Free Download: The Best of The Atlantic’s Technology Writing

tech-coverOver the last two or three years, some of the best writing on technology to be found on the Internet has come from The Atlantics technology section. Until the end of the year, they are giving away a 345 page ebook of the best posts of 2012 for free. Here’s their blurb:

The Best Writing From The Atlantic’s Technology Channel 2012 is an anthology that showcases the site’s kaleidoscopic approach to covering the tech scene. This isn’t a book merely about technologies—it’s one about the ideas that animate them, the people who create them, and the users who transform them. You’ll find everything from an exclusive account of the technology that powered the Obama campaign, to an investigation into what makes a stock photo; memes to space; drones to abortion; philosophy to animated GIFs.

So go run and grab it now:

(HT: Dave Stearns)

This Christmas “Browser History” is the New “Shaking the Box”

Google Christmas

I tried to muster a look of disapproval, but I couldn’t help but smile when my 4-year-old picked up a present, sized it up, shook it a few times, and proclaimed, “I fink it’s LEGOs!” Like father, like son, another generation is carrying on the tradition of trying to figure out what’s inside those beautifully wrapped boxes.

But a few days ago, I heard a new take on the old tradition.

Standing outside her house as our kids played in the front yard, my neighbor was telling me how difficult it is to keep the legen of Santa Claus alive with her kids. She figured it would be other kids at school that would let the secret slip and ruin it for her kids, but it turned out our old friend and foe technology almost did her in this year.

Apparently her son is pretty good with computer and looked at what she called her “Google history” (I’m not sure if she meant her Google searches or something like Chrome’s History, but either way the point is the same) and he noticed that he was seeing many of the things he had written down in a letter to Santa. He asked his mom how the computer could know all the things he had told Santa he wanted that year.

Evidently, even Santa needs Amazon now and again.

Merry Christmas!

5 Human Experiences Modern Technology Makes Impossible

fiveWhen a new technology arrives we tend to focus on what new things it makes possible, but a recent trip to Taco Cabana and another to an Apple store reminded me that of equal importance are the things technology makes impossible, or at least extremely uncommon.

Below are five formerly everyday human experiences that modern technology tends to hide.

1. Limitation (or inability to acquire)

First, the trip to Taco Cabana. When my hungry family arrived for dinner, my wife and I suddenly realized that neither of us brought our wallets.

Our initial feelings were that of embarrassment and a little frustration, but then we experienced something else, something new and entirely foreign yet quite interesting. All of the sudden, we found ourselves out in the world with no way of acquiring food.

This made me realize that our normal experience of limitation is very artificial. We are limited in the sense that we can’t buy a jet or a mansion, and we want to limit any credit card debt. But if we are hungry or want something under $5,000 there is nothing other than our will that limits our purchasing power.

What I learned at Taco Cabana is that there is a profound difference between limitation in the sense of, “I probably shouldn’t spend my money on that” and, “I’m hungry, but I have no means of getting food.”

2. Loneliness (or isolation)

On to the Apple store. My phone recently broke, so I upgraded to a fancy new iPhone 5. Then a few days later, I needed to contact someone only to realize that his number didn’t make it on the new phone.

I was by myself in my car at the time, and the experience caused a strange feeling of isolation in me. I felt helpless because I really didn’t know how I would reach him, and yet I realized that I was not in any real sense. He could still reach me, and I could contact any number of other people if I wanted to.

Reflecting on this, it seems that the presence of a mobile device puts us in constant state of accessible-but-unconnected. Rather than being truly unreachable at some remote location and perhaps reaping the benefits of solitude, we find ourselves perpetually with a machine capable of connection, but not currently in use. This state of limbo can result in a heightened sense of emptiness and “non-placed-ness” all without experience the kind of true aloneness that happens when you don’t have a device with you for several hours or days.

3. Lostness (or directionless)

Like loneliness, as long as you have a computer or a phone on you, you can’t experience being truly lost.

I have regularly hoped in my car, started going in the general direction of my destination and only then pulled out a phone to get exact directions. At first I loved the flexibility and spontaneity of not need to plan a trip, but lately I’ve found this more stressful than charming. The almost humorously bad new Apple Maps made my strange dependence on digital maps and GPS even more apparent.

With GPS, I find myself often feeling “lost,” but then realizing that – like loneliness – I am really experiencing a strange hybrid state of lost-but-with-GPS-that-should-stinking-work-better. The connection between me and the world is not truly a state of “lostness” because it is mediated by the device and what it conveys about being lost.

Again, it is only when my technology failed to provide a normal experience that I was attentive to the kinds of profoundly human experiences that technology normally covers up.

4. Ignorance (or not knowing)

One of the fun things about getting a new iPhone was being able to try out Siri, asking it all kind of ridiculous questions with my kids (my son, for example, wants to know how exactly it is that crocodiles are so good at eating people).

This infinite knowledge in my pocket again creates a unique hybrid state. As with credit cards and GPS, as long as I have a computer or phone on me, there is no fact that is unknowable or inaccessible to me. Virtually any question about history, numbers, dates, functionality, and so on can be answered instantly. I might not know something, but I exist in a state where things are knowable.

And yet facts, the kind of data that Siri knows about is quite a different thing from wisdom or knowing what to do in a difficult situation.

5. Boredom (or nothingness)

Finally, the state of being that kids around the world hate – boredom.

The new phone I got didn’t come with Facebook, Twitter, CNN, or Instagram. It didn’t have any games, banking apps, or Bibles. It just had the same built-in apps that its great, great, great grandfather had in 2007. This emptiness reminded of all the times I’ve used my phone while waiting in a line or at a stoplight. I tend to fill all downtime with phonetime.

The problem is that all kinds of research shows that our creativity is triggered, not by looking at stuff on a screen, but by boredom. Apparently, our minds are built to make something out of nothing, and when we don’t have any nothing lying around, we have trouble creating.


So what difference does any of this make? Why are things like limitation, loneliness, lostness, ignorance, and boredom important? Isn’t it good that technology does away with these things?

As with most things, the answer is usually a both/and and a yes/but. Like many parents, I’ve noticed that my kids seem to have more fun when they make their own toys than when we buy them another thing that requires batteries. How, then, should I shape their environments to create the kind of nothing required to nurture their creativity? I don’t want to deprive them of good things, but I have to remind myself that depriving them of nothing is perhaps more damaging than depriving them of more stuff.

Could it be that the other human experience are like that, too? Would the metaphor of “lostness” in passages like Psalm 119:176 and Luke 19:10 be more impactful if we’ve experienced life without GPS? Could a bit of unconnected solitude could draw us closer to God?

One can only hope.

Henri Nouwen on the Social Media Cycle

Out of SolitudeReading through Henri Nouwen’s short work Out of Solitude the other day, I came across this wonderful quote that describes the constant temptation to define our worth in terms of what we’ve accomplished and the feedback we receive:

When we start being too impressed by the results of our work, we slowly come to the erroneous conviction that life is one large scoreboard where someone is listing the points to measure our worth. And before we are fully aware of it, we have sold our soul to the many grade-givers. That means we are not only in the world, but also of the world. Then we become what the world makes us. We are intelligent because someone gives us a high grade. We are helpful because someone says thanks. We are likable because someone likes us. And we are important because someone considers us indispensable. In short, we are worthwhile because we have successes. And the more we allow our accomplishments — the results of our actions — to become the criteria of our self-esteem, the more we are going to walk on our mental and spiritual toes, never sure if we will be able to live up to the expectations which we created by our last successes. In many people’s lives, there is a nearly diabolic chain in which their anxieties grow according to their successes. This dark power has driven many of the greatest artists into self-destruction.

This spiral gets can worsen as we age because unlike when we were 18 and everything was open to us, every passing year means that we have fewer and fewer options. But it also seems to worsen as we age because many of us have experienced the elation of success and then find ourselves doing everything we can to recreate that feeling.

I think a similar phenomenon can happen with social media and internet “success.” Just as we learn to crave the kind of evaluation we get from high grades, thank yous, and so forth in our everyday life, the immediate feedback of likes, retweets, and hits leaves the distinct impression that hitting certain numbers determines the value of not only what we do online, but who we are.

It’s easy to mock silly metrics like Klout scores, but even the best of us check our numbers sometimes. And in those moments we must remember that those numbers might in fact be useful as measurements of our job or a task we’ve been given, but they don’t measure anything eternal – like the value of your personhood and the eternal soul that God made and is redeeming through his son Jesus.

But now, by all means, please like this post.

When Jesus Creates

An Artisan

I’ve long been fascintated by the Greek word tekton (literally artisan or craftsperson) which is translated “carpenter” in the gospels (Matthew 13:55, Mark 6:3) to describe the kind of work Joseph did, because it means as a little boy Jesus would have watched his earthly father creating which is theologically awesome since we believe all things were made through Son (John 1:3; Hebrews 1:2) with the Father and that we are his “workmanship” (Eph 2:10).

But as far as I could remember, the gospel writers don’t actually record many events where Jesus makes something (except perhaps breakfast: John 21:9). But I was reading the gospel of John to my son yesterday, and I noticed a detail that in clearing the temple Jesus took time to make his own whip:

So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. (John 2:15)

For Artisans

So in honor of this passage I made a little Internet Meme to Jesus as a reminder to all of us that make stuff, all of us who are tektons, artisans, craftspersons, and makers of some sort:

What you are doing is what the Son has been doing and continues to do.

And though the universe is vast and incomprehensible, his greatest workmanship is you.

And though you like the temple are full of sin, he wants to cleanse you, redeem you, break you down and bring you back to life so that he can work in and through you.

Of Cars, Community, and Church: Families vs. Facilities

A Counter-Cultural Choice

The church community of which I am a part is coming up on its 50th anniversary this month, and it has been creating videos that are meant to represent the congregation as a whole. Some of them have been quite touching, but I was particularly struck by this past Sunday’s video because of how counter-cultural it is.

Did you notice the phrase they led with? “They haven’t agreed with every decision IBC has made.” Isn’t that an amazing statement?

Today we have unprecedented choice in churches which means Gerald and Bev could have easily driven to a church that didn’t make some of the decisions our church has made in the past decade.

(One of) The Most Powerful Technology in Church History

But notice that their choice would be somewhat dependent on a technology we don’t normally think of in ecclesiological terms: the automobile. Without cars, we would be limited to choosing a church that was within a reasonable distance. The absence of cars also limits the number of people that can attend a church, and the number of people limits the kinds of ministries it can have.

The presence of cars, on the other hand, gives us unprecedented access to various kinds of worship communities, ministries, and preachers. It allows for large churches with the resources to do some amazing ministries (like Tapestry, my church’s adoption ministry) . But those same large churches prevent congregants from knowing everyone in a congregation much less their pastor. Cars also remove the sense that a locally proximate church is our only option.

So in the culture of the car when a church does something disagreable, it only makes sense to try one of the myriad options within driving distance. After all, why would you keep driving to the same facility if you don’t agree with its choices?

Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?

Well, the answer from the video is Gerald and Bev have chosen not to view church merely as a facility to which one drives. They have replaced that metaphor with that of a family who share a bond stronger than individual choices even though not everything will be according to one’s preference.

Of course, there are good reasons to leave a church (just like there are sometimes good reasons to avoid a family). Doctrine and practice matter, and sometimes a church crosses a line that requires us to break fellowship. And yet, in the culture of the car, there is a temptation to leave over smaller issues simply because the car makes it possible to leave.

So thanks Gerald and Bev for making a choice that runs counter to the technology and spirit of our age.

6 Tips for Handling a Perfect Storm of Internet Fame

Last week, three big websites referenced things I’ve worked on recently:

  1. Biola University launched it’s new Open Biola project and featured my lecture on its homepage of resources.
  2. Jeffrey Zeldman, one of the web’s leading designers, blogged about my MediaElement.js library.
  3. Outreach Magazine and other websites reported on my work to distribute 50,000 Arabic digital Bibles during the Olympics.
  4. Bonus: We also launched a new version of DTS’s website that features a responsive layout and Retina-ready images in many places.

For this little web coder, this is all very exciting and fun. Yet, I also know that when something like this happens, there is a danger that I will react poorly to it. First, I am tempted to think so highly of myself that I start acting arrogant and self-important (see all the “my” above?), talking about myself more than others. Second, I start getting used to the good feeling I get from recognition and then when it’s over I feel deflated and unimportant.

So to prevent that from happening this time around, I’ve written down a few tips that I use to remind myself of how reality is in fact structured.

1. It Is a Big Deal

An easy way for me to try to deal with this kind of recognition is to feign humility and show people I don’t really care by saying something like, “It’s no big deal.”

But it is a big deal, and I do care.

I did some really great work, and it’s incredibly rewarding and downright exciting to have it publically recognized. I know God gives grace to humble and mocks the proud (Prov. 3:34), but being humble isn’t the same thing as falsely claiming, “I don’t really care about all that stuff.” True humility requires that I begin by being honest about what has happened and the reactions to it in my heart. That’s where the next steps come in.

2. There’s Always Something Bigger

To balance the fact that all of this is a big deal, I remind myself of where it stands in the grand scheme of things. I shouldn’t be unnecessarily self-deprecating, but at the same time I shouldn’t overplay the significance of these things to the point where I think I just landed on Mars or cured cancer.

This isn’t about comparing myself to others or jockeying for a higher place. It’s just about making sure that I balance all the excitement with a recognition that God is doing lots of great things through many other people all around the world. By recognizing that what I’ve done is part of the much larger plan of God, I’m able to be thankful for what he’s allowed me to do and also excited for others when they have success.

3. It Didn’t Happen in a Day

Even though the Internet is reporting the events all at once, the reality is each of these projects is the result of lots of hard work over long periods of time. I first started working on MediaElement.js two years ago for a demo at the Echo Conference in a talk I did with Nathan Smith. The Biola Lecture was actually accumulated ideas that I’ve been working on since 2008 when I gave my first such talk at the BibleTech Conference.  And the Bible Software in Arabic? I’ve been tinkering with that kind of thing for more than five years.

So even if my plan was to replicate this fun event of having lots of things recognized all at once, I would need to get to work on Monday and hope for a link storm in 2016, not Tuesday.

4. I Didn’t Even Do It All

In just about every case, what I’ve done is the built on the work of others and wouldn’t exist without them. The DTS website? We hired out an amazing designer (Chris Merritt) to create the visual design, and my co-worker Michael Jordan did a ton of work over the summer to make that design into a real website.

The 50,000 Arabic Bibles? I just did the coding on one part of it. Many teams of people at Digital Bible Society built additional tools, did quality assurance, and printed the SD cards, and other teams in London distributed the software. And that doesn’t even count the people who actually, you know, translated the Bibles! My Biola lecture was built on the ideas of others and given at a conference put together by a team of professors and students. And even my video library has dozens of contributors on Github finding bugs and making it better.

Again, I did do a lot of good hard work, but seeing it as a part of many larger efforts helps me enjoy it even more since the network of people exists long after the tweets die down.

5. Tomorrow, It’ll Be Forgotten

As cool as all of this is, the Internet moves fast and tomorrow someone else’s amazing work will catch people’s eye. That means that I can have fun with it for a day or two, but then I need to let it go and not seek to hold on to the feeling.

This isn’t just some over spiritualizing, it’s a physiological reality. As soon as those tweets and like started firing, I remembered that such electronic queues generate a dopamine response, and when the beeps and boops, the sudden lack of dopamine can feel like a real let down. It then becomes really tempting to try to drum up more tweets to perpetuate the high. But by not placing too much value on myself and knowing it’ll end in a few days, I can enjoy it while it lasts and then move on to doing new great work without missing a beat.

6. It Won’t Help My Baby Boy and Girl Get Through Middle School

I recently finished Steve Job’s biography and by far the most heartbreaking section for me was the interview with his middle daughter who says something to the effect of, “I understand why my dad wasn’t around much. He was working on important things, and he didn’t have time for me. I’ve accepted that.”

I don’t want to set my kids up to have to make that kind of excuse for me when they are older, and that means I can’t always keep up with everything that I want to do online. There’s always something more to do, create, and promote. But I’m the only one who can be there for my kids in this special time.

Speaking of that, we have some dragons to slay!

So if you have any tips of your own leave them in the comments, and I’ll get to them once they are sleeping.

Want to Rein in Social Media? Don’t Post about It!

Overload from

Last fall, CNN posted an article which argued that if you tell people you are trying to lose weight, it can actually make it harder to succeed.

Problems with Losing Weight

There are certainly some great reasons to talk with a community about weight loss, diet, and exercise. Accountability and encouragement are really important, and yet some doctors have found that there are reasons why telling people about your weight loss plans can backfire:

  1. Friends will be resistant – Dr. Jon Walz says that when it comes to weight, we usually choose friends in the same range. As you start to change you’ll fall outside your friends’s range, and they will tend to be resistent to this even if unintentionally.
  2. Reporting intentions messes with your drive – Dr. Peter Gollwitzer, a professor of psychology says that goals (like losing weight) require an “indicator of accomplishment” (like praise from a friend). But when you tell someone that you’re going to lose weight, they often give you praise immediately and that short circuits the drive to continue.
  3. Noticing is Better – The other factor is that it is much more powerful for someone makes an unsolicited comment like, “Wow you look great – have you been working out?” than if they followup on a previous conversation saying, “Looks like you really followed through.”

So what do these doctors recommend for weight loss? They say you should not tell anyone until you’ve hit your goal.

Problems with Losing Social Media

When I read this article, it seemed obvious that it could be applied to social media. We’ve all known a guy or gal who announces on twitter or their blog that they are “taking a break” from it all. Inevitably there are lots of comments and feedback, some of it in praise, and perhaps a few negative ones. It seems to fit the pattern of

  1. Friends will be resistant – Since we all know that overuse of media is a problem, very few people will probably be actively resistant. But if you’re really having a problem, announcing that problem using the tool that is contributing to the problem might perpetuate it more than help calm it down. The cynical, “You’ll be back comments,” probably won’t help your general mood about social media either.
  2. Reporting messes with you – Sometimes an online announcement can feel like you’ve actually done something. “I’m so over facebook!” we say, but then don’t follow through because the announcement itself and the subsequent likes and comments can feel like the kind of “indicator of accomplishment” that should happen after we’re finished. From the studies, it seems that the blog post about not blogging short circuits the intent.
  3. Noticing is Better – When someone posts about not posting and then later posts that they met their goal, it’s kind of interesting. But when I actually notice that someone changes their media habits, I’m much more inspired to do the same.
So the bottom line is that if you’re having trouble cutting down on media of any kind (TV, twitter, pinterest, etc.), the best advice might be to set your own goals, commit to them before God, and then don’t tell anyone for a while (especially on those media).
Then, once you’ve hit your target, let us all know!

H+: New Web Show about Posthumanism

I just noticed this preview for Bryan Singer’s new show called H+: The Digital Series which premiers online August 8th. Here’s the synopsis:

A groundbreaking new series by acclaimed producer Bryan Singer, H+: The Digital Series takes viewers on a journey into an apocalyptic future where technology has begun to spiral out of control… a future where the world’s population has retired its cell phones and laptops in favor of stunning new device by Hplus Nano Teoranta, an innovative technology company that has found a way to connect the Internet to the human mind 24 hours a day.

Since I’m kind of nerdy, I actually do love scifi just for scifi’s sake. But I especially love scifi when it explores the meaning of being human. From the trailer, I can’t tell if this show is just for horror/shock value or if it will actually be reflective in any real sense, but here’s hoping!