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.

Blogs vs. Classics: The New Experience of Language

In order to get a handle on just how many words I see every day, I analyzed two of my favorite tech blogs and compared them to a few classics.

The Statistics

Awesome Blogs Words per Year
TechCrunch* 1,881,152
Engadget* 1,218,609

Classic Books Total Words
Homer – Iliad 168,599
Plato – Apology 11,472
Aristotle – Ethics 85,103
Old Testament 593,493
New Testament 181,253
Augustine – Confessions 137,505
Shakespeare – Hamlet 30,066
Melville – Moby Dick 210,997
Dostoevsky – Brothers Karamazov 349,272
Faulkner – The Sound and the Fury 96,709
Total 1,864,469

* These stats are estimates based on number of posts per week reported by Google Reader and an average number of words from the last 10 posts.

Dropping TechCrunch = Literary Scholar?

These numbers suggest that if I dropped just one blog, TechCrunch (I love you Mike!), I could conceivably use the leftover time to read all of the above classics in just one year. At 250 words/minute, it would take only 20 minutes a day.

And people say they don’t have time to read the classics.

What It Really Means about Our Experience of Language

In reality, this comparison isn’t apples to apples. I don’t read TechCrunch, I just scan it. I look at the titles and pictures, and only read the posts that relate to my field. But because I do this hundreds of times per day on several blogs and news sites, it says more about my experience of language than my chances of becoming an epic scholar. Here are some observations:

  1. We are exposed to an staggering number of words every day. Just scanning these two blogs adds up to 3 million words in a year. That’s not counting comments, advertisements, or the links out to other sites.
  2. We are see numerous fragments, but few complete thoughts – TechCrunch uses it’s 1.8 million words for 6,000 short, decontextualized posts. Compare that to 1.8 million words in 10 classic works each comprising major themes.
  3. We consume facts, but few ideasTechCrunch is a must read for the web startup world, but it is mostly just data. It doesn’t develop a person morally or discuss what ought to be, it only tells us what is.

This doesn’t mean TechCrunch is bad or even useless, but it does mean that our most common experience of words is a form of empty consumption rather than deep soul formation. It’s rather like choosing to eat a dozen 99 cent McDonald’s burgers instead of a slowly marinated, costly steak.

If you looked at your word consumption, what would you find?

Kid’s Opinions about Hyper-Connectivity

The Low-Tech Times, a fun Neo-Luddite blog on technology, linked to a blog post by Mr. Patty, an Ohio schoolteacher, who asked his students what they thought about the hyper-connectivity of today’s technology. His theory is that many technologies isolate us (texting, emailing, etc.) but that hyper-connectivity tools (twitter in particular) work to bring us back together and feel more connected. At the same time, they can make us into “connectivity addicts.” It’s certainly interesting to see a teacher talk about trade-offs with technology using a blog!

Selected Responses from Students

One positive aspect about being “hyperconnected” is you always can contact a person and know what they are up to. This allows you to keep tabs on all your friends and arrange plans much faster. … One negative factor about being “hyperconnected” is people are constantly on their phones, (me being one of them) and they don’t pay as much attention to the world around them.

There are so many awesome things about being hyper-connected!!! I mean when your bored and there’s nothing to do you can always just text or e-mail someone and have lots of fun. I mean you can’t hold on ten conversations on a phone, but you can hold up ten conversations in text message easy!! It’s a wonderful way to stay connected to old friends; I mean the only time I even talk to my childhood friend is on Myspace. I think its okay as long as it doesn’t get weirdly overboard … There are some down sides; people loose their lives doing this. I mean if you’re to the point where you don’t even go anywhere anymore than you have a problem. Or if you’ve gained ten pounds because all you do is lay around on the computer that’s bad…real bad. People still need to go outside, play some sports, and have contact with the outside world. That’s my opinion!!

The only problem with it is the fact that soon, if not already, we will become too reliant on technology.

Would You Do This in Church?

It’s interesting to see that kids who never experienced the world before hyper-connectivity are still able to see that there are pros and cons to these technologies. I hope Mr. Patty’s thoughtful exercise will not be the last, and that churches (youth groups, in particular) would also engage in this kind of thinking. If so, we might be able to prevent those cases where instead of us using technology, technology is using us.

The Secret Behind the Switches

Yesterday, the technology news world was buzzing about Harvard physicist Alex Wissner-Gross’ suggestion that a single search on Google makes a major environmental impact. He calculates that a search generates 7g of CO2 while boiling water for a cup of tea generates 15g of CO2. Here’s some of the coverage, some of it agreeing with Wissner-Gross and some of it calling him “hot air.”

Whether or not Wissner-Gross is correct, his suggestion reveals a major truth about our technological world: we have no idea how it all works or what’s on the other side our switches, buttons, and screens. For example, when we use Google (or any web tool), we are unaware of the tens of thousands of crawling, storing, caching, and processing servers each demanding enormous amounts of energy. These unknowns make the moral and ethical decisions about how and when to use technology more difficult.

In recent years, we have become aware of the the need to be careful in our consumption of oil, gas, and even food. Perhaps, we should also be more careful with our online activities, so that we waste neither time nor the physical resources God has entrusted to us.

Incarnation and the Technology of Virtual Worlds

Christmas-2008-webcam

This Christmas was special for our family as we celebrated not only the birth of our Lord, but the birth of our first child. Unfortunately my entire family couldn’t be together, because my sister was visiting my brother in Hawaii. So we hooked up webcams and, when the time zones aligned, we watched each other open gifts from 4,000 miles away. There were some technical hiccups, but it was fun and much better than not seeing one another at all.

This combination of new life and new technology brought to mind the wonder of Incarnation and its relation to technology, specifically the technology of virtual worlds (facebook, twitter, tokbox, etc.) that we now regularly inhabit.

As those who bear the imago dei, our acts of creation reflect God’s acts of creation. God created the physical world from nothing, and we create technological and virtual worlds from what he has made. It seems then that there is a relationship between Christ taking on his physical creation in the Incarnation and the Church taking on our technological creations.

Christ entered into the physical world he created, and
we should enter into the virtual worlds we’ve created.

In the past few years, the term “incarnational ministry” has been used to describe ministry which goes into the cultural worlds people inhabit just as Christ came into our world to redeem us. Wearing an Abayah to reach an Arab culture, learning a child’s interests, or holding outdoor church services for the homeless are examples of incarnational ministry. Paul also gives us an example of incarnational ministry with policy of being a Jews to the Jews and a Gentile to the Gentiles.

Just as the Incarnation can be applied to entering into cultural worlds, it can also be applied to entering into virtual worlds. For those who already spend a significant amount of time online, this will often be more like “relational evangelism” where we simply share the love of Christ with those around us (my friend Rick Smith does this particularly well). Others may create entire ministries with the goal of reaching people online (another friend Tim Kimberley does this well at helives.com where he counsels 1000s of teens). In both cases, the idea is to reach people where they are and bring them into relationship with the Father.

Christ affirmed the importance of the physical world, and
we should affirm the importance of the physical world.

Although it seems clear that we should work to reach people who are online, the permanence of the Incarnation teaches us another important lesson about virtual worlds.

At the Incarnation, the Son of God became fully divine and fully human for all eternity. When he returns one day to build a new earth, he will still be a physical human being, albeit with a glorified body. Sometimes, the afterlife is pictured as a place in the sky with disembodied souls playing harps, but that’s not the biblical portrait. The final destiny of humanity is not a purely spiritual heaven, but a physical earth free from the destructive effects of sin with Christ walking among us.

Since the telos (goal, purpose, destination) of Christ’s work is the physical world created through him, I believe the end point of our ministry should also be the physical world. After all, incarnation literally means “embodied in flesh.” This is not to say that very deep levels of community don’t happen in the virtual world or that the virtual worlds cannot enhance or contribute to relationships, but to affirm with John that face-to-face reality is the “fullness of joy,” the final destination.

There is of course no clear cut way of defining exactly how and when to make this happen, but I do believe that some practical steps can be taken. If I spend a significant amount of time communicating with someone online, I like to meet them in person if possible [Rhett Smith has also made this a goal]. I also encourage people I meet online to attend a local church or community of believers whenever possible. There are certainly exceptional circumstances when physical presence it not possible, such as Paul’s inability to come to Rome but we should still “long to see” one another just as Paul longed to see the Romans.

So, if the Lord tarries until then, I hope next Christmas I can see my family face-to-face.