Certainty vs. Risk – Why We Value Handwritten Notes and “Craft” Beer More than Texts and Budwieser

*disclaimer: I don’t really like beer.

Risk and Certainty

In 1968, David Pye, then a professor at Royal College of Art in London, wrote a book called The Nature and Art of Workmanship in which he distinguished between two modes of craftsmanship.

  • The craftsmanship of risk
  • The craftsmanship of certainty

For example, writing with a pen and paper falls under the category of risk because there are many potential points of device and human failure (poor handwriting, etc.). In contrast, pressing the print button on a computer produces an infinitely replicable result with identical fonts. Similar comparisons could be made with any handmade item which has a high degree of risk compared with a mass produced or 3D printed items.

Risk and Creativity

The point of Pye’s categories is not that mass-produced items have no value or are inherently inferior. On the contrary, they often save us money and give us security and stability.  Instead he is saying that the reason we tend to be attracted to handmade things is not merely that they are handmade or unique, but because in being handmade, we intuitively sense that they are imbued with the risk of their creator took. Handwritten notes, locally brewed beer and coffee, a child’s painting, or a quilt purchased from an Etsy artist all bear – to varying degrees – that essential quality of risk that grounds the objects and experiences more deeply in reality.

That’s not to say that texts can’t communicate deeply, or that reproductions of art don’t have the capacity to shape the soul, or even that a mass-produced drink can’t nourish the body. It’s merely to give us language – risk vs. certainty – to describe why we tend to feel a connection to things with with a few flaws and why a box of letters can bring a wave of feeling that searching one’s email inbox cannot.

Sadly, marketers have realized this and started slapping “handmade” or “craft” on everything way that they used to label mass produced cookies with “old fashioned” or “homemade.” But the fact that marketers have co-opted and trivialized the idea doesn’t mean we can’t learn from the original concept.

Risk and Love

This is more obvious when we consider that our deepest, most meaningful human relationships also bear this quality of risk versus certainty. When a relationship has a degree of certainty to it, such as neighbors or co-workers, they can still be meaningful and important, but they don’t require that initial risky step that we find in romantic and friendly love.

I remember practicing and practicing that first phone call with my future wife. There was so little certainty and so much risk: Would she say yes? Would the date go well? Would it eventually end the way all the others had, or would it be worth the risk of present rejection or future pain?

More than ten years later, I’m so glad that I took the risk and dialed those 10 numbers, because it has made all the difference in my life.

Similarly when we approach new potential friends or mentors, we are taking a risky first step toward building a relationship, unsure if the result will be rejection, indifference, or something unexpectedly wonderful.

The Christian story of the world also plays on the dynamic between risk and certainty with theologians differing on how an infinitely powerful God who could create with certainty also managed to build risk into his creative work, allowing humanity to embrace or reject him. The most risky communication proposition God could make would be to allow his son to become a fragile child who would grow to be a man and experience sorrow and joy, pain and resurrection.

Imbue Your Communication with Risk

All of this is to say that to create a more meaningful life that bears the image of God, we must learn to communicate love and meaning to those around us, and to do that we must intentionally accept and even embrace risk.

That might mean writing a note every now and again, even if your handwriting is terrible.That might mean inviting people over for dinner even if your dwelling (or cooking) isn’t perfect and could invite criticism. Or it could take the form of playing a game with a group when you know you’ll lose or be terrible at it.

And at the same time, we must learn to communicate a kindness and openness to others that says it’s okay to take risks around you. You might offer needed critique at times that makes your friend’s risk even more valuable, but this must be infused with grace and cultivated over time.

When was the last time you took a risk in your relationship or creativity?

Seminary Chapels on Technology, Theology, Culture, and Ministry

A few months ago, I had the distinct privilege of speaking for Dallas Theological Seminary‘s “Issues in Educational Ministry” chapel series. In the first talk, I attempted to layout a biblical and historical perspective on technology, and in the second  I addressed 9 issues that future seminary graduates will likely face. The first video is embedded below, but the links below will take you to pages with the slides included.

Hope you find these resources helpful!

Q&A with Dr. Mark Hoffman, Professor of Religion and Media

Religion and Media Blog Tour

Earlier this spring, Dr. Mark Hoffman (www.crossmarks.com) of Lutheran Seminary in Gettysburg had me Skype into a class of his in Gettysburg, and I was impressed by the caliber his students and warmed by their kindness toward me.

LTSG then made the exciting announcement that it was adding a new Religion and Media Concentration to its Master or Arts in Religion degree. As part of its launch, two of the programs professors including Dr. Hoffman, are going on a blog tour where they answer questions submitted to them by bloggers. I asked two questions of Dr. Mark Hoffman , and he sent the helpful responses below.

Dr. Hoffman’s Responses

Greetings, John. Your book, From the Garden to the City, has been an important voice as we think about technology and the church, so we were very pleased that you were willing to participate in this Religion and Media blog tour. Thanks! The first question you posed:

I come from the “Bible church” tradition which sees itself as placing a high value on the reading, preaching, and study of the Scriptures. And yet, we’ve been finding that biblical literacy and reflective Bible reading is as much on the decline in our congregations as it is culturally. In light of these changes, how do you see the shift from print to electronic reading influencing the ways Christians interact with the Scriptures both in their personal lives and corporately?

You, John, have already given us a lot to think about in your book, but I can contribute a few of my own thoughts. I addressed a related matter on Sansblogue where the issue was trying to entice more Christians to read the Bible, but your question is focused on the effect the change in medium will have on the m/Message. I can reflect on my own experience. I have about five feet worth of Bibles on my bookshelf. Only three of them show much use. There’s a NOAB RSV Bible that got me through college and seminary a Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament for seminary and grad school, and a NRSV pew Bible I’ve used for preaching. In the mid-1980s, I started using digital editions of the Bible, and around 2000 I got a PalmPilot and OliveTree’s BibleReader program. Since acquiring these resources and their up-to-date heirs, I have very infrequently opened any of those Bible on my bookshelf. Today, I have 14 Bible programs on my computer, and I’m up to an Android smartphone with 5 Bible programs on it, and on top of that are all the web resources.

So, I’ll personalize your question: How has the shift from print to electronic reading influenced my interaction with Scripture? I find that I do still have a sense of “Bible.” When I was serving as a pastor and doing hospital visits, somehow it just didn’t feel right to share some readings from Scripture by pulling out my PalmPilot. (I ended up kind of hiding it in a portfolio.) Or on those occasions when I’m doing expository preaching, I just don’t think I could be comfortable standing in front of a congregation with my Droid X to cite Scripture. (That’s where I use the NRSV pew Bible. In doing so, I’m drawing on ancient Jewish tradition where the person reading Scripture made a point of only looking at the scroll as he read the Hebrew. The translator standing next to him who was rendering in the Aramaic the people understood, was not allowed to be looking at any text. It provided a visible reinforcement for distinguishing the divine Word and the human translation.) I also do miss using my old NOAB RSV, a Bible I with which I was so familiar that I could even picture on which part of the page a certain passage appeared.

On the other hand, I rarely carried my Bible around with me back in the day, and now I have one (many!) with me almost all the time and end up reading it more often. I miss those annotations in my old Bible, but today when I take notes in my digital Bible, it gets synched through the cloud, and I have them available on all the platforms I use. That’s far more helpful for me now and into the future. (A quick aside: an elderly woman in my congregation once told me that she had received a very nice Bible from her family for Christmas. Her grandson told her that he hoped she would make lots of notes in it. “That way,” he said, “we’ll have something to say at your funeral.”) The main thing for me now is that I don’t just a Bible with me, but I have access to original language texts and so many supporting resources. I have another five feet of shelf space devoted to lexicons, concordances, and grammars, and I am happy to say I haven’t had to use them in a long time.

Overall, I would have to say that the transition to a digital Bible has been a blessing for me. I still find that when I think of “Bible,” I think of a book and not a program or a smartphone, but the actual experience of reading the Bible has been enhanced. Additionally, I think we have only begun to think about digital media can enhance the ways we actually interact with the Bible and engage with it on personal, corporate, and global levels.

A second question you asked:

The Association of Theological Schools, the body that accredits both of the seminaries at which you and I are employed, will soon begin approving fully online seminary degrees, something that was previously prohibited. As higher education in general is changing, what role do you see online education playing in the theological and spiritual formation of seminarians of the future?

That’s a big question that we are seriously trying to think about at my seminary. I suspect that if it weren’t for the financial challenges all seminaries are facing, we would be moving more slowly into the realm of online education. Still, I am excited about the possibilities that online education offers and am cautiously optimistic that it really can be an improvement over the way we’ve always done things. I will say up front, that I love teaching and the interactions I have in the classroom. I’ve missed that when teaching online, but I remind myself that the focus should not be on my teaching but on student learning. To that end, already in my residential courses, I have been including more and more online aspects: links to resources, making class materials downloadable, doing online collaborative work, and trying to connect with the world outside the seminary. (For example, we were able to have you Skype in to our class to talk about your book with us! I’ve also been able to connect with the Lutheran seminary in Hong Kong where our Greek classes worked together.) We are also making more connections with other teaching partners, something that would not be possible without online possibilities. Our Religion and Media concentration, for example, came into being as a joint project between our seminary here in Gettysburg (PA), Luther Seminary in St. Paul (MN), and the Odyssey Networks based in New York. With this sort of distance cooperation, students will be able to enjoy a wider variety of classes. We are also setting up more possibilities for project based learning where the teacher serves as the guide and mentor, but the student is responsible for shaping the educational experience. We anticipate that much of this work will be done collaboratively and hence online and hopefully even globally.

So far I’ve talked about theological education, but you also ask about spiritual formation. I think that is going to be more difficult. Personal practices probably aren’t as much affected, but there is the communal aspect of spiritual formation that does need the real presence of other people. We are planning to use a ‘hybrid’ model where the online work is complemented by face to face, intensive gatherings. That can help both the communication necessary for online learning as well promote the bonds of community. But rather than thinking that spiritual formation mainly occurs at seminary, online instruction provides the opportunity to encourage spiritual development right where a person is at, in the real communities where they are now living. Perhaps also, this larger virtual community in which we all participate can help dispel some of the critiques of seminaries as ‘ivory towers’ disconnected from everyday life. No doubt, then, there are challenges, but there are also some great potentials.

Thanks Dr. Hoffman

Thanks to Dr. Hoffman for taking time to answer my questions. If you have additional questions for him, please leave a comment here, since he’ll be trolling for the next few days. And if you’re interested in a religious studies degree focusing on media and technology, be sure to check out LTSG concentration.

Christmas Technology & Faith Book Buying Guide

While pondering the perfect Christmas present for that someone special, you’ve undoubtedly come to the conclusion that there can be no better gift than a book on technology and faith. But you might be thinking, “There are just so many books are out there – how do I choose the right one for my special someone?” It turns out that Santa’s face is shining upon you, because I’ve put together a special buying guide just for you.

The Uber-Intellectual, Tweed Jacket Wearing Brainiac

Brian Brock‘s Christian Ethics in an Age of Technology is unparalleled in its depth of research (covering Augustine, Heidegger, Grant, Foucoult, and more), analysis of the conceptual roots of modern science and technology, and commitment to theologically “thick” answers. If you’re not really an academic type, this might not be the book for you. But if you’ve got an egghead who eats dissertations for breakfast, this is your book.

The Zen-Like Hipster, Emergent, McLuhanite

Before he was Rob Bell’s successor at Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, Shane Hipps was ad executive for Porsche. But he became disenchanted with the idea of using images to convince people to buy things they didn’t need, and so he became a pastor and studied the ideas and catchphrases of Marshall McLuhan. Eventually he went on to write the McLuhan-inspired Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith which, in addition to having one of the best titles in this round up, introduces several new catchphrases and gives a nice overview of McLuhan’s thought. (note: in Flickering Pixels, Hipps doesn’t address any of the typical hot button “emergent” issues. It’s focused specifically on media.)

The Hilarious, Pop Culture Guy with Hidden Depth

Adam Thomas‘s publisher labels him the “one of the first priests from the millennial generation,” but I would call him one of the funniest and most insightful people I’ve emailed but never met. His book Digital Disciple is the perfect match of insider tech humor and deeply reflective Christian spirituality. His book is just the right length for non-readers and it even includes discussion questions for small groups. I appreciate how he urges us not just to react against technology, but to strive to see God in it.

The Young, Restless, Reformed, Canadian Tech Junkie

Tim Challies is only in his 30s, but he’s undoubtedly the grandaddy of Christian blogging and a faithful representative of Reformed and Puritan thought. He’s also been involved in web design and computer consulting for years, and he brings that unique combination to The Next Story in which he applies Neil Postman’s thought swirled together with some healthy Biblical wisdom to issues like distraction, privacy, and anonymity. Tim and I even worked together a bit on a definition of technology, leading to my tongue-in-cheek endorsement: “As the co-author of 13 words in Tim’s new book, I’m very happy that he, with his skill as a writer, his experience as a web designer, and his deeply informed, discerning faith, wrote the other 60,000.”

The Sensitive Engineering Linguist

The title of Brad Kallenberg’s book is God and Gadgets: Following Jesus in a Technological Age. Yet while the book is definitely about “God” it’s not so much concerned with specific “gadgets” as it is with the powerful patterns of life and language that emerge when we surround ourselves with tools of all kinds. Kallenberg invokes heavy hitters like Heidegger and Wittgenstein, but he isn’t overly academic in his approach, and he draws from his diverse experience as a chemist, a campus minister, an engineer, and a philosophy professor. His unique emphasis on language makes this short book a nice addition to any library on technology and faith.

The Half-Amish, Half-Cyborg Polymath

What Technoloy Wants is one of the strangest and most thought-provocative books I’ve ever read (see my multi-part review). Then again, Kevin Kelly is about as close as they come to a real life “Most Interesting Man Alive” (complete with beard). A co-founder of Wired magazine who converted to Christianity while sleeping on the floor of an Israeli church, he offers a sweeping view of technology history drawing parallels between biological evolution and the progression of technology. For those who like way out there stuff, this is the book to get.

The Jack of All Trades, Theologian, Creative-Type “Honorable Mention”

Finally, I can’t help but mention my own contribution to the discussion. I hoped to have included some of Challies’s Postman-like critiques and Biblical insight, a bit of Hipps’s McLuhan-channelling, some good, light-hearted story-telling like Thomas, a glimmer of Brock’s academic and theological underpinnings, the breadth and depth of Kallenberg’s work, and maybe even some off-the-wall Kellyisms. In From the Garden to the City, I wanted to highlight how technology is a powerful, beautiful, and necessary expression of the Image of God present in all of us, while also grappling with how everything we make, use, and do – including technology – has the potential to shape us personally, spiritually, and relationally.

Feel free to add your favorites in the comments. Merry Christmas!

Will the iPhone 5 Give You Utility or Positioning?

I love the fact that, as a web developer, I can make Apple launch events part of my “research.” Since the first official iPhone announcement back in 2007, I’ve been hooked on watching Steve Jobs and company reveal new hardware, software, and “one more thing.”

The downside is, of course, that when the iPhone 5 is announced on October 4, the devices in our pocket today will start to look a little less shiny and seem a little less powerful.

So why does this happen?

Tools Have “Utility”

“Utility” describes the functional usefulness of a tool. For example, we measure the utility of a shovel based on how well it digs holes. When buying a shovel, a person decides what kind of holes he needs to dig and then finds the shovel that will accomplish the task in the most efficient manner with the least effort.

Notice, however, that there are no magazines called “Shovel Rumors” or “Shovel World,” and that no one keeps up with the pace of shovel development. Why is this?

There are two reasons. First, unlike phones, shovels are not in active development so there is not much to report about them. But second and more importantly, because shovels are so purely useful, they have no positioning power.

New Things Offer “Positioning”

“Positioning” is the power of a product to put you somewhere on a timeline which measure social significance.

The clothing industry is an extreme example where a product’s utility is completely secondary to its positioning power. We think very little of the usefulness of a shirt, but we think a lot about where it puts us on the fashion timeline. Is the shirt so old that it’s “out of style”? Or is it so old it’s retro cool? Or is it new but designed to look retro? In each case, the utility of the shirt is insignificant compared to its power to position use socially.

It is this hidden positioning that makes our 11-month-old phones feel like dinosaurs. Today, my iPhone 4 feels pretty cool, but I know that as soon as the new iPhone 5 model(s) are announced there will be a new dot on the timeline, and my iPhone 4 and I will be stuck in the past, sitting at the back of the cool bus with a scratched up yellow Sony Walkman cassette player.

The Timeline Fuels Consumerism

This timeline shifting is powerful force that drives consumerism. Consumerism isn’t just “buying too much stuff.” It’s buying into the idea that our position matters. It’s that rush of cool that we feel when buying something new, and that dissatisfaction we feel when the next thing comes out.

When I look at the iPhone 5 next week, on the surface I’ll see the new features (larger screen? new field communication? more memory?!) that my current phone doesn’t have, and I will think about how much “utility” those features will bring me. And maybe (hopefully!) there will be enough utility for me to justify an upgrade.

The trouble is that I find it very hard to know when I am valuing something for its usefulness vs. for its positioning power. Do I really need that feature I didn’t know about the launch event, or do I just feel behind because the new device shifted the timeline and now I’m not on the edge of it? Do I value the new feature for its actual usefulness or for the feeling I get from having the feature?

I’m also tempted to say, “I’m not into consumerism. This is just how phones today work.” Ah, but Solomon reminds us that the timeline is much older than the mobile phone industry:

As goods increase,
so do those who consume them.
And what benefit are they to the owners
except to feast their eyes on them? Ecc 5:11

Around the Web

How Technology Makes Us Better Social Humans – A fascinating study of how people use social networking tools at home and in public spaces. The idea is that the social isolation that comes from living in the suburbs next to neighbors you don’t know (portrayed in Bowling Alone) is reversed by social networking. The article says that some superconnected blogging families still have dinner together, but it also talks about how people who bring laptops into public spaces tend not to interact with one another.

The Social Network Paradox – I appreciate that TechCrunch, a decidedly pro-tech blog, includes thoughtful editorials like this one. The primary claim is this: “as the size of the network increases, our ability to be social decreases.” The author goes on to suggest some ways we can create technology that works against this tendency.

From the Garden to the City Book Tour – The kind folks at ChurchM.ag have setup a blog through the book tour of my book with a dozen or so bloggers joining in. The first post from Adam Shields is now up and already has some great discussion. In addition, some great thoughts are showing up from people like BJ McGeever, Jarrod Burris,  Mr. Wezlo, and Phillip320.

The Information book tour – Chris Ridgeway is also blogging through James Gleick’s The Information chapter by chapter. The setup is this, “In the long run, history is the story of information becoming aware of itself.” Chris has done a great job on the first few chapters: chapter 1, chapter 2, chapter 3.

BestCommentaries.com 2.0

The Big Question

When I was in seminary, one of most common questions I would hear students as was

“What is the best commentary on [insert book here]?”

Seminary students ask the question when they have a class that covers a particular book, and pastors ask it when they start a new commentary series.

The Standard Answer

If you ask a seminary professor, he or she will often have a few recommendations and some of them, like John Walton of Wheaton, even make lists and post them online (sadly, Walton’s is no longer available). But not everyone has access to a seminary professor, so students and pastors are then pointed to a few published commentary reviews like the books by D. A. CarsonTremper Longman, IIIJohn Glynn, and Jim Rosscup or the excellent online lists from ministries like John Piper’s Desiring God MinistriesR. C. Sproul’s Ligonier Ministries, and the Denver Seminary Journal and even individuals like Jeremy Pierce and Mark Heath.

The New Answer

When I was in seminary, I used these lists extensively, but one day I was in the library and I had forgotten my copies of Carson and Glynn’s lists, so I wasn’t sure what to check out. Since I didn’t have anything to do, I went over to a computer and checked the movie reviews on rottentomatoes.com (the site that collects movie reviews and posts an average rating).

And then it hit me. Why not create a rottentomatoes.com for commentaries?

Why not collect all those reviews into a giant database, average and weigh them, and allow people to add their own reviews?

And so in 2008, that’s what I did. That summer I registered www.BestCommentaries.com and started entering in thousands of commentaries and thousands of reviews. By the end of the summer, I had a pretty good little tool that’s grown a lot since then.

Expanding the Concept

This summer, I decided to give it a fresh look and rewrite the core database interaction code that makes it all work. It’s being used so much that I’ve added some advertising to help pay for the hosting, but I hope it’s not too distracting.

I’m also looking into expanding into theological studies as well as areas of practical Christian life. Those kinds of books are a lot harder to “rank” because they are not as comparable as commentaries on a book of the Bible. For example, I’ve started collecting recent books on technology and faith (which includes my own). But each book brings something unique to the table, and it would be difficult to say which one is “better.” So in these categories, I’ll probably just use them more as a bibliography for reference and leave off the rating/ranking part.

Technology Reflections

Since it’s something I often address regarding technology other people have created, I think I’d be remiss if I didn’t include some kind of reflections on the possible unintended consequences of the site.

Perhaps the most obvious and central issue is that, in some sense, a machine is making recommendations about the word of God on the basis of an algorithm. Each person looking for a commentary has a unique set of needs and some titles will better meet those needs. A personal recommendation from a wise and trusted friend would always be better than a Google-ized list.

And yet, I made the site.

I did so because I thought it would be more helpful than harmful. For all those people who don’t have a friend knowledgeable in commentaries or don’t know about Carson or Longman’s books, I thought BestCommentaries.com would be really helpful and at the very least better than nothing.

I’m surely biased, but I also think BestCommentaries.com is more than just “better than nothing.” It’s really fun to see what the collected wisdom of the saints can look like. God has given all of those men (Glynn, Piper, Longman) incredible wisdom and here it is combined together.

Every once in a while the reviewers agree so strongly that a commentary rises far above all the others. In these cases, it’s fun to see the church coming together to affirm the work of a fellow brother and praise it as a gift from God. Carson’s work on John is so highly regarded it’s the highest ranked book on the site, and I’m certain that if we asked Carson about it, he’d say, “To God be the glory.”

Ode to Endorsers (1/2) – The Artists

Monday (August 1, 2011) is the official release date for my book From the Garden to the City, so I’m taking a few minutes to thank those people who took the time to read early versions and offer their words of endorsement. I covered the doctors in an earlier post, and now I’d like to introduce you to the artists.

Matthew Lee Anderson (@mattleeanderson)

My first experience of Matt was of his apparent powers of clairvoyance. After reading his excellent chapter in New Media Frontier, I sat down at my computer to find out who this three-named person was, and before I had even Googled him, he @replied me on Twitter. From that moment on, I’ve been just a little bit happier. We spent most of the last year or two encouraging each other as we wrote our first books (stop right now, click this link: Earthen Vessels and press “Buy it now”) and finally got to meet this spring in Los Angeles at CWC. I can’t wait to see what he does next. Hopefully, it’ll be something we do together.

John Saddington (@tentblogger)

As I write this, I’m still full from eating a pizza-sized quesadilla with John (and Rick) at lunch. It’s pretty rare to get the chance to share a meal with someone whom I respect both for their coding and their theology, and that’s part of what makes knowing John so special to me. He’s not just a wildly successful and influential web entrepreneur (or creative engineer or something), since I’ve known him he’s also become a husband, a father, a leader at several great companies and ministries, and (almost) a seminary graduate. The day he graduates will be a sad day for me, because it means he won’t have to come to Dallas and share a meal with me.

Tim Challies (@challies)

Tim Challies started blogging daily way before it was popular to do and way before anyone knew it could become an occupation. Since then he’s become the grandaddy of Christian blogging, not just for his longevity, but because he’s a consistently articulate thinker who takes strong, but careful stances on important issues. When I had just started working on my book, I saw Tim’s announcement that he too was working on a book about technology and faith. I hate to admit this, but at first I was actually a little deflated to hear about his book, not just because Tim is so popular or because he was picked up by a giant publisher, but because he’s just so well-read that I knew he’d blow my work out of the water. Of course that was just silly pride. In fact, Tim took the time to reach out to me, and we ended up working together on a small sentence that appears in both of our books. I hope the two works (The Next Story) are a kind of one-two punch, each serving a different need in the body of Christ.

Bob Lepine (@FTLBob)

You might be wondering how I happen to know Bob Lepine, co-host of Family Life Today. A few decades ago when my family moved to San Antonio, it just so happened that Bob was our next door neighbor. He invited us to the church where he was the lead singer and, as a kid, I loved that he always included a song like “Father Abraham” in the Sunday morning worship. In my eyes, he was also cool for letting me come over and play Wheel of Fortune on his sweet Commodore 64. On a more serious note, as I grew up in a home without a dad at home, Bob took time out to come over at important moments and teach me things like how to shave and how to tie a tie. Those tiny acts of generosity made an undeletable impact on my life, and I was so grateful that Bob continued his generosity toward me by reading and endorsing my work.

Andy Crouch (@ahc)

A few years ago, one of my professors at DTS started raving about a book called Culture Making. He even led a Friday reading group on the book which deeply impacted many of the students, broadening their theology and sense of what it means to be himan. Little did I know that a few years later, I’d be down in the hill country of West Texas at a small gathering of people interesting in technology and spirituality and get the chance to meet him. As with Albert Borgmann, I was nervous about meeting someone I look up to so much, and I was nervous about asking if he’s consider reading my manuscript. But Andy came through on both fronts. Not only is he warm and kind in person to a silly web developer like me, he was gracious and kind enough to read my book and offer some incredibly encouraging words about it. Thanks Andy!

If you want to see what these folks wrote, head over to http://fromthegardentothecity.com/. You can read the endorsements and download sample chapters.

3 Reasons Why Google+ Won’t Solve the Privacy Problem

Thanks to Eric Dye, I got an early invite to Google+, and though I wish it came out a few years ago and everyone was already on it, it’s really fun to play with all the cool new features like a great UI, fantastic group video chat, great sharing and profile tools.

But the key feature to the whole thing is the concept of “Circles” which is Google’s attempt to solve the biggest problem that has arisen from social networking. Before we jump into the tool, let’s see how we got here.

Relational Spheres Before Circles

In my freshmen year of high school, I started dating a girl named Jennifer. She was great, but there was a catch – she went to a different school. This, of course, meant I was subjected the old, “Sure you have a [air quotes]’girlfriend,’ who goes to [more air quotes]’another school.’”

Those could make this claim because back in the days before ubiquitous social networks, our relationships tended to be bound and defined by the places we went. Our church friends were at church, and our work friends at work, and our school friends at our school. People in one of your relational/location spheres often would never meet people in others.

This meant that you could do something amazing, embarrassing, or even terrible in once place and by default that event would be a secret from your other groups.  The only way that event could be known reliably across those locational spheres was if a person spanned both spheres.

Facebook: What Happens In Vegas Happens Everywhere

Somewhere around 2004, MySpace and other social networks radically altered this arrangement. They promised to help us keep track of everyone we had ever met, and miraculously they came through. But this promise came with a price. As Chris Cox, Facebook’s vice president of product, put it, “Facebook solved this problem of getting all your friends in one place, and created the problem of having all your friends in one place.”

Just like that, the walls of location-based relational spheres vanished. Suddenly everyone was in one place. The benefits are obvious, but the downside is that is that every time Facebook changes its privacy settings and controls, it morphs into a giant robotic taddle-tale indiscriminately sharing everything with everyone. We’re no longer worried about an untrustworthy person – we’re worried about an untrustworthy machine.

Will Google+ Solve This?

Facebook tried to solve this with “Friend lists,” but they buried the feature. Twitter, too, tried to solve it with “Lists.” Now Google+ is giving it a shot by allowing you to approximate your relational spheres by defining “Circles” (Google’s explanation). I’ve already created Circles with obvious names like Friends and Family as well as Web Development, Church Leaders, and so on. I can share tech news with my “Web Development” friends, theological stuff with church folk, and so on.

The interface Google has designed for this is really slick. You can drag and drop people into different Circles and check off Circles right inside Gmail. But as good as it is, there are still some inherent reasons why it can’t fully solve the Privacy issue.

1. The Mechanism Is Hidden and Difficult

Location-based activity and privacy is intuitive. It’s right in front of us and it “just works.” But we can’t really see the inner workings of Google+ Circles or Facebook’s friend lists. We just have to trust that they work the way we hope they do.

Even when the lists work correctly, it takes a lot of effort on our part. What happens naturally in physical locations (you look around to see who’s in the room and then speak in a low voice) takes lots of tedious dragging, dropping, and checking boxes online.

As a computer nerd, I think it’s kinda fun to work with the lists, but I’m guessing that the majority of the broader population, who after years on Facebook have never bothered to create a list, won’t spend much time doing it on Google+ either.

2. The Metaphor Is Inexact and Simplistic

Even when we take the time to make these lists, our “Circles” don’t quite match our relational spheres. If they did, we’d have hundreds of overlapping circles.

For example, you might have a Circle called “family”, but should this include your nuclear family and your extended relatives, or should they be separate? What about people in your church small group that you also work with? Should you just make one big “Friends” Circle?

Whatever you decide, you have to make somewhat artificial (or at least approximate) choices about how see your relationships. I think it’s still better than the one-size-fits all method that Twitter employs (everyone see everything) or the all-your-base-belongs-to-us method of Facebook (you’ll never know exactly who sees what). But it doesn’t “just work.”

3. The Meaning Is Standardized and Self-Centered

Part of the reason why our location-based relationship spheres work as they do is the location itself. When we’re at work, that environment is meant for working. Bars and clubs are, by their nature, conducive to drinking and dancing (or, so I hear, my dear Baptist brethren). And hopefully, our churches are designed as places that encourage the posture of worship.

But on social networks, the input mechanism is the context for every activity. Did God answer a prayer? Type it into a textbox. Did you breakup with your girlfriend? Check a box, and type something in. Did you do something awesome at a party? Upload a pic, then describe it in a textbox.

But even more importantly, in those real world situations everyone at the location is automatically a part of the group. But Google+ Circles are not reciprocal. You might define Circles like “Friends” or “Coders,” but not everyone will define you the same way in reverse. So the Circles aren’t really something we share as a community, it merely represents your personal viewpoint of the world.

So Should You Join?

Of course. Why? Because it’s really fun to try new stuff and Google has made a really cool thing.

But you probably shouldn’t think of it as a way to “solve” the privacy issues. I personally think it’s a better tool for sharing things than Twitter and Facebook and if you already use Google products than the integration is awesome. But in most cases, you’re going to have to the hard work of controlling the content yourself.

Help Me Caption This Advertisement!

Well, this is embarrassing.

As many of you know, I work for Dallas Theological Seminary and, now that I’m about to be author, they’ve decided to feature me in a print advertisement that will appear in the ECHO Conference schedule. They’re even going to give away some copies of my book to prospective students.

The trick is that I have to come up with a short, punchy phrase about the relationship of our faith and our technology, and that’s where you come in:

Leave a caption in the comments that would attract an ECHO conference goer and help them see the value of a good biblical education. Oh, and the best 3 captions get a free book of their choice from www.wtsbooks.com

The Back Story

Now, lest you think I’m merely a DTS shill, I want to share a quick story.

A few months ago, I spoke at a large Christian conference and afterwards a man came up to me and said, “You know, during this entire conference, I haven’t really heard anyone talk about the Bible. It’s all strategies, ideas, and statistics. But even with all your philosophy and technology talk, you kept using the Scriptures in what you said. Thanks for that.”

Of course, I of all people can come up with a million nit-picky critiques about seminary, but at that moment I was really struck by how deeply DTS’s emphasis on the Scriptures had affected me. And that makes me kinda happy about being their shill.

Now, I just need you to help me communicate that in a fun catchy way – so caption away!

Don’t forget, the top 3 captioneers will get a free book of their choice from www.wtsbooks.com