Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology

Better Off by Eric BrendeBetter Off (2005, Harper Perennial) is probably the most clever title of any technology book I’ve read.

The book is Eric Brende’s retelling of his 18 months living with a lo-tech Mennonite-like community as part of his graduate work in MIT’s STS Program which studies the influence of technology on society. What makes the book so fun is that its not an abstract work full of theories and technical terms, but instead tells a fascinating true story of a family’s attempt to draw closer together by turning off our super connected world. Continue reading Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology

Google CEO on Internet Learning vs. Book Learning

Google CEO Eric Schmidt was on Charlie Rose Friday night (3/6/9) to talk about all things Google and technology. It’s a fascinating discussion (privacy, group learning, etc.), but I just want to point one thing he had  to say about the learning in the information age:

I worry that the level of interrupt, the sort of overwhelming rapidity of information — and especially of stressful information — is in fact affecting cognition. It is in fact affecting deeper thinking. I still believe that sitting down and reading a book is the best way to really learn something. And I worry that we’re losing that. (quote starts: 42:00 )

Continue reading Google CEO on Internet Learning vs. Book Learning

Conference Speaking Fun

I am excited to share that I get to speak at two conferences in the next few months. In the past, the two worlds of which I’ve been a part – web development and academic Christianity – were totally separate. It’s fun (and a bit scary) to see these two worlds come together, and I’m looking forward to interacting with people who have a foot in both worlds.

Also, I know there are a million conferences out there and a constant temptation to try to become famous or important, so if you ever see me thinking too much of myself, feel free to smack me around!

BibleTech:2009 Conference (March)

Technology is Not Neutral: How Bible Technology Shapes Our Faith

bibletech:2009 I’m looking forward to meeting everyone here, since they are all doing ground-breaking work in technologies used for ministry. The creators of Logos Bible Software (which I’ve used for years) is putting on the conference, and I’m looking forward to meeting some of the guys that I’ve only had the chance to email. I hope that talking about the influence of media with the media creators will be extremely fruitful for everyone.

ECHO Conference 2009 (July)

Using Technology without Technology Using You

ECHO conference 2009 logo I attended ECHO last year, and my favorite part was getting to spend time with all the creative folks who want to use their gifting for the Church, including the awesome guys at Collide Magazine. I have noticed church speakers addressing how to use time management techniques such as GTD to control information overload, but this session will be more about understanding technology itself and what it demands of us. We’ll look at how technology has shaped society and the church in the past and put those lessons to work for the future.

Everything’s Amazing, Nobody’s Happy

Comedian Louis CK was on Conan O’Brien recently and did a hilarious job of illustrating what happens after several generations pass and the kinds of problems we see in the world shift:

His observations are a great example of Neil Postman’s idea that Technology Tends to Become Mythic – technology that was once new eventually becomes something we assume has always been around. After it has been around long enough, we often forget the large problem it originally solved and complain about increasingly smaller and smaller “problems.” Sometimes a comedian does a better job communicating than a professor – the medium is the message.

Online Questions for Offline Churches: Is Communion Just A Cracker?

Communion: the bread and the wine Whenever new church models, technologies, and techniques come along there are some who embrace them and some who question them. For me, it has been interesting to see how some of the questions about the “new” are equally valid to ask about the “old.”

In “Online Questions for Offline Churches.” I’ll look at some of the questions raised about recent high tech church models and how they reflect back on the churches who choose not to partake in the new models.

In this post, we’ll jump right into the online communion question which was covered by Newsweek last fall. Continue reading Online Questions for Offline Churches: Is Communion Just A Cracker?

Tools for Tech Thinking: Andy Crouch on Twitter

Culture Making by Andy CrouchIn the last post, we introduced McLuhan’s Four Laws of Media as a tool for understanding how technology affects us.

This time we’ll look at the questions Andy Crouch has developed in his book Culture Making. He suggests that we should distinguish between “cultural artifacts” (rituals or physical things we make) and the culture(s) that develop in and around them. On his website – www.culture-making.com – visitors apply his five questions to a variety of cultural artifacts, and we’ll apply them to Twitter to see what new things we can learn about it.

1. What does Twitter assume about the world?

  • Twitter – like many of today’s technologies – assumes a world that already has a lot of other technologies such as the internet and mobile phones.
  • More importantly, Twitter assumes that lots of people are constantly connected to some kind of internet enabled device, but are physically disconnected from their friends.

2. What does Twitter assume about the way the world should be?

Twitter wants to make the world better by connecting these physically disconnected people. As Twitter puts it on their home page,

Twitter is a service for friends, family, and co–workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?

In other words, Twitter assumes friends should “stay connected” throughout the day and that the vehicle for this should be “quick, frequent” status messages.

3. What does Twitter make possible?

  • Twitter makes it possible to know a lot about what people are thinking and doing without actually being around them. One interesting result is that friends who see each other infrequently can be up to speed about one another’s life when they meet, allowing them to move quickly into deeper conversation.
  • Twitter also makes it possible to send and receive breaking information extremely quickly. Recently, earthquakes in China, forest fires in California, and a plane crash in Denver were first reported on Twitter by those experiencing the event.
  • Twitter users occasionally use their status to ask their follower for quick help with certain kinds of problems (usually technical).
  • Twitter also makes it possible to quickly organize an event or movement of people (see question 5).

4. What does Twitter make impossible (or at least a lot more difficult)?

  • Theoretically, Twitter makes it impossible to be completely disconnected from one’s friends. However, if one were to follow a few hundred people and read every message that came in, Twitter would also make it impossible to do anything else. It would be impossible to do any meaningful activity (at work or in physically present relationships) while stopping to read a short message every few minutes. A quick Google search on “twitter overload” suggests is an all too common phenomenon.
  • Twitter users often find themselves thinking or saying, “I should so twitter about that.” In a way, Twitter makes it difficult to not consider every event as something worth mentioning on the Internet.
  • When a user has Twitter open for several hours and then closes it, it can be difficult not to wonder “What is everyone doing?” or “Did someone @reply me?” Much like the feeling of phantom waves after being in the ocean for a few hours, the waves of Twitter conversation can take time to die down.
  • Twitter also makes it impossible to share any more than 140 characters. Of course, one can still use other tools for more than 140 characters, but this limitation does shape the kinds of communication found on Twitter.

5. What new culture is created in response to Twitter?

Hundreds of new tools and websites (i.e. new “cultural artifacts”) have been created in response to Twitter, some to extend its functionality, others to help with the aforementioned “twitter overload,” and still others that copy its features.

In addition to new artifacts, a new kind of cultural/communal meeting called a Tweetup has been created by Twitter users. A recent example is Train Friday, an event organized in just a few days by Dallas-area Twitter, many of whom had never met in person.

Conclusions

Crouch’s five questions prove to be another useful tool for understanding not just “How can I use a technology?” but “What does it mean to use this technology?” and “How will this technology change me and the world?” Of course, this is not an exhaustive look at twitter or use of Crouch’s ideas, but I hope it gives you a good start.

Tools for Tech Thinking: McLuhan on Twitter

MarshallMcLuhan The first question we usually ask about technology is “How can this technology be used?” However, as stewards of creation the deeper questions that we should first ask are, “What does it mean to use this technology?” and “How will using this technology affect people?”

Thankfully, there are great thinkers out there than can have developed tools we can use to better understand the nature of a technology. In this first installment, we’ll look at Marshall McLuhan’s Four Laws of Media (also called the Tetrad) from his book Laws of Media and apply them to Twitter as an example.

1. What does Twitter extend?

Twitter-256x256 A car extends our feet and ability to travel. A phone extends our voice and ability to communicate.

  • Twitter also extends our voice, but in a very specific way. It  extends our ability stay “in conversation” about our daily activities and thoughts.

2. What does Twitter make obsolete?

On a technology level, the car made riding horses obsolete. On a human level, cars make walking to a destination obsolete.

  • Twitter makes obsolete older tools like a quick Budweiser “Waaas Up?” phone call, a blog post, or an email. On a human level, it can also make obsolete catching up conversations around a water cooler .

3. What does Twitter retrieve?

A few hundred years ago, when people lived in small communities and worked together regularly, everyone knew what everyone was up to. Today’s large cities take this away.

  • Twitter, along with a lot of social technologies, can retrieve this age-old sense of connectedness. For friends who live in different cities or work in distant offices, Twitter can retrieve the sense of knowing what one’s friends are doing and thinking.

image 4. What does Twitter reverse into if it is over-extended?

This is McLuhan’s “negative” question where he gives examples like the ability to project one’s voice is lost if the microphone is overused and the ability to walk long distances is lost when one relies on vehicles.

  • Twitter can connect physically distant individuals, but when overused it can also isolate a person from those who are physically near (like spouses) reversing into a state of more disconnectedness.
  • Twitter can also reverse into a level of shallowness, because communication is limited to 140 characters.
  • Twitter can also reverse into a mess of noise and distraction since so many voices are speaking  at the same time.

Of course, this is not an exhaustive understanding of Twitter (or McLuhan’s thoughts!), but just applying these four questions sheds a lot of light on what Twitter is.

In the comments, feel free to apply McLuhan’s questions to another technology!

There’s an iPhone app for everything, except…

I love pulling out my iPhone – which I got just after my son was born – to show people pictures of my new little son. And I love a lot of the other things it does well like email, music, web browsing, and so on. At the same time, the recent ads for iPhone apps tell a lot about what we as a society think about  our problems and the solutions to those problems.

Here’s how the ad ends,

That’s the iPhone, solving life’s dilemmas, one app at a time.

The iPhone is in fact amazingly good at solving certain kinds of problems, and it does so in really a really fun, slick way.

So What’s Missing?

While there are a lot of cool apps out there, I checked the iTunes store and I couldn’t find a single app that would solve any of the deepest “dilemmas” of human life such as piecing together a shattered marriage, making an ethical business decision, or stopping a bloody conflict between an Arab and Western country.

That doesn’t mean the iPhone is morally useless, but it does mean that the iPhone is limited to only solving certain “problems” and most of those problems are not terribly significant. Yet, the iPhone advertisers would have us believe otherwise by connecting the language of significance (“life’s dilemmas”) to what primarily amounts to consumerism (buying more songs).

Over time, if we’re not careful, we can start redefining what we think of as “problems” and “solutions” on the basis of what is advertised to us. It reminds me of a something Andy Crouch said in his book Culture Making:

The record of technology as science – relieving human beings of specific burdens and disease – is splendid. The record of technology as a metaphor for being human is disastrous…. The biggest cultural mistake we can indulge in is  to yearn for technological “solutions” to our deepest cultural “problems.” – Andy Crouch, Culture Making, p. 60.

What Do We Have to Show for It?

Christians must not forget that we alone have something unique that cannot be bought, sold, packaged, or marketed – and that it is the only thing that can solve the deepest of “life’s dilemmas.”

Certainly medicine, projectors, and air conditioning help with certain human ailments, and they can be used in the mission of the church. But as we use these tools, we must resist the message that holding devices and pressing buttons is what ultimately makes the world a more redeemed, tender, or loving place.

3 Stages of Biblical Technology

A few years ago, I noticed that the way I think about and interact with the Bible changed. It started when, as a youth pastor, I purchased a Pocket PC with Bible software on it so I could always search and find verses if students asked me a question.

It turns out junior highers don’t really ask seminary question, but later I found that there have been three major stages of Bible technologies, and I was swimming in the third.

1. The Oral Bible: Context

Public Reading of Scripture From the time Moses starting writing Scripture in 1500 B.C., Scripture was most often heard, not read. Every Sabbath, the Scriptures would be read aloud in the gathering of faith.

There were no chapter or verse divisions, believers simply memorized what they heard and referred to Scripture by author (e.g., Acts 2:16-17; Acts 2:25). When a short passages was quoted, the minds of the hearers would think of the surrounding context since they had heard it read many times.

Today, we have the same experience when we refer to famous speeches we’ve heard. When we say, “Martin Luther King, Jr. said, ‘I have a dream,’” we don’t have a chapter or verse number, but we all know the context of the words in history and their significance.

2. The Print Bible: Precision

bible-verses The advent of the printed Bible allowed much greater access to the Scriptures for individual believers. However, it also changed the way people interacted with the Bible because print enables totally new uses of language.

First, a person can have a “quiet time” of personal Bible study apart from a community, and second a reader can skip around and find passages rather than waiting for it to be read. To facilitate this skipping around, chapter and verse divisions were added so that readers could quickly and precisely find passages.

One of the results of this precision was that many believers only know and memorize individual verses instead of passages in context, occasionally missing the actual meaning of the passage. Consider Habakkuk 1:5 -  it sounds wonderful in isolation, but horrific in context. The modern equivalent of isolating verses would be if we said something like, “People have important dreams (King, Jr. 5:12)”.

3. The Digital Bible: Search

Bible Search, funny, eh?The digitized Bible now brings another new way of looking at the Bible. We can find read multiple versions in parallel, look up Greek and Hebrew definitions, cross references, and commentaries with great ease.

But again, as with print there are some downsides to this kind of “searching the Scriptures.” For example, I know that Abraham grew up in a pagan family, but I can’t seem to remember the reference for this. What I do remember is that I can search for “Abraham and father” to find that Abraham’s dad’s name was “Terah” (Gen 11:27), then search for “Terah” to find Joshua 24:2. My mind won’t seem to let me memorize it, probably because I always have a computer around, and I already know what to search for to find it.

Referring to Martin Luther King, Jr. again, we might find ourselves saying silly things like, “I wanted to find out about dreams, so I searched and found all these great quotes like King, Jr. 5:12 which says, ‘I have a dream.’”

Some Recommendations

The printed Bible and the digital Bible are amazing testaments to human ingenuity, and I am 100% glad we have them. However, we would still do well to recognize that these technologies influence us, and sometimes we need to work against their influence to be better Christians. Here are two simple suggestions:

  • Rather than always reading our printed Bible in isolation, we should read the Scripture aloud in context and in groups.
  • If we notice ourselves searching for the same passages multiple times, we should engage in the ancient discipline of memorization.

Book Review: Flickering Pixels by Shane Hipps

41yEyZdvAjL._SL500_AA240_ Bottom Line

Shane Hipps’ Flickering Pixels is a well-written, thought-provoking look at how technology can shape us and our faith. If you are at all interested in technology and ministry, this book is a must read. It goes down easy, but packs a punch!

About the Author and the Book

Shane Hipps is a pastor of a Mennonite church in Arizona, but he began his professional career in the advertising world, working for high profile clients such as Porsche. He spent years studying  how to use media and technology to convince them the needed to buy certain products to be fulfilled or significant. This experience along with studying Marshall McLuhan’s media theory gives him unique insight into the ways media influences people and their faith.

Hipps’ first book The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture covered much the same material but was address to church leaders. With Flickering Pixels, Hipps has reworked and added to that material, purposing it for a more general audience. The chapters are fun and easy to read, longer than a blog post without being heavy or academic.

The Message of the Book

The main aim of Flickering Pixels is to dispel the commonly held myth that “the methods change, but the message is the same.” Instead, Hipps uses McLuhan’s idea that “The medium is the message” to show how various mediums have shaped what the Church believes and values. He walks through the progression of culture from oral to print to visual to digital and shows how each new technology shifted our beliefs. For example, the medium of print lends itself toward rational, logical, and linear thinking which leads to an understanding of the gospel in the categories of systematic theology and “Four Laws.” The recent shift toward a more visual culture brought on by photographs and televisions has seen a renewed emphasis on the gospel as story and a devaluing of systematic thinking.

In the later part of the book, Hipps discusses God’s usage of various media to communicate to his people, using the burning bush to communicate holiness, an ass to show Balaam his asinine actions, and ultimately his Son, Jesus Christ to communicate his deep love for humanity. Hipps then argues that the Body of Christ, the Church is God’s current medium and that how we communicate and act is as important as what we communicate. Rather than exist as individualistic flickering pixels, Hipps wants us to deeply connect to one another in faith communities, forming a beaming “city on a hill” that clearly communicates the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Moving Forward

Hipps’ aim in the book is not to classify technology as good or bad, but to give the Church tools to understand it. He says, “we are only puppets of our technology if we remain asleep; Flickering Pixels will wake us up” and help ensure that we use technology instead of technology using us.

The main critique I would offer is that I wish Hipps would have spent more time on the Internet and the technologies it has spawned. He mentions email, facebook, and mobile phones briefly, but does not delve as deeply into their significance as I might have hoped. Perhaps this is because the Internet is too young for anyone to fully understand, but it may also betray that Hipps himself has not delved very far into Internet usage and that McLuhan’s insights only go so far. Hopefully, then, this book will enable the next generation to more thoroughly evaluate the Internet as a medium in order to know how the Church can best use it without being used by it.

So now, go, buy Flickering Pixels, and discuss it with your kids, your friends, and your small group. (You need this book!)