New Year’s Technology Resolutions of the Internet Famous

You might have noticed that I spent very little time writing here last year. This was a conscious decision on my part to spend more time on things that I felt were priorities, one of the largest of which was the research portion of my PhD.

Since it is a new year, I thought I’d spend some time reflecting on other technology related resolutions that I’ve seen around the web as well as a few of my own.

Selected 2015 Social Media News and Resolutions

In the past few years, dozens of high profile celebrities who decided to quit social media (or who don’t use it in the first place). I think these are helpful reminders of how difficult it is to handle social media.

To me this doesn’t show that social media is inherently evil, but that it’s incredibly hard to moderate even for those who make a living at it. Just as our abundance of food and lack of physical work makes it hard to regulate our bodies, internet news and social media make information and social reaction challenging to regulate. And while I applaud those who make bold decisions to fully quit something, I am personally more inclined to look for small, but important changes I can make that will help bring my life back into balance.

A few resolutions of my own

Rather than start a bunch of things cold turkey on January 1, I started some of my 2016 social media resolutions in late 2015.

Facebook Changes – For the month of December, I decided I would not post anything myself, but I would check Facebook on occasion to like and comment on things from my friends and family. What I found was that I pretty quickly started feeling like I had really hilarious stuff that I wanted to post and see how many people would like it. Instead, I would tell my little jokes to my wife (and occasionally to twitter). I also found that I checked Facebook less often which tells me that a major reason I was checking it before was just to see notifications of responses. By focusing on responding, I was also able to notice when a friend who lost a loved one and respond to them off of Facebook.

Speed and Mindfulness Changes – In 2015, I’ve experimented with some mindfulness practices, using apps like Calm and Headspace to work on exercising my mind’s ability to focus and slow down. Although I’ve been inconsistent at it, I think doing this even intermittently helps me be more patient and less frenetic. I also find that when I do it in the morning before my family wakes up and then follow it with a brief scripture reading, and some daily planning, the day is much smoother.

Phone Changes – As I reflect back on my recent phone usage, what I am most embarrassed about is where I’ve wasted time. Downloading a little game to fill a few spare minutes turned into falling right into the trap of modern game design which is largely based on addictive patterns. I have also watched myself teeter into overconsuming certain feeds of information (Google News, funny meme sites, etc.). I had considered switching to a dumb phone but for now, I’ve attempted reset my phone to be primarily a tool that I use to perform tasks it’s really good at (podcasts in the car, depositing checks in the bank, directions and maps, workouts, air travel, etc.). This means removing any news type apps and avoiding web browsing. Also, I dropped and cracked my phone at Christmas so it’s become a bit more dumb all by itself.

Paper tasks – A common habit among key people I respect is that they have at least one area of their lives where the go more “analog.” Digital calendars are wonderful and powerful, but I know several people who find paper calender much more manageable. I personally have tried dozens of task apps, but I always come back around to sticky notes. At the beginning of each day, I transfer incomplete tasks from the previous day’s stick note to a new sticky note and then keep that on my laptop. Recently, I moved this all to a small moleskin-like notebook which I plan to use more of and use fewer sticky notes. There are lots of great techniques for this (GTD, Bullet Journal, StrikeThru), but I’m not quite disciplined enough to do any of them 100%. However, I do enjoy a walk to our local Starbucks (my phone tells me its 0.32 miles away) taking nothing but the notebook to work through what’s important.

If you have resolutions or small adjustments you find helpful, I’d love to hear them in the comments!

Declining Religion in America? There’s an App for That

Image: Hugh McLeod –

This week, the Pew Research Center released a sweeping study tracking the precipitous decline in religious affiliation in the US since 2007. While commentators are debating the role of factors like theology, birthrates, and immigration, it’s also interesting to note that 2007 was the same year that Apple released the iPhone and Google announce Android.

Of course, it’d be silly blame the smartphone for the decline of religion and the rise of the “nones,” but it’s hard not to think that our collective worship of the glowing rectangles in our pocket doesn’t play at least some representative part in these broader cultural shifts.

Technology and the Secularization Thesis

To explain the decline of religion in Europe during the 19th and 20th centuries, sociologists of religion posited the Secularization Thesis, which argues that when education, democracy, and science spread, religion eventually loses its authority, and secularism becomes dominant. In other words, the more Europe modernized, the less religious it became.

However, for much of the twentieth century, the Secularization Thesis never quite worked in the US. Religious faith here remained strong, and the growth of Islam around the world and Christianity in Latin America, Asia, and Africa forced sociologists to reconsider just how secularization works.

And yet, while secularization doesn’t appear to work in a simple manner in all cases, it’s also important to note how deeply it is tied to technology. In The Homeless Mind, Peter Berger, wrote that modernization is essentially, “the transformation of the economy by means of technology.” In this understanding, it would seem that technology would have to play at least some role in the move toward secularization and the rise of the “nones.”

The One Perk No Googler Wants

I recently saw a visible representation of how technological progress can squeeze out religion, however unintentionally. A few months ago, I had the chance to tour Google’s main campus in Mountain View, CA, and a bright, articulate, young Googler pointed out interesting details such as the first servers Sergey and Larry ever used and the much talked about perks like free food around every corner, Octobikes, full service laundry, child care, nursing rooms, and on and on.

As we walked, it occurred to me that just about the only thing lacking from the Google campus was some visible, physical representation of faith. Of course, most employers don’t provide chapels in their workplace and in that regard Google certainly isn’t exceptional. But Google and other Silicon Valley companies are exceptional in the number of perks and benefits they offer to entice and keep employees. Other multi-cultural centers of commerce like airports and universities have interfaith spaces, so why don’t big tech firms?

I think part of the answer is simply that no one asks for a chapel. And no one asks for a chapel because it would be at odds with the central selling proposition of Silicon Valley—progress. Unlike an Octobike or a massage pod, which reinforce the idea that technology can solve problems, a chapel might remind us of long-forgotten needs that technology cannot meet.

The gods in Our Pocket

Today, the mythology of progress, long championed in the business and tech sectors, calls to us moment by moment from our pockets. As a culture, we spend enormous amounts of time discussing the growth of screen sizes, increases in Internet access, the development in apps—progress, progress, progress we tell ourselves.

At the same time, we fill nearly every waking moment with beeps, vibrations, and reminders, drowning out any chance that our soul might surface a needs no device can meet. The more we use our devices, the more we find ourselves inculcated with the idea that our primary needs in life are those things that technology can meet. “There’s an app for that” thinking is so ubiquitous that when there’s not an app for something, it seems like it might not even be a real problem. How many of us have tried to solve our business or lack of spiritual discipline with an app?

Perhaps in this climate, it’s not so much of a stretch to say that technological culture in general and the smartphone in particular was at least partially responsible for cutting off the vestigial limb of religion dangling from many Americans at the turn of the century. Now that progress-oriented technology is a permanent fixture in the life of nearly every person in the country, it’s not surprising fewer are finding a need for religion in their lives.

Does the Church Have Anything to Offer?

Cultural change always feels threatening to the church, but past upheavals have also provided a chance for the church to refocus on its core identity. In a world where many people already have their physical needs met by technological means, the church has to figure out what it uniquely offers the world.

Google will always have more information, Spotify will always have better music, and Starbucks will always (arguably) have better coffee. But information, music, and coffee are not the trade of the church. Ours is truth, worship, and communion which together offer us not a product we can download and consume with diminishing return, but an inexhausible encounter with a living being, the risen Christ.

What Moby Dick Can Teach Us About What We Click, Read, and Post

“Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States.”
“Whaling Voyage By One Ishmael.”
“Bloody Battle In Affghanistan.” [sic]
— Moby Dick, Herman Melville

My wife is a literature professor – but not the typical read-a-few-texts-and-give-a-quiz kind. She’s that rare gift to the world who can give students an experience in class so profound that it makes math majors want become English scholars. She even inspired me to start reading the classics, and when I finally cracked open a copy of Melvin’s masterpiece, I was surprised to find the above headlines in the first few pages.

I’ve been told that one of the marks of a work of great literature is that it captures something universal about the human experience, and Melville certainly did that with these headlines. At this point in the story, the character named Ishmael creates these three headlines as a way of imagining his whaling trip being a part of the major headlines that one might read in a newspaper on any given day.

It’s amazing and a bit eery to see how similar the typical events of 1850 were compared to the big news of our day. There are always wars in the Middle East, and there are always presidential controversies. I’m not the first to notice how tragically evergreen these headlines are, but I think Melville also offers us a chance to see something about our relationship to media itself.

If we think back over the links we click every day, does it seem as if they mostly to take us to articles and videos that rehash things we already know? Every once in a while something new happens, but in between we’ll settle for a “fresh angle” or a “new spin” that temporarily satiates our media hunger. Sometimes we know we’re just looking for fun GIFs and listicles, but even when we click on something that promises a serious exploration of a current issue, it’s often just a repeat of the same old things that get posted every year and every century: “Why the ‘X’ in X-Mas is a good/bad thing”  “10 reasons the guy from the thing is wrong about the deal” “Why Easter isn’t really about the thing the other article talked about” and so on.

But Ishmael’s thought exercise isn’t just about media consumption. I think it also tells us something about the media we produce.  Ishmael is engaging in a mental exercise not unlike modern social media, imagining his life as equally important as international events. Like many people today, I enjoy posting photos of my children and places I’ve been, but when I step back and consider what’s happening, it seems strange that modern media puts the everyday moments of my life alongside world events — very much like Ishmael imagined almost two centuries ago.

This Saturday, it’s worth thinking about the media we’ve consumed and produced over the past week, and asking ourselves, “Have I enriched my mind and soul with what I’ve consumed?” and “How have I portrayed my life and the lives of others?” The deeper we are immersed the the world of media and screens, the more we are encouraged to consume articles that say very little that is meaningful and to post things that make us feel significant for a few moments.

I’m encouraged by Ishmael to know that these are not necessarily new struggles for humans, but I also realize that the technology we have access to today affords actions that were once only possible in a person’s imagination. In Moby Dick, Ishmael eventually abandons the fantasy and choose to go on the whaling voyage. While you’ll have to read the book to get the whole effect, the result is that it reconnects him with the incarnate life and gives him a story that just might make the headlines.

Perhaps if we are a little more careful with what we click, read, and post, we might find the same in our own life.

What Can We Learn about Video Churches from Mars Hill’s Closing?

It’s been a while since I’ve written here, but I did put together a piece about the video satellite model of churches for OnFaith. As I write in the piece, I’ve always been a bit skeptical of the model since I want to favor in-the-flesh personal encounters and avoid celebrity preachers and branded models of church.

However, when I actually talked to churches using this model, I found that some of them had actually thought through a lot of the common objections and come up with creative ways to overcome them. Here’s how it starts:

At the Acts 29 Conference in Dallas, Texas last week, the recent events surrounding Mark Driscoll and the network he founded were in the air. But as one attendee commented to me, the pastors there weren’t focused on Driscoll himself so much as what they could learn from Mars Hill Church’s recent decision to dissolve its video-powered network of 13 churches.

As of January 2015, each Mars Hill Church location will either become an independent church or will cease to exist. And as the satellite model of churches continues to develop nationwide wide, the larger question, not just for Mars Hill but for churches and denominations of all kinds, is whether the video satellite model is a viable way to do church.

Continue reading: Is the End of Mark Driscoll’s Church a Sign for Satellite Churches?

A Technology Fast from Everything *Except* the Internet

A few months ago, I moved my family from hot and sunny North Texas to cold and rainy northern England so I could start a PhD on digital Bible use. I hoped to learn a lot about technology, but I what I didn’t expect on was how much the move itself would teach me.

Technology Fasts and Sabbaths

Almost anytime Christians discuss the internet or mobile phones, someone suggests that it is important to take a break from technology from time to time in the form of a short-term fast or a regular Sabbath. If you feel yourself checking your phone a little too often or feel overwhelmed by our modern, always-on world, pulling the plug can help you reconnect with God, people, and even creation.

As helpful as this advice is, there is something a bit peculiar about it.

When we recommend a “Technology Fast,” we are using the word “technology” to refer only to relatively recent things like phones and social media. No one seems to feel a compulsion to “unplug” from air conditioners or heaters. No one takes Sunday as a time to free themselves from the tyranny of toilets or dishwashers. And I’m pretty sure no one has said, “I bet if I hang my wet laundry outside, I’ll sense the rhythms of God’s creation more clearly.”

Well, I’m writing this post because this kind of “Sabbath” is exactly what my family and I are doing right now. If you’ve ever felt like it’s hard to go more than a few minutes without checking your phone, imagine the challenge of giving up a dryer and a car for the summer!

Moving to a 1920s Mining Town

Framwellgate Moor bus stop

In April, my family and I moved to set of terraced houses about two miles from the Durham city center. The houses were built around 150 years ago for miners, and at that time they were one-story dwellings with approximately 250 sq.ft. of living space. Since then, a second story with two small bedrooms has been added, along with electrical lighting and an extension on the back for indoor plumbing and a bathroom. The stove and chimney that kept several generations of families warm is still there, but it has been superseded by a gas powered heater that connects to several radiators in the house. The oven has also been electrified (until it broke mid-summer), and the landlords have added two important modern appliances – a four-foot tall refrigerator (small by American standards) and a washing machine (that worked pretty well until it also broke a few weeks ago).

What this means is that we’re now living in a place that was largely the same as it would have been a century ago except for the refrigerator and on-again-off-again washing machine. I’d love to say that this has been nothing but a fun adventure for my family and me, but we’ve actually found it pretty challenging, and the experience has shown me just how much we take for granted common appliances that I don’t even think of as “technology.”

Let’s start with the easy one – there is no coffee maker. Instead, we’ve found that the British kettle and the French press make a pretty great combination.

But then it gets a little harder.

I ask you in advance for forgiveness of my recitation of what are decidedly #firstworldproblems – but that’s sort of the point!

My wife is a master meal planner, and part of that involves making larger meals and eating leftovers the next day. However, we found this is quite a bit harder when you have a tiny refrigerator and no microwave. There is an urban legend that microwaves remove nutrients from food, but that’s just bad science. Microwaves are great, and we miss ours. But we’ve learned to live without it.

We’ve also managed to adjust to not having a dishwasher. We spend more time in the kitchen doing dishes, but we’ve adapted by reusing plates and cups more often being creative when we have friends over for dinner.

The most challenging of the missing 1950s appliances has been the clothing dryer. We’ve become very adept at hanging clothes on just about any kind of hook, hanger, or notch we can find. When it’s sunny (1 or 2 days a week), we try hanging them outside, but even then a light drizzle sends us dashing outside to pull everything off the line. When the washing machine started acting up, we really felt like we had gone back to pre-war England!

The One Thing Americans Can’t Live Without…

As much as I hate to say it, the hardest adjustment has been the lack of a car. I personally enjoy my 30 minute walk into school much more than my 30 minute commute in Dallas, but for my family. While I have a place to go and study, they are left without a way to get to a kid-friendly place without walking at least a mile. But more challenging is doing daily tasks like getting groceries (my wife is strong, but she can only carry so much with children in tow). Thankfully, there is a small grocer down the street alongside a butcher and a baker (sadly, no candlestick maker!). However, these shops tend to be more expensive than larger stores that are further away. We could hop a few buses to get there, but the fare would be higher than the difference in cost for the local items.

To top it all off, the exchange rate from the US dollars to the British pound is about as bad as it gets, so we can’t simply buy our problems away. Before moving, I had romantic notions of strolling down the street, picking up a baguette, a roll of salami, and some beverages, and taking my family out for a picnic. But when it turns out an unfavorable exchange rate makes that $30.00, you’re in the middle of what your neighbors refer to as a “semi-slum,” it’s cold and rainy outside, none of your clothes are dry, and the path to the grocery store is littered with cigarettes and lottery tickets … one’s outlook begins to shift.

How many times I’ve wished I could just put on some fresh clothes from the dryer, drive my family to Chili’s, and present the waiter with a buy-one-get-one-free coupon I printed from the Internet!

The Joys of the Big Red Button

Of course, that last paragraph or two is a little over the top. But in our first few weeks in Durham, I really considered sending my family home since we were having such a hard time. The city is beautiful, my studies are great, and the people have very kind, but we just found it really hard to live without some of the machines that seem to fade into the background at home.

One day, when we were finally starting to get settled, my 5-year-old said something that started to put things into perspective for us. After an outing to see some amazing castles and cathedrals, I asked him what his favorite part of England was so far. Without hesitation, he answered, “Pressing the big red button on the bus to make it stop!”

My wife and I shared a knowing glance and a laugh, delighted by the window into our child’s universe, but also because of what this statement represented to us as a couple. We had been focusing on the challenges, but those very challenges were what led to the thing that delighted him most. And once we learned to adapt to a few of these challenges, we’ve begun to really love our simplified life together. Making things even better have been our lovely neighbors and fellow PhD students (like Andy Byers, whose books you need to buy right now!)

Learning from Our Low-Tech Experiment

So what does our visit to the turn-of-the-previous-century mining flat tell us about technology and culture today? Or put a different way, why was it so much more challenging for us to give up our dryer than it is to give up checking our phones?

1. Digital Technology Blinds Us from Other Dependencies

First, I think our experience demonstrates the way we use the word “technology” renders important aspects of our lives invisible to us. Alan Kay famously quipped that most of us think of “technology” as “Anything invented after we were born.” Slightly older machines like vacuums, radios, cars, and running water are just “stuff,” no more advanced or noteworthy than chairs, doors, or tables. So when we take a “Technology Fast” we are using the word “technology” in a very limited sense to mean “Internet stuff.”

One of the troubles with this narrow understanding of technology is that it can blind us to our dependence on older technologies that were magical in their own time and, more importantly, which still powerfully shape the structure and pace of our lives today. In Durham, we ran head first into this when we found ourselves in possession of some amazing modern technology (laptops and high speed Internet), but almost went home for lack of a car and dryer. If the practice of fasting is intended to show us our dependence on good things (like food) above God, our unintentional “Low-Tech Fast” has shown us that we live our lives in such a way that we need a car more than we need God or the Internet.

2. The Pull of Digital Technology Is Unique

Second, the fact that the “Technology Fasts” are limited to “Internet stuff” might indicate just how uniquely powerful that Internet stuff really is. Since the advent of industrialization and urbanization, there have been calls to return to nature, to leave the hustle and bustle of city life and surround ourselves with nature. But so far I haven’t seen any evidence that people called this sort of thing a “Tech Sabbath” or that anyone recommended turning off steam-powered machines or electrical devices as a spiritual practice.

I think this means that there is something distinct about “Internet stuff” and the pull that it seems to have upon us. The studies that show how each retweet, like, and comment triggers an addictive dopamine release suggests smartphones are more physiologically and psychologically powerful than, say, a dishwasher. And the fact that we give them up as a spiritual practice suggests that they may have a kind of spiritual powerful as well, at least in the sense of their capacity for idolatry.

3. Technology and Economic Power Go Hand in Phone

Third, my family and I have seen firsthand the deep relationship between technology and economic power. Because the US dollar is so weak in the UK, and because we are not rich people to begin with, we had to “do England on the cheap,” renting the least expensive place we could find and using public transportation to get around. This meant that every so often we experienced the look that people of means sometimes give (often unintentionally) to those economically below them.

In our suburb in the US, the haves and have-nots are separated by the size of house, the brand of car, and the style of clothing. But I am now more aware that in many parts of the world, the haves and have-nots are separated by actually “not having” the economic power that would grant access to technology that would in turn free up resources to gain more social status and power.

4. Technology “Fasting” Might be a Misnomer

Finally, it is worth considering if the Christian concepts of “Fasting” and “Sabbath” really do map as well to technology as I and others have argued.

When I mentioned our family’s unintentional “Low-Tech Fast” to some friends, several of them commented on how disconnected they felt from friends who, for example, give up Facebook for Lent. Apparently when someone chooses to temporarily forgo a social communications technology, their “fast” then becomes a public form of anti-social behavior. Although it’s unintentional, this public declaration seems to me to be at odds with Jesus’s admonition not to draw attention to our fasts. In the modern world, then, how can we enact this practice when the very thing from which we are fasting sends social messages? I don’t think we can easily shift toward fasting from technologies that don’t send social message like dryers or coffee makers. But we could refrain from using the term “fast” to describe our attempts to curtail internet usage and instead categorize it under “discipline” or “self-control.”

What about the concept of “Sabbath” and “rest”? While fasting seems to be for the individual’s spiritual maturity, the Jewish Sabbath was and is very much a social activity. A Sabbath rest declares that the world can go on without me, but that I am still valuable to my community as a human being. The Sabbath is something the entire community does together, and the lack of work creates space for alternate social practices that deepen community and relational bonds. But when we use the word “Tech Sabbath” to refer to something we do exclusively as individuals for our own benefit, it doesn’t seem to really fit the biblical concept quite as well. Certainly, rest can be experienced on an individual level, but for ideally a “Tech Sabbath” should be something shared within a group, a family structure, or a living arrangement. Our family found that experiencing a technological change together was difficult, but also a rewarding and binding experience. The stories of companies with email-free-Fridays or families that put all their devices away for a few hours each night seem to offer a richer Life Together like experience of rest than what happens when we go it alone.

As for my family and I, I hope that when we return to the US, we are able to appreciate our unintentional Tech Fast/Sabbath and take what it taught us back in to what is for us the “real world.”

I asked my son again recently what his favorite part of England was.

His answer, “The Cathedral! … and football!”

Family by the Cathedral

“The Bible”: A book or a category of things?

When you browse through the Christian section of your favorite  online or neighbor store and see a book with the term “Bible” (or its much murkier corollary,  “Biblical”) on the cover, what exactly does that term mean?

Over at Second Nature Journal, I explore this question looking at how various content creators use the term “Bible” and ultimately argue that it isn’t as clear as one might prefer. Here’s how it starts…

Tonight, after dinner, baths, and a lot of screaming, my wife and I will settle down next to our toddlers and attempt to inculcate them into the Christian mythos telling them the stories of Abraham, Rahab, Paul, Silas, and the rest. Sometimes we read from our own leather-bound Bibles, but most nights we use books with titles like the The Jesus Storybook Bible and The Beginner’s Bible, and yes even one called Princess Stories: Real Bible Stories of God’s Princesses.

Read on at “How the Christian Media Industry Made “Bible” into a Category Instead of a Proper Name

What Form of Video Best Addresses Phone Addiction & Isolation?

We all know the basic message: “put down your phone” “talk to a real person,” and “pay attention.” And we’ve probably all noticed the irony of people use social media to post videos that contain these messages and warn about  the dangers of social media.

As I’ve been watching these, I noticed that some struck me as quite powerful while others as predictable and even boring. Why is this? Is there a simple reason why some of these videos more effective than others? Why do some make us stop for a moment, but others are easy to dismiss?

Below is a small sample of a few of these videos representing the various ways they use video: direct speaking messages, some use infographics, and some are wordless stories. Watch them, and see which you think are most powerful.

Look Up (4:59) – Lyrical Presentation

The second half has a heart-tugging story element with a strong A/B storyline. It felt a little long and a tad predictable, but the lyrical style kept me interested.

Innovation of Lonelineness (4:20) – Infographics

The animations and graphics on this video are incredibly well done. They kept me watching even when I felt like the message was too strong and one-sided.

I Forgot My Phone (2:10) – Wordless Story

I think this video is the most powerful, because it was short, it told a story, and it avoided an omniscient narrator. To me, this made the message clearer and the emotional impact deeper.

Video as a Visual Medium

I appreciate each of these videos and want to thank the creators of each for their hard work. But I think the reason the final video seemed most powerful to me was that it uses video as a purely visual medium and communicates through images rather than propositions.

In the first two videos, the narrator tells the story, and he tells you what to think about the story. That means the visuals are secondary. The images, video, and graphics are only a supporting element to the statements the speaker is making. But if you didn’t have those statements, you’d still get mostly the same message. [tweetable]In the final video, everything essential is communicated visually, through the main characters eyes[/tweetable].

Even when there is a particularly powerful visual element in the first two videos, the narrator breaks in with statements and propositions, forcing your brain to enter into a more logical mode and making the video secondary. I think this is why the narrators chose a lyrical presentation rather than a more direct style of speech, because they intuited that they needed something more compelling that direct propositions.

And yet, I think [tweetable]the final video is still more powerful because the message is communicated entirely without words[/tweetable]. The power of that video is derived solely from its visuals, and the audio is secondary and supportive rather than the other way around.

Let me know if there are videos you find more or less powerful and how the medium itself contributes to that power (or lack thereof).

Kids Are Addicted to Social Media Because Parents Are Addicted to Control

Of course, it’s not quite as simple as the headline makes it seem.

But new data suggests that while the often heard complaint, “Kids these days spend all their time online rather than face-to-face,” may be true, it’s not true for the reasons we think. No, today’s under-18 crowd is not made up of degenerates who don’t like human contact. Rather, they want face-to-face time as much as we did, it’s just that their parents won’t let them have it.

Parents Controlled by Fear

Its ComplicatedIn her forthcoming book It’s Complicated: the social lives of networked teens, dana boyd interviews teens about their social media usage versus time in person. In almost all cases she found that the students said they would much rather spend time face-to-face, but they cannot because, well, their parents won’t let them.

Two major cultural shifts seem to be at the root of this. The first is that many of today’s youth are over-scheduled with sports, school activities, community service, and so on, all in an effort to be visible in an increasingly competitive college admissions process. This means they have very little down time to rest or be with friends.

When teens do have a little precious free time, the second cultural shift takes over. Today’s parents are much less likely to let their kids roam free, exploring the outdoors, riding bikes, going over to the friend’s house down the street, or engage in other unstructured activities. Ben Wiseman of Wired suggest that this parental tightening began when, “over the [past] three decades, the media began delivering a metronomic diet of horrifying but rare child-abduction stories, and parents shortened the leash on their kids.”

In other words, 24-hour news coverage of kidnappings made it seem like American neighborhoods are less safe when, statistically speaking, there are fewer kidnappings than when today’s parents were kids. But today’s parents (the same ones who get all their parenting advice from online sources) scared by the unstoppable torrent of violent images and stories, respond by keeping their kids sequestered at home.

What Kids Really Want

danah’s data and conclusions shouldn’t surprise thinking Christians. Our understanding of humanity teaches us that every man, woman, child, and teen was created in the image of a deeply relational Truine God. Certainly some of that “image” is our longing for contact, community, and presence.

But left in solitary confinement with nothing but an internet connected device, today’s kids have little choice. They desperately want human connection, but the only parentally-allowed way to image the Triune God is to use Snapchat, Facebook, or the flavor of the week. As boyd puts it, “Teens aren’t addicted to social media. They are addicted to each other.”

So the next time you see a checked out kid on her phone, remember that there might be more going on that what you see outwardly. This doesn’t mean that we need to turn kids into victims or excuse every negative, narcissistic behavior. What it does mean is that saying “Turn off your phone” doesn’t address the very real social and culture issues at the root, nor does it offer a compelling alternative.

To an over-scheduled teen under constant parental surveillance “Turn off your phone” basically means “Go to your room and be alone.” That’s no good either. Without real, unstructured time with friends, kids can’t develop the healthy social interactions today’s adults long for them to have.

[Note: I say all this as a parent of preschoolers, so my time is coming!]

10 Years of Facebook

In the first act of The Social Network, the movie depicting the origin Facebook, we are introduced to a fictionalized version Mark Zuckerburg who, after being spurred by his girlfriend and overlooked by Harvard’s elite final clubs, begins creating, a site that lets visitors vote on which of their classmates is better looking.

After a night of beer chugging and code writing, Zuckerburg unleashes his creation on the Harvard campus which both delights and disgusts his classmates. Director Aaron Sorkin then juxtaposing scenes of students gathered around laptops ogling pictures of female coeds on with students gathered around tables watching scantily clad women dance at the final club parties.

In this sequence, Sorkin seems to be asking us, “What is the relationship between these two worlds – the ogling women online and the ogling women in person, that of flesh and blood and that of bits and pixels?” Sorkin never ventures an answer, and ten years after the launch of what was then called “thefacebook,” it’s a question we’re still trying to answer.

Online vs. Offline is Dead

When Facebook started, there was still a raging debate that pitted the “real world” against the “virtual world.” In the ensuing years, confidence in this simple dualism has eroded, with researchers, pundits, and bloggers alike recognizing that the relationship between the two is more fluid and dynamic.

Online and offline interact with one another, influence each other, and augment one another, but they never exist in isolation. Even those that choose not to use Facebook still communicate and relate to others through forms of media (phones, letters, and so on), and one must look at the ecosystem of media as a whole rather than isolate one strand and pin various social ills or benefits on upon it.

This is part of the Sorkin’s genius depiction of Facebook’s birth. He shows that the two worlds are so inextricably intertwined that they are really one world. He doesn’t say it’s the one world that God made, but I think that’s the conclusion to which Christians should come.

Rather than see “online” and “virtual” as two magically distinct spheres, one fully incarnate and the other its discarnate doppelganger, Christians especially must affirm that the entire created order, including all that humans create (yes all that “virtual” stuff) is part of one continuous spectrum of creation over which God have complete dominion and control and through which God’s Spirit is actively working.

The Interactions Are More Complex Than We Acknowledge

While we are breaking down the online vs. offline dualism, it is also becoming increasingly clear that the interactions between the technology and culture are more complex than initially imagined. One still doesn’t have to look far to find one person offering effusive praise of the new world of social networking and another offering outright condemnation of all things Internet. But happily it also doesn’t take a terribly long view or much data to see that both of these extremes miss the complexity of what’s really happening. Take for example the idea that “Kids spend all their time online rather than face-to-face.” Statistically speaking teens may in fact be spending less together face-to-face, but to link this effect exclusively to the cause of Facebook is both wrong and unhelpful.

Its ComplicatedIn her forthcoming book It’s Complicated: the social lives of networked teens, Dana Boyd interviews teens who say they’d much rather spend time face-to-face, but they cannot because, well, their parents won’t let them. It turns out that today’s kids are overscheduled (bowing to extreme pressure for college admissions) and today’s parents are overly fearful (while kidnapping and crime is down in America, 24 hour coverage of gruesome crimes contributes to a general state of fear among parents). Left in solitary confinement with nothing but an internet connected device, kids have little choice. They desperately want human connection, and the only parentally-allowed way to image the Truine God is to go online.

So the problem of “less face-to-face” time isn’t simply caused by social media and neither is social media merely a symptom of some deeper boogey man whose secrets are only available in a book or special conference. Instead there is always complex ecosystem of cultural forces.

Even when Facebook itself is making terrible commercials encouraging narcissism and self-focus (see below), we must also take into account the spiritual forces at work, the “powers and principalities” of which Paul writes and about which Wormwood’s uncle encourages us to forget. Christians have a vocabulary of spirit and flesh and of word and spirit that can add richness, power, and depth to the comparatively anemic ideas of narcissism, privacy, and identity.

The Questions Change as Both We and Facebook Age

And yet, for all this talk of complexity, over its 10-year existence Facebook has made an undeniable impact on society and individuals. Ten years may not seem like a long time, but it’s long enough to see that Facebook has come to have different meanings at different stages in our lives, and that these meanings shift as we age.

Early adopters of Facebook, who were then scruffy college kids, are now approaching the threshold of untrustworthiness, the age of 30. Where they once used Facebook to update their “relationship status” and Poke one another, they moved on to sharing wedding photos, and eventually parenting advice, and now Vitamix coupons. The then bewildered 40 and 50-somethings who didn’t “get it” when Facebook launched are now grandparents who have gone from joining Facebook to see baby pictures (which are no longer mailed to them) to using Facebook independently to share the thoughts that didn’t have an outlet in their earlier lives.  And then there are today’s teens who were never given the chance to know a world without the word “selfie,” and whose use of social media will, too, evolve as they enter college and the workforce.

Many of these same people have now deleted their account in disgust with the entire social media enterprise only to rejoin again in order to reconnect with loved ones who no longer call or write. Some are on their third of fourth account, and many of us maintain multiple accounts on different networks that we use for different purposes. We often complain about the system, but we also recognize that it is a new and constant part of our reality.

The Continuum of Home, Work, and Play

So in this new reality what role should social media play in our lives and in the lives of our communities? How has our conception of identity and relationship shifted? Can we just unplug and things will get back to normal?

Long ago, it was expected that the way one interacted with professionally with co-workers was different from the intimacy afforded in marriage and different yet again from one’s orientation to one’s children or one’s parents, and different still from a relationship with a long-time friend or pal at the gym.

But by today’s standards, acting differently in these scenarios might be considered “inauthentic.” To be “genuine” today, one must be the same in every sphere of life. Interestingly, this is just what most social networks require – a single, flat identity equally discoverable by anyone. A teacher cannot have a different Facebook relationship (in its current iteration) with her students than she has with her mother, and a student’s relationship to parents, teachers, and friends must be the same as well.

As we’ve previously mentioned, such shifts are multi-variant; we cannot blame them soley on Facebook. In the same 10 years, the physical distinction between one’s job, one’s home, one’s leisure, and one’s school have been blurred by economic and technological forces, each playing on one another.

The cumulative effect of these forces has allowed (or forced) many Christians to re-examine fairly basic concepts like discipleship, preaching, and Sabbath. To take just one of these areas – Sabbath – we know taking a break from “work” is a biblical idea, but when our work machines are also our leisure machines and our social machines, where can we go to truly rest? We can unplug the laptop to stop working during out Sabbath, but what if we need it to socially connect through Facebook? If stopping the use of media is important for true rest, what other technologies might we also give up?

Such questions bring us back to Sorkin’s original question: What is the relationship between the offline and online, the physical and the digital world? It seems that simplistic, binary answers don’t offer us much hope. We must proceed carefully and with perhaps more discipline than previously thought.

A Mirror and a Window

What I hope is emerging from these questions is a sense that looking deeply into Facebook and its impact is not altogether different from looking closely at humanity itself. This is not to say that Facebook is humanity or that Facebook is inert. To the contrary, our global culture has undergone some big changes in the past decade, and Facebook is one of the forces behind that change.

What I mean to say is that the benefits and problems we attribute to Facebook are in many ways a reflection of the two sides of our humanity as the Scriptures portray it.  Every thoughtful post, every beautiful image, every impactful campaign is rooted in the stamp of God’s image embedded on every Facebook account’s human. And every case of bullying, every self-focused rant, and every single game of Candy Crush betrays our brokenness and need for Christ to finish his work of redemption in us.

Facebook can be a convenient punching bag for all kinds of social ills, but it can also offer us a window into the struggles and beauties of a human race that still bears God’s image and which is in need of a complete resurrection.

I think our understanding of technology is clearest when we can carefully take into account its downsides while also seeing its benefits as pointers and foretastes of the resurrection. To that end, I’ll leave you with this commercial from Microsoft. It of course places too much hope in technology itself, but if you can see past the technology and see the time and place to which it points, it is indeed encouraging.

Starting a PhD at University of Durham, UK!

Durham Cathedral
Durham Cathedral

You might have noticed that it’s been a little quite here in the past few months.

In the background, I’ve been working on an application for a PhD in theology and religion at the University of Durham. My hope is to study how people understand Scripture and they activities they do with it as they transition from print media to digital media. My basic premise is that the shift from oral to print has introduced new emphases with regard to Scripture and new ways of navigating and understanding it, and we are in the midst of new shifts with digital media that will likely take some time to fully realize.

After months of preparation, I’m happy to say that I was accepted to the program and will begin studying in April. My employer, Dallas Theological Seminary, has generously offered a 4-month sabbatical for my family and I to move to Durham to begin studies and I will finish the remainder back in Dallas.

I’d like to thank a few people for making this possible including Tim Hutchins (who has already done much work in this area), Heidi Campbell (who has been a constant encourager and amazingly prolific writer over recent years), Andrew Byers (who treated me so well on my visit to Durham and continues to offer assistance in our transition), Pete Phillips (who runs the amazing CODEC group at Durham and allowed me to visit his office), and Matthew Guest (the advisor who agreed to take me on in the project). There are many others here at home who’ve been most helpful as well.

Hopefully, I’ll continue to use this blog as an outlet for research as it comes and for additional thoughts unrelated to digital Bibles.