Five Things We the Church Should Know about Technological Change (2 of 5): Technology Creates Winners and Losers

This post is part 2 of 5 in a series exploring the implications of Neil Postman’s Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change for the Christian community.

  1. Technology is Always a Trade-Off

2. Technology Creates Winners and Losers

Britannica KidIf you are a child of the 80s or early 90s, you might remember commercials with a geeky kid promoting Encyclopedia Britannica. It turns out that not only was the kid a “geek,” but he was also part of a group of “losers” in the game of technological progress.

In part 1, we saw that technology is always a trade-off of advantages and disadvantages. The second thing we need to know about technological change is that those trade-offs are never evenly distributed among the population. For every new technology, some people benefit greatly, but often that benefit is at the expense of others.

Today, Google is now a multi-billion dollar company while Britannica is almost completely forgotten. Looking back, when the automobile was invented, car makers profited, while blacksmiths were left behind. Further back, the printing press made printers rich and copiers obsolete.

Winners and Losers in the Church

While the prior topic of “trade-offs” was more abstract, the concept of “winners and losers” deals with real people’s lives. Here are just a few places where technology creates winners and losers within ministries and churches.

Ministry Staffing

  • Speakers: The communication technology of the 20th and 21st centuries first enabled the large church and now has blossomed into today’s video and internet campuses. These technologies have tended to enable popular speakers with large budgets to be “winners,” while those speakers whose skill may need more time to develop tend to be on the losing end.
  • Technical Staff: People like me, those with specialized technical knowledge (web design, video production, programming, etc.) now have very prominent roles in churches and ministries. Compare the ratio of technical to non-technical staff of a church today with the same one 40 years ago, and you’ll see some clear “winners.”

The point here is not to be critical of video campuses or technical workers in ministries. Personally, I think it’s amazing that churches are hiring members of the body of Christ with technical and artistic skill, and I love that art and beauty are again being valued. Just yesterday, I received an encouraging email from a deaf woman who found that DTS was the only seminary she could find with online education technology supporting the hearing impaired. I wrote the software for this, and I’m glad that she and I are “winners.”

However, for all those positives, we must remember that there are real people who come out on the losing end of technology at times. For example, in the recent economic downturn, my employer Dallas Seminary, had to reduce some of its staff. My job and department were not affected, but many non-technical personnel were let go. Sadly, in this case, there were clear winners and losers. I found myself wondering,

“If my job stability were on the basis of the requirements of a elders and deacons in 1 Timothy and Titus rather than my specialized technical knowledge, would I still be employed?”

Snap!

The Believing Community

Beyond the staffing of ministries, the people in our churches are affected by the technology we employ which has the possibility of segmenting them into groups:

  • Young and old: When a church adopts technology, it is also appealing to a certain audience. In most cases, a high-tech church will appeal more to the young and less to the old. Of course, we are commanded to reach the young, and their language and culture is technological, so we must speak that language. However, in our attempts to minister to the young, we must not neglect the older, much wiser saints who Paul said should be guiding us young folk (Titus 2). If our high-tech ways reach only the young, while alienating the old, we will lose out on their wisdom. Then everyone is a “loser.”
  • Rich and poor: Technology does not just separate the old from the young, it can also separate the rich from the poor. For all of our talk of being culturally relevant with the latest and greatest video and internet equipment, we rarely hear of anyone wanting to be culturally relevant to the poor and lo-tech. For me, that would be following Jesus a little too closely!
  • Outside the Church: Finally, we need to be sensitive to the technological shifts happening outside the walls of our churches. Right now, autoworkers in Detroit are suffering, as are financers in New York and assembly line workers in China. As we look around and see technological change, often enjoying cool new gadgets, we need to remember that there is someone out there on the losing end who may be in need the love of Christ.

It would be a mistake to conclude that we should reject or run from technology because it can create “winners” and “losers.” Instead, we ought to recognize that technology is not perfect and that for all its good, there is a cost to using it – sometimes that cost is in persons. Hopefully, by understanding these technological times we can guard against pride in our devices and skills and be more aware of those in need of the love of Christ.

Do you have thoughts on how you’ve seen some benefit from technology more than others within ministries? How do you attempt to balance this in your own ministry?

Facebook and Video Chat predicted 100 years ago! [Recommended Reading]

image If you like reading short stories, I’ve got a great one for you. In 1909, E. M. Forster published the short story The Machine Stops which told of a future in which humans live in temperature-controlled underground rooms with no outside human contact, communicating to others exclusively using“cinematophoes” (his prediction of video conferencing).

The story was written

  • before TVs and computers, just after the first radios
  • before dishwashers, washing machines, air conditioning, universal electrical lighting, and fast food
  • before cars were mainstream, just after the Wright brothers’ flight

He predicts

  • people having 1000s of “friends” that they never see in person (including family), only on a screen
  • people eating processed foods and loosing physical strength
  • people feeling totally overloaded by the sheer amount of communication they receive every day
  • the total, unquestioning acceptance of technology by society and the rejection of original thought

The story is a fascinating look at what would happen if society got to a point where people could only relate to one another through some kind of technology (bonus for alluding to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and foreshadowing everything from Brave New World to The Matrix to Wall-E). The story focuses on a mother and son’s relationship, and it’s was a little eerie to me because my mom also lives lives far away, and we mostly communicate through phone calls, email, facebook, etc. Thankfully my mom loves to visit and would never prefer the virtual world over the real world.

Though the author is not writing as a Christian, he seems to understand that the fullness of human relationship and being happens in the physical world, the world into which the Son of God incarnated himself. Technological mediums are great for enabling relationships when one can’t be physically present, but we need to careful that it doesn’t replace real-life contact. Not only does it erode our relationships, it ultimately can erode what we are as humans. Yikes!

If you get a chance to read the story let me know what you think.

Five Things We the Church Need to Know About Technological Change: (1 of 5) Technology is Always a Trade-Off

This is part one of a five part series exploring Neil Postman’s lecture “Five Things You Need to Know about Technological Change” as it relates to church life and spirituality.

1. Technology is Always a Trade-Off

image When I was a youth pastor (that’s me in the orange at GBC), I desperately wanted to get a video projector. I wanted to be able to illustrate with video clips, play Halo with the kids, and display an outline of what I was teaching. After a long wait, a church member donated an old projector to the youth group and I was totally exited.

About six months later, however, I noticed something strange – fewer and fewer kids were bringing their Bible to church, and those that brought them rarely opened them during church. Was I the world’s worst youth pastor, I wondered? Maybe, but it might also have been that since the Scripture was always on screen, the kids didn’t feel any reason to open their own Bibles.

This is a classic example of how introducing a new technology tends to be a trade-off of some kind. These kinds of changes have been well-documented in society at large, but it is also true in the church. Here are a few examples:

  • In the 12th and 13th centuries, Benedictine monks created the mechanical clock to precisely regulate their seven periods of daily devotion, but the clock has also contributed to our fast-paced, often impersonal worship services today.
  • In the 15th and 16th centuries, the printing press brought personal copies of the Bibles which increased personal Bible study, but also decreased in the authority of the church and the reading of Scripture in community.
  • In the 20th century, transportation technologies like the automobile enabled us to drive to the church of our choice, but also tended to take us away from our immediate communities.
  • The 20th century also brought a host of media technologies like photography, radio, TV, and the internet. The microphone enabled the formation of today’s large (and mega) churches which allows pooling of resources and gifted teaching, but also lends toward congregants knowing very few of the people they sit next to.

Postman’s conception of

Great Quote: Sigmund Freud

Freud had some great observations about how the technology of his day (wired telephones and railroads) were affecting his world. This quote summarizes his feelings:

“If there had been no railway to conquer distance, my child would never have left town and I should need no telephone to hear his voice.”

I love how Freud encapsulates one of today’s most fascinating phenomena: we create technology to help solve problems created by technology. This seems to beautifully capture the human condition.

(Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. New York: W. W. Norton, 1961, p. 38.)

Losers Talk about Winners and Losers in Technology

At the beginning of this clip is a humorously botched illustration about trade-offs with technology. (Disclaimer: Jake and Amir is like a funnier, much more crass version of Jim and Dwight on the The Office. Watch at your own discretion).

It goes something like this:

Imagine aliens came and offered to give us a technology that could teleport you from point A to point B. The catch was that the aliens would kill 50,000 people at random each year. Would you take the technology?

The punchline is that this describes the statistics on automobiles pretty accurately (Amir confuses cars with gangs). Cars let us “teleport” around with ease and yet many people die because of them. When someone uses the illustration, usually someone else counters with something like the number the people saved by ambulances, but the point that cars bring a positive and a negative is pretty clear.

What about the Church?

When we talk about implementing technologies like social networking, mobile phones, video projectors, and so on in our churches, what if the questions were posed this way?

Imagine someone came and offered to give your church a technology that would allow you to reach out to millions of people. The only catch was that 50,000 people a year became less able to concentrate and another 50,000 became extremely lonely. Would you accept it?

Or this way:

Ways of Thinking About Technology

image Two recent blog posts, one from Paul and Timothy Bible Conference the other from Justin Buzzard’s Buzzard Blog
offer some helpful thoughts about social networking. The conclusions
and recommendations are excellent, and I think there is room for developing a model for getting to these kinds of conclusions.

(Similarly, there has been a recent discussion of the pros and cons of Twitter at Christ and Pop Culture and a response by Owen Strachan.)

“This Can Be Used for…” Thinking

The
main idea in both articles is that “Facebook can be bad but, if used
properly, Facebook can also be a force for good.” Both authors offer
helpful lists of possible good and bad uses of Facebook. Buzzard’s is
very practical while P&T seems to be more high level. I think these
are the kinds of excellent conclusions and recommendations that we need to be
talking about in the church.

However, somtimes this kind of discussion can be a bit misleading. It has the possibility of making someone assume that because something “can be used for good” it automatically should. That can leave a reader or listener to think that we should primarly evaluate
technology on the basis of morality and usefulness. Buzzard writes,

Technology
(most, not all) is neutral and can be used for good or ill… Internet …
Dispense truth or porn… Approach technology with this lens: neutral,
good or ill.

Here, he means that technology is morally neutral. Buzzard's full presentation goes beyond this idea though to say that facebook itself is not really neutral and that it can have some effects on us just by using it.

Facebook and online life can make you more distracted, changes how you think/attention span (Buzzard)

Buzzard recognizes that Facebook itself – not just how it is used, but that it is used – tends toward distraction. This means that while Facebook may be morally neutral, it is not inherently neutral. This is an excellent way of thinking about a technology like facebook, and I think Buzzard has made some major strides in that direction.

“How Will this Technology Change Me?” Thinking

Instead
of limiting our thinking about technology to the possible moral ends,
we need to think of technology in terms of what it
demands of us and how it will influence us whether it is used for good
or bad ends.

In other words, when we evaluate a technology we need to begin, not on moral grounds or with possible good or bad ends, but with its inherent effects on us. Then we need to compare those influences to our theology of Christian Spirituality and Mission.

A Model for Theological Reflection on Technology

  1. Nature of the Technology
    – Start by asking questions like, What does this technology inherently
    demand of me? What influence will it have on me? How does it affect my
    thinking, my relating, my day-to-day actions?
  2. Theological Grounding
    Ensure that you your theology is robust and well thought out in the
    following areas: What is a human? What is a human relationship? What is
    way of being and doing for which God has made us?
  3. Theological/Technological

The Newest “Digital Native”

Here is my awesome new son (Benjamin) on his second day in the hospital.

DSC_0183

This picture is significant, first because my son is awesome, and second because he will grow up in a world where things like iPhones are commonplace. For me, the internet came into full swing in high school. For him, the formation of the internet will be something about which he'll learn as history. He will never know the world without it.

My parents grew up in a largely static technological environment
with no major technological shifts from the 40s through 60s. I am
maturing in an ever changing technological environment, accreting new
technologies each year. My little son will grow up with all of these technologies already in place – a world very
different mine or his grandparents.

Digital Natives vs. Digital Immigrants

To describe this phenomenon, Marc Prensky coined the term “digital native” in a magazine called Educational Leadership. He used to term to describe the current generation of children whose lives started after the internet age began. They are natives in the digital world, whereas we who entered the digital world later in life are “digital immigrants.” Prensky summarized what this means,

Our students are no longer “little versions of us,” as they may have been in the past. In fact, they are so different from us that we can no longer use either our 20th century knowledge or our training as a guide to what is best for them educationally.

Certainly, this is an interesting subject for general educators, but for today’s theological educators it is more than interesting – it must be an essential part of our concepts of humanity, the body of Christ, and the transmission of the Gospel.

Two Theological Issues

As I see, it there are (at least) two major issues related to the digital native vs. digital immigrant divide.

  1. Theology of the Word – The term the “word of God” is used throughout Scripture, but it tends refers mainly to the person of Christ and God’s communication to us (ironically, the biblical authors do not use the term “word of God” to refer to Scripture). Since the digital age modifies how we understand communication, the idea of “word” will need to be reexamined by both natives and immigrants.
  2. Theology of Relationality – The “image of God” means, at least in part, that humans are relational beings. In the digital age, many relationships are mediated by some form of technology, meaning that digital natives will understand “it is not good for humankind to be alone” differently than digital immigrants. For our churches to function as the “Body of Christ” we will need to be aware of how technology may separate the right hand from the left.