Four Questions for Technology from the Biblical Story

A few months ago, in a post called From the Garden to the City, I briefly mentioned four aspects of technology that show up in the redemptive narrative of Scripture, and I’ve presented it at a few conferences. Drew Goodmanson recently asked if anyone had something like it, so I’m pulling a section from my book manuscript and putting it together as blog post.

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McLuhan’s Tetrad of Media

After Marshall McLuhan died, his son Eric published Laws of Media: the New Science which contains what is now called the Tetrad of Media or the Four Laws of Media. McLuhan believed that when a new medium is introduced into an environment, it has four simultaneous effects: Enhancement, Obsolescence, Retrieval, and Reversal. We’ll use the mobile phone as an example:

  • EnhancementWhat natural function or older medium does the new medium amplify or intensify?
    The mobile phone amplifies the human voice and our ability to communicate. It also extends the range of older land lines.
  • Obsolescence: What natural function or older medium does the new medium drive out of prominence?The mobile phone makes land lines less important, but also other less instantaneous forms of communication like letter writing.
  • Retrieval: What the older medium or practices are recovered by the new medium?
    The mobile phone restores oral communication for those separated by physical distances who used to only be able to communicate via letters.
  • Reversal: What happens when the medium is overused or pushed to its limits?
    When overused, the mobile phone disconnects and isolates people. Users can also annoy those around them and no be truly present with those in their midst.

For more examples, see these previous posts: McLuhan’s Four Laws on Twitter and Crouch’s Five Questions on Twitter.

[Dyer’s] Tetrad of Technology in the Biblical Story

I would like to suggest a similar tetrad that addresses spiritual considerations with technology. It conveniently maps to the overarching biblical narrative of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. Like a good DTS graduate, I’ve turned them into four ‘R’s. Continue reading Four Questions for Technology from the Biblical Story

Testing Out Four Philosophies of Technology on Twitter

Andrew Feenberg + Twitter

In the philosophy of technology world, there are quite a few theories and descriptions of technology. In an attempt to simply (and most likely butcher) the dozens of highly nuanced views, I want to use philosopher Andrew Feenberg‘s two helpful questions that categorize four of the major views and then test them with Twitter.  Again, this is a vast over-simplification, but I hope it will shed some light on the important – but often rather obscure – discussions happening among the big thinkers. Continue reading Testing Out Four Philosophies of Technology on Twitter

Should Sunday Morning Be ‘Hot’ or ‘Cool’?

"Hot" Church

Who’s Watching the Watchmen?

This spring, the movie version of Alan Moore’s critically acclaimed 1986 graphic novel Watchmen was released. In the world of comic nerdom, there were outcries that the change of medium from comic to film was an unholy and sacreligious travesty.

The reason for the uproar was that the one of the most compelling parts of the Watchmen comic was its extremely complicated presenation and plot. It takes several reads to figure out what’s happening and to decipher how the comic’s structure relates to its message. In contrast, the recently released cinematic version is filled with 162 minutes of gory action and special effects, perfect for passively watching with a $10 tub of popcorn.

Comics Are Cool; Movies Are Hot

Though Watchmen junkies might be little extreme in their complaints, the difference between movies and comics is a classic illustration of what Marshall McLuhan called “hot”and  “cool” mediums, a distinction which classifies how much participation is required from a person to engage the medium. A comic is “cool” because it requires a reader fill in the sounds, smells, and details of what happens between the panes. In contrast, a film is “hot” because it completely envelopes a moviegoer’s senses and requires almost no participation or thought to grasp what’s happening. Continue reading Should Sunday Morning Be ‘Hot’ or ‘Cool’?

BibleTech:2009 – Technology is Not Neutral: How Bible Technology Shapes Our Faith

The fine folks at Logos have posted the audio and slides of the BibleTech:2009 conference talks. Here is my presentation slides synced with the audio using slideshare.net. (note: the title is a nod to Shane Hipps’ book Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith)

Technology is Not Neutral: How Bible Technology Shapes Our Faith

Continue reading BibleTech:2009 – Technology is Not Neutral: How Bible Technology Shapes Our Faith

TwitterVoice3D: Creativity, Chaos, and Order in the Online World

A few weeks ago, I decided that rather than write words about a technology, I would write code using technology that would hopefully communicate in a way words cannot.

Twitter Voice 3D

TwitterVoice3D is an Adobe AIR app that shows all your friends’ tweets randomly strewn over a 3D world and reads the tweets to you using text-to-speech (it was built with Flash and Papervision3D)

Here is a screenshot and a video (sorry for the poor audio quality)

twittervoice3dscreenshot3

Continue reading TwitterVoice3D: Creativity, Chaos, and Order in the Online World

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.

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!

Five Things We the Church Need to Know About Technology (5 of 5): Technology Tends to Become Mythic

This is the final part of a five part series based on Neil Postman’s lecture “Five Things We Need to Know about Technological Change” applied to the church and spirituality.

  1. Technology Is Always a Trade-Off
  2. Technology Creates Winners and Losers
  3. Technology Contains a Powerful Idea
  4. Technology Is Ecological, Not Additive

5. Technology Tends to Become Mythic

hand crank window My boss tells a great story about the first time his 7-year-old son Jacob saw a car with rollup windows. He came running in the house and said,

“Dad, we have GOT to get a car with those awesome cranks!”

For little Jacob, a motorized window was the default kind of window. To him, it was as normal as a tree or cloud. He couldn’t imagine the world without them, but he hadn’t yet learned that he was only supposed to think of new things as “cool.”

Technology as Mythic in Culture

Every culture has things that started as “new,” but over time become “normal.” We eat hotdogs at baseball games, we have 12 grades, we wear tuxedos to weddings, and so on. These go unquestioned, because it’s just the way thing are. In this sense, they have become mythic. (Here a myth is not a fairy tale – it is a shared story that powerfully operates in a culture. In reality it might be true or false, but in either case it is influential).

Technology too eventually becomes mythic and unquestioned. Once a human invention seems like it has always been here – whether it’s a blow drier, Google maps, or the alphabet – it has achieved mythic status. It has become the default against which we judge other things. The only thing we can’t do (without appearing a complete fool) is question technology that has become mythic.

Technology as Mythic in the Church

We the church have also allowed technology and beliefs about technology to become unquestioned, or mythic. Here are a few examples:

  • Personal Bibles – We all know that it’s good to have a personal copy of the Bible. In fact, most of us have several. But this is a really new and recent phenomenon. Before the printing press made Bibles widely available, the only exposure one had to Scripture was the public reading of the community’s copy. While I love my copies of the Bible (and my Bible software), I also lament that few Christians today know more than a handful of a verses by heart, whereas many believers before the printing press memorized entire books! 
  • Technology = Progress – This is the foundational belief of our modern world. We believe that the more high tech something is, the better life will be. In reality this is mostly false, especially for Christians. High tech nations are not happier than low tech nations, and high tech churches are not more sanctified than low tech churches. The use of technology to reach a technological culture is wonderful, but we should be careful not to think more highly of that form of ministry than learning Cantonese to reach a Cantonese-speaking culture.

It is ironic that we young people who enjoy bucking trends and catch phrases like “Think Different” and “Question Everything” are so unwilling to question our technology. For us, it is like questioning our gender, our nationality, or mom’s apple pie. But if we are to be “in the world, but not of the world” we must question the technology we use and not allow it to become a more powerful myth than the great true myth of Christ’s power over all things.

My prayer is not that you take them out of the [technological] world but that you protect them from the evil one. (John 17:15)

Five Things We the Church Need to Know about Technological Change (4 of 5): Technology is Ecological, not Additive

This is part 4 of 5 considering the implications of Neil Postman’s Lecture, “Five Things We Need to Know about Technological Change” for the church. I have re-titled it, “Five Things We the Church Need to Know about Technological Change.”

  1. Technology is Always a Trade-Off
  2. Technology Creates Winners and Losers
  3. Technology Contains a Powerful Idea

4. Technological Change is Not Additive, It is Ecological

Remember that youth group illustration for sin where you put a drop of food coloring in a glass of water, mix it up, and then ask the audience if there is any way to “unmix” it? It’s a powerful visual meant to show that once we sin, we are changed, and we can’t go back to our former, pure state.

This illustration is also apt for what happens when a technology enters the world. New technology is not merely added alongside other things, it changes the world it enters and alters the relationships that existed before.

Societal Examples of Technology as Ecological, Not Additive

  • Mass Transit – When a city adds mass transit (buses, trains, etc.), this form of transportation does not merely sit along side cars. Instead, the ecology of the city changes. People stay in one place for longer, so they shop and eat differently. Roads wear differently, meaning there is less need for construction, or construction jobs. Gas stations, living quarters, and so on all shift around mass transit.
  • Music Downloads – There was a reason music executives feared the Internet. They knew that something like Apple’s iTunes music store would not be an additive change to the music industry, but a major ecological shift to the way music was produced, bought, sold, and consumed. They were right.

Church Examples of Technology as Ecological, Not Additive

The church too has experienced technological change in an ecological, not additive way. Of course, the changes are not always “bad,” but major shifts in the church can be traced to technological changes:

  • Printing Press – The classic example of how technological change affects the church is the story of how the printing press enabled the Protestant Reformation. Certainly many things were at play in the Reformation, but the printing press allowed Luther’s writings and – perhaps more importantly – his German translation of the Scriptures to make it into the hands of commoners. Before the printing press, the Bible was in Latin and the authority was in the Roman Church. Afterwards, the Bible was in many languages and authority was dispersed. Before Gutenberg, no one ever said, “Read your Bible.”
  • Large Church Buildings – The 1950s saw the formation of the megachurch, powered by large buildings, microphones, and speakers. But the megachurch-era didn’t just usher in large Sunday mornings – it oversaw the formation of age, gender, and interest based sub-ministries within churches. Before 2,000 member churches were common, there were few college ministries, young adult ministries, or dedicated youth ministries in the form we see them today. Consider this difference:
    • Twenty 100 member churches require 20 teaching pastors
    • One 2,000 member church requires 1 teaching pastor, 3 associate pastors, 1 adult pastor, 1 youth pastor, 2 secretaries, 1 janitor, 2 worship leaders, 1 sound board guy, etc.

Just as the church was never the same after the printing press and the megachurch, churches will continue to change from recent technologies, perhaps most significantly from the Internet.

Hopefully, by realizing that technology is ecological rather than merely additive, we can guard against trends which would make the body of Christ into the cyborg of Christ :) But as my good friend Josh points out, the Spirit seems to work his way both in spite of and through technology. So let us be like Sons of Issachar, who “understood the times” (1 Chron. 12:32) and be wise, neither fully embracing, nor fully rejecting technology.