anything stick out to you in the data?