Hierarchy of Innovation: Why Some Technologies Are More Important Than Others

Nicholas Carr, author of the famous Is Google Making Us Stupid essay and the book The Shallows, created a chart reminiscent of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs about technological innovation.

His point is to critique things like the sale of Instagram for 1 billion dollars at a point when Instagram still didn’t make any money or contribute to the lower categories of survival, social organization, prosperity, or even leisure.

If I were to offer a critique of this chart it might be that “self-expression” can be difficult to distinguish from true art. An artist needs tools – paint, brushes, canvas, camera, clay, kiln, etc. – to offer a work of beauty to the world, but I’m not sure where those tools go in this chart.

And yet, Carr’s critique is still powerful in that it does seem as though much of what we think of as “technology” today fits into that top category, and while there is certainly much art happening on Instagram, Tumbler, and the rest, it does seem terribly self-directed and self-focused. Our theology of the “flesh” (our self-directedness) also seems to support the idea that we will gravitate towards technologies that help us make that inward turn.

In any case, I’ll certainly have this chart in the back of my mind next time I think about a technology I “need.”


Is the Kingdom of God present in a Blue Screen of Death?

What you see above is the new Windows 8 “Blue Screen of Death” (properly known as a “Stop Error”) that users will see when their tablet, laptop, or desktop crashes for some reason. Macs and Linux machines have their own equivalent Kernel Panic screens as do just about every device and program on the market.

The universal response to these messages is massive frustration, fingernail-biting angst, deep regret over not saving, and so on.

Glimpses of the Kingdom

My church is currently teaching through the Gospel of Mark on Sundays, and I’m continually struck by the fact that “the Kingdom of God” seems to have its best chance of visibly inbreaking into this world when people are vulnerable.

Sometimes the people are helpless victims of disease (Mark 3:1-6) or demons (Mark 5:1-20) whom Jesus chooses to help based on his own inclination or the request of others. But sometimes the victims choose to be vulnerable like Jairus (Mark 5:21-43) who seems to risk his reputation to seek Jesus’s help, and the woman sandwiched in the same pericope who risks discovery of her uncleanness.

Either way, they are nail-biting, angst-inducing situations. But it seems that when someone chooses to reframe a their physical situation as something they can bring before God, God’s future kingdom breaks in, people are healed, and God is glorified.

Reframing Our Situations

This leads me to think that when we have technology breakdowns, we can choose to see them as frustrations or as opportunities for glimpses of God’s kingdom.

The malfunctioning device in front of can be seen as simply something that needs fixing or a tiny fissure in the grand illusion that says all we need is better devices and everything will be okay. The next time you see a BSOD or error message, stop just long enough to see the break in the universe, then tug at it for just a bit, and perhaps you’ll get a glimpse of what God is doing in the world through his Son and by his Spirit.

For now, I’ll leave you with this ridiculous version of the Mac “Spinning Beachball of Death

What Scifi Can Teach Us about Technology and Humanity [VIDEO]

This week, I came across two videos that portray our technological future in pretty dark, but really interesting tones. Both play with the idea of “progress” and ask questions about what will happen if we go “forward” or “backward.”

Revolution: A New J.J. Abrams Show

I love just about everything J.J. Abrams does, so I’m excited to see him again playing with the themes of technology and humanity. This kind of retro-tech scenario has been done before in scifi, but it usually comes as a consequence of some other plot device (time travel, apocalypse, etc.) instead of being the focus of the show.

And how does J.J. Abrams propose we fight our anti-technology overlords?

With swords and DOS, obviously.

I’m so in.

Welcome to Life: the Singularity has Occurred

While Abrams sees negative consequences coming from going our inevitable slide backward with technology, this video humorously reminds us that even futuristic things we wish for (technology that can save us from death) can be ruined by our nacent humanity (or lawyers).

The Value of Scifi

Neither of these are terribly “hard” scifi, but they represent something that I appreciate about all scifi, and that is that it asks questions about what it means to be human in this age by looking at how people reaction to an altered set of circumstances.

Scifi seems to teach that whether technology goes “backward” (in J.J.’s vision) or “forward” (toward the singularity), our humanity is still essentially in tact retaining all its ugliness and all of its beauty.

From Gene Roddenberry to Kurt Vonnegut to Madeleine L’Engle to J.J. Abrams, no author seems able to escape the image of God or the stain of sin. If that tenant is correct – that humanity is essentially the same in every technological age – I think it means that a Christian conception of technology must talk as much about human nature as it does about our tools.

1. Asking Better Questions

Scifi teaches us that we shouldn’t simply ask, “What is this technology doing to us?” but also, “What is this technology drawing out of us?” Instead of blaming technology for creating something negative, we should think of technology in terms of what it highlights that is already there.

And this is where a distinctly Christian view of humanity and our tools should make a major difference. We have biblical terminology like spirit and flesh which, if used correctly, should be more helpful than what a purely secular view of ourselves can provide.

Roddenberry’s Star Trek wanted to be utopian, but couldn’t avoid conflict.  Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men wanted to be distopic, but can’t avoid beauty. Why is that? I think only a Christian conception of humanity can answer adequately.

2. Creating Our Own Fictions

I also think scifi shows the importance of changing things up in our own lives to help us see things to which we might be blind. This involves doing “technology experiments” like using a different technology to see how it works (I switched from PC to Mac last year to better understand both cultures), using an older technology in a radically different way (using a beeper for prayer), or even “fasting” from certain technology altogether (for short times or long periods).

Doing these kinds of experiments is to, in effect, create our own “fiction,” to rewrite the story that’s been handed to us, and then learn from it something we cannot know but by experience or stories.

As for me, I’m gonna go get my katana out.

Project Glass: Will Google’s Augmented Reality Glasses Finally Make Technology Fade Into the Background?

Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Problem

Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle says you can’t measure something without altering it.

Last night, I had dinner with dear friends and in those sweet moments when the kids did something cute, we stopped, got out our phones, launched the camera apps, waited a second, and tried to snap the perfect pic. Then there was emailing, Instagraming, and the rest.

Wouldn’t it be nice if such things happened in the background without altering the event itself? I tell my fridge, “Make this cold” and it just works. Can’t I just tell something, “Capture this moment” without it getting in the way?

Google’s Solution: Project Glass

This morning, Google released a product concept video demo of “Project Glass” which are a pair of glasses that can tell its wearer about the weather, schedule meetings, snap photos, and handle voice and video chat.

It’s all very cool stuff and, other than the unsightliness of wearing such glasses, I’d love to give them a try. As long as it had an API that would allow me to add a Greek Bible concordance, I’d be on board in a second.

Technology in the background or the forefront?

I’m sure there are all kinds of horrible and distracting things that one could do with such glasses, but for a moment I’m more interested in whether Google’s project is a possible answer to making everyday modern technology fade into the background. Will it allow the functions of today’s smartphones to finally reach the last step of Chris Ridgeway‘s the Toy → Tool → Environment progression?

Would such a device allow you to do modern tasks like getting driving directions, checking the weather, videoing the kids, and making meeting requests in a way that’s as simple and thoughtless as putting milk in the fridge, or are these tasks fundamentally more complex than “milk in the fridge” such that they will always intrude somewhat into whatever’s happening?

Imagine that the glasses were not so hideous and could be installed as a contact lens. Would that make these tasks fade into the background of life or would their immediate constant presence make them play an even more prominent role? Would the glasses make technology fade into the background or would the technology make reality fade into the background?


Of course, time will tell, and things never quite result in the either/or scenarios I’ve presented above. These things are tough to predict, because it always takes a bit of time before individuals and society as as whole have adjusted to the new ways of living technology introduces.

If I were to buy one, I’d probably start by turning everything on (RSS, email, etc.). After a few days of overload and beginning to freak out a little, I’d probably starting turning most of the features off. Then over time, my mind would begin to adjust adapting itself to the glasses and the information they present, allowing me to slowly re-add features.

And then, only after using it for a some time would I be able to articulate exactly how I and the tool have adapted to one another. I would have to be honest and say that I literally look at things differently than before, but then I would do my best to create disciplined strategies for handling the overload.

In the end, I’d probably conclude that as cool as these gadgets are, some things, in truth many things, are best experienced “glasses off.”

Update: Of course, this might happen too:

Facebook on Narcissism: “You Should Distinguish Friends from Acquaintances”

Facebook’s Problem

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio painting of Narcissus with a minor edit

Researchers at Western Illinois University recently published study in the the journal Personality and Individual Differences that shows a direct link between people who have “socially disruptive narcissism” and those who “had more friends on Facebook, tagged themselves more often, and updated their newsfeeds more regularly.”

Social networking has long been linked with narcism, but smart researchers are careful to point out that the research doesn’t prove that Facebook causes narcissism. However, they do say that Facebook provides a powerful platform for feeding the beast of toxic self-focused behavior.

Facebook’s Response

Though not directly linked to the research mentioned above, Facebook has rolled out a feature that lets you distinguish people with whom you regularly interact (i.e. “Friends” in the pre-Facebook meaning) and those you only know casually which Facebook calls “Acquaintances.” (Check out your suggested Aquaintances)

For the past several years, Facebook has tried introducing various features to help you filter large lists of friends. For some time now, Facebook has allows people to create custom lists of “Close Friends” and only receive update from those people and they also allow you to be friends with someone but manually unsubscribe from their updates. But it seems that most people don’t want to spend their time clicking buttons and curating lists (which is one of the reasons Google+ Circles haven’t really caught on).

So Facebook’s new solution is not to create an inclusive list, but to suggest people that you can filter out. By moving someone to the “Acquaintances” list, you’ll see less of them and hopefully be more connected to people to whom you have a deeper connection. It might not prevent narcissist tendencies, but it may help focus your online interaction.

A Lesson in Philosophy of Technology

When people talk about technology, they often fall into two camps. The first, which I call “instrumentalists,” believe that technology is purely neutral and has no effect on people. As long as you use it for good, then you’re good. At the opposite end of the spectrum are “determinists” who say that technology is such a powerful force that it completely shapes society and culture in its image which is mostly negative.

The study above disproves the first theory, and Facebook’s response disproves the second. The researches show that technology like Facebook is not in fact neutral, but Facebook’s response shows that technology often bends to the will of the people, adapting to their needs over time. Many have wondered if Facebook was redefining our understanding of the term “Friend,” but it appears that Facebook is now adapting to the ways peoples think about “friends” and “acquaintances” in real life.  In academic terms this middle ground is sometimes called “Social Shaping of Technology.” (see Dave Stearns’s excellent discussion of these various positions).

The Takeaway?

Rather than fall to either of the above extremes, I think that the careful, thinking Christian should will end up somewhere in the middle on Facebook. On the one hand we should come away with a healthy fear of social networking’s power to entice us toward the sin of self-focused narcissism. If Facebook recognizes the problem of too many friends, shouldn’t we also acknowledge it?

But at the same time, it doesn’t do any good to run in fear every time something new comes along believing it will unswervingly corrupt all who use it. We will undoubtedly adapt to it, and it will adapt to us. In the mean time, let’s keep having good-natured discussions about the pros, cons, and unseen effects technology can have, so that we can find safe, helpful ways to use it well.

But please, please, don’t make me just an “Acquaintance.”

Update from Dave Stearns

Dr. Stearns wrote with some additional categories that I think are really helpful:

I think Sherry Turkle’s categories of Affordances and Vulnerabilities are really helpful when thinking about Facebook’s tendency to reinforce narcissism. Facebook is to the narcissist as a Las Vegas casino is to the compulsive gambler. The casino is probably more purposely designed to deceive and ensnare than Facebook is, but some people can walk through those casinos without the least desire to gamble; others play a bit, have fun, and leave; and others quickly get drawn into addictive behavior. It’s when those affordances intersect with a person’s vulnerabilities that trouble really ensues.

Internet Evangelism … in Turkey?

Hagia Sofia
Hagia Sophia, dedicated as a Christian church in 360, converted to a Mosque in 1453, secularized in 1931

Last week, I had the privilege of spending a few days in Istanbul, Turkey talking to pastors about technology, faith, and evangelism. There were only about 70 people in attendance, but since Turkey around 4,000 believers those men and women represented an fairly sizable portion of the country’s Christian leadership.

The Exception to the Rule

In discussions about technology and faith, we often address the legitimate worry that when people spend too much time online they risk becoming too anonymous and too disconnected from “real life.” We’ve all known people addicted to technology who have trouble unplugging and connecting in person. But in Turkey this anonymity allows Muslims who are curious about Jesus and Christianity to explore it safely.

Unlike countries like Iran, it’s legal in Turkey to be a Christian, to have a church, and to preach the gospel on the street. However, it is still socially dangerous to hang around a church or carry a Bible, so websites, facebook, and chat rooms provide a safe space for Turks to find out more about Jesus.

From Technology to the Table

The men and women I met at the Turkey Internet Evangelism Network (TIEN) use every conceivable technological means to connect with their Turkish neighbors and help them find out more about Jesus. Some have large Facebook followings, some work in the bowels of IRC and other chat rooms, some have YouTube channels full of testimonies, some buy ads on Google directing people to evangelistic websites, others have followup “courses” for people they met on the street.

The amazing thing is that they are all working to draw Turks along a path from an anonymous seeker to a faithful follower of Christ connected to a local church body. On the final day of the conference, we met some people who had come to faith in a chat room and then asked, “What’s next?” They were immediately connected to a local church which happened to be the one hosting the conference.

I loved seeing how these Turkish Christian leaders were intentionally using technology not just for conversion, but for the table (i.e. Christian community). The missionaries, programmers, and pastors all seemed to work together amazingly well, drawing Turks deeper into the body of Christ. They are a powerful example of God using any an all means to draw people to himself.

More about Internet Evangelism

If you’d like to know more about Internet Evangelism and how you can be involved, you could check out the twitter feed from the event (#TIEN2012) or take a look at some of the English websites like http://www.webevangelism.com/ and http://www.internetevangelismday.com/ which help coordinate

The Top 5 Technologies that Will Shape the Church in 2012

It’s another new year, one that is sure to be full of predictions about Mayans, American presidents, and technology. Below are the technologies that I think will be the most powerful shapers of Christian spirituality in the next 360 or so days (inspired in part by Wired’s The Best Five Toys of All Time)

1. The Clock

This morning when you woke up, what was the first thing you did? Brush your teeth? Make coffee? Read the Bible? Kiss your spouse?

I can almost guarantee it wasn’t any of those things. No, the first thing we do when we wake up (and the last thing we do before falling back asleep) is read the glowing numbers on a nearby digital clock. Every decision we make, no matter how insignificant or world changing, is shaped by what those numbers tell us. Do I have time to get a coffee on my way to work? Do we have time for communion during this Sunday’s worship service? How many pages of my devotional do I have time to read? How long before I can give my baby another dose of her medicine?

Lewis Mumford and others have pointed out that is was 12th century monks who invented accurate clocks with the hope of standardizing times of prayer. Clocks went on to make accurate ship navigation a reality, and they are what makes the entire internet function. But because they are everywhere, they are invisible, and because they are invisible, we rarely reflect on how they structure the way we see the world and what we can do in it.

2. Microphones

Video extension sites and Internet campuses get all the attention these days, but it was the microphone that changed the way we think about Sunday morning and the ministry of the church. Nothing (besides the car) has shaped twentieth century evangelicalism more than the ability to project our voices to ever-larger audiences.

With the ability to reach larger audiences, comes larger congregations, and with larger congregations comes the need to divide them into groups. Those divisions create youth groups, women’s groups, child care, and legacy builders, and so on. And with those groups comes the need for specialized pastors to meet each of their needs.

Large, microphone-powered churches are able to meet needs small ones can’t, but at the same time, by extending the reach of the pulpit, the microphone has also dwarfed the importance of the altar.  With no counterbalancing technology to increase the altar’s profile, communion tends to be an after thought behind the technologically-enhanced activities of singing and preaching.

 3. Verse Numbers

There’s a Bible for every platform – PCs, Macs, Android, iPhone, iPad, even Windows Phone and BlackBerry have cool Bible software with powerful search abilities.

But long before the Bible went digital, it was chopped up into tweet-sized pieces called “verses.” From the time Moses started writing (let’s say 1500 B.C.) to the time those verse numbers were added and standardized (in the 1600s), not a single Christian on earth knew what a “verse” or a “chapter” was.  If one of those ancient believers saw a John 3:16 poster, they’d be as confused as the people Googling Tim Tebow today. They didn’t have favorite verses or life verses – they simply had the non-technologically enhanced Words of God which were usually read to them out loud.

Today verse numbers make all kinds of cool things possible. I’m currently writing some Bible software that relies on chapter:verse numbers heavily, and I’m so glad they exist. But sometimes I prefer to read a Bible that has the chapter/verse layer removed (like what you can buy at http://booksofthebible.info and maybe even the new ESV single column).

 4. Personal Electronic Publishing

Media ecologists like to say that there has been a movement in communication from oral to literate to print to digital. The (vastly simplified) story goes that information access increases in each age, and one of the results of this change in access is the disruption of authority structures. In an oral culture, the leader is naturally the oldest person who has accumulated the most information and wisdom. In a literate culture, the leaders are those with money for books and education. In the shift from written texts to printed texts, single leaders like Popes and kings lost their power to protestants and democracies.

In the shift from print to digital, there has been a kind of inversion. In the early days of the Internet, it’s primary significance was increased access to information. But today I think the “big deal” about the Internet is that it gives everyone the ability to publish. We have blogs, twitter, facebook, and more that we can use to share our unfiltered opinions about everything and everyone. There are wonderful things like my friend Rick Smith who, in the short span of a year, has become a major advocate for Down Syndrome and his son Noah. At the same time, people like Rob Bell and Mike Licona were to varying degrees affected by not just what big name writers said in print, but what we collectively as Christians on the Internet said and did through our personal online publishing outlets.

There was a day when publishing something meant it was important, permanent, and had been through a level of editorial scrutiny. But increasingly, we don’t see a great deal of difference between sharing our opinions on facebook and sharing them with friends at a coffeeshop. These are fluid “places” to us. Yet the shift to publicly sharing those thoughts has profound implications for how we value our opinions and those of others.

5. Mobile Devices


I’ve always wanted to try audiobooks, but it wasn’t until I got the Audible app on my iPhone that I really fell in love with them. I also track my runs with RunKeeper, take great photos of my kids, and do all the other cool stuff we love about our smartphones.

And yet, when I take my kids to a park or the church playground, it seems as though 90% of the parents are on their phones most of the time. I, too, sometimes find the pull irresistible. Even when I check the time (another clock!) on the phone, I feel an urge to see if I have any email. Phones have also become more acceptable in church services. A few years ago I noticed one or two people reading the Bible on their PDAs or smartphones, but now it seems like 1 in 6 have them. With that increased acceptance, though, I’ve noticed more and more people doing things other than reading the Bible on their phones.

Of course, people have always had ways to tune out the sermon, doodling on the prayer request card or fiddling with the empty seat in front of us, yet it seems the powerful draw that comes from the phone is something new that we’ll all have to deal with honestly. It will require discipline, accountability, and openness to gain its benefits without being pulled into it’s value system of always on, always engaged.


What other technologies do you see shaping and influencing your and your church’s behaviors in the coming year?