On Tornadoes, Piper, and Godwin’s Law

Crash, Bang!

1964 SteepleIn case you missed it, there were some storms last week. First there was a tornado.

Then John Piper offered an interpretation of the tornado and a bigger storm hit. In a mere 24 hours, there were hundreds of comments, thousands of tweets, and dozens of counter-posts by pastors (Boyd, Jones), professors (McKight), and others (Spencer, Kinnon, Coker).

I have no desire to further the debate over whether Dr. Piper’s assessment was correct. Personally, I think John Piper has served the Lord well in his time on earth, and any critique I would offer of his ministry would amount to little more than a baby whale spouting next to an aircraft carrier. What I am interested in is what we can learn from the story of Piper and his critics about Internet theological discourse regarding contentious issues.

Godwin’s Law for Christian Discourse

When it comes to Internet theological debate on hot topics, there seems to be a sort of Christian Godwin’s Law at work. If you’re not familiar with it, Godwin’s Law was humorously submitted by Mike Godwin almost 20 years ago in the early days of the Internet. It states:

As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.

In other words, debates will inevitably end with one person comparing the other person’s views to Hitler. It turns out that if you replace “Hitler” with “heresy,” you’d describe about 86% of debates on Christian blogs and forums on hot topics. In the case of Piper, he made a similar argument about calamities previously, but no one seemed to notice since it didn’t touch a contentious issue. However, when he made a case that addressed the issue of homosexuality, the “h” word came out within hours.

Now we could dismiss this by saying that people argue on any medium. And that’s true – remember Cain and Abel? But I think that the Internet itself, for all its strengths and all the promise it offers, is uniquely suited toward pushing these controversial debates further and further, and below I offer three such reasons why this is almost always the inevitable result. Continue reading On Tornadoes, Piper, and Godwin’s Law

Internet Anonymity, Like Fig Leaves and AA, Can Be a Means of Grace

There has been quite a bit of recent discussion asking how “real” Internet community is. However, for me, it’s more helpful to ask, “What kind of community is the Internet distinctly good at creating?” One answer is that the Internet is good at fostering anonymity.

Of course, we all know that anonymity can have a very negative impact on a person and their actions, but it can also be a very powerful tool for certain kinds of ministry. The following video about Tim Kimberley, a pastor in Portland, OR who runs helives.com is a great example:

Tim, who is also a dear friend of mine, says,

There are many people who feel more comfortable behind their keyboard than behind a pew. The Internet seems like such an anonymous place. It seems like such a place where people can pretend whoever they’re going to be. What we found, especially with teenagers is that online a teenagers has no reason to lie.

They’re anonymous in the identity, but they’re not anonymous in their heart. And so we had teenagers say things to us that are so raw . I would think to myself, ‘A teenager would never walk up to me in church and ask me what they just asked me.’

With helives.com, Tim has harnessed Internet anonymity and used it to create a healing environment for teens.

Continue reading Internet Anonymity, Like Fig Leaves and AA, Can Be a Means of Grace

Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology

Better Off by Eric BrendeBetter Off (2005, Harper Perennial) is probably the most clever title of any technology book I’ve read.

The book is Eric Brende’s retelling of his 18 months living with a lo-tech Mennonite-like community as part of his graduate work in MIT’s STS Program which studies the influence of technology on society. What makes the book so fun is that its not an abstract work full of theories and technical terms, but instead tells a fascinating true story of a family’s attempt to draw closer together by turning off our super connected world. Continue reading Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology

Online Questions for Offline Churches: Is Communion Just A Cracker?

Communion: the bread and the wine Whenever new church models, technologies, and techniques come along there are some who embrace them and some who question them. For me, it has been interesting to see how some of the questions about the “new” are equally valid to ask about the “old.”

In “Online Questions for Offline Churches.” I’ll look at some of the questions raised about recent high tech church models and how they reflect back on the churches who choose not to partake in the new models.

In this post, we’ll jump right into the online communion question which was covered by Newsweek last fall. Continue reading Online Questions for Offline Churches: Is Communion Just A Cracker?

Tools for Tech Thinking: Andy Crouch on Twitter

Culture Making by Andy CrouchIn the last post, we introduced McLuhan’s Four Laws of Media as a tool for understanding how technology affects us.

This time we’ll look at the questions Andy Crouch has developed in his book Culture Making. He suggests that we should distinguish between “cultural artifacts” (rituals or physical things we make) and the culture(s) that develop in and around them. On his website – www.culture-making.com – visitors apply his five questions to a variety of cultural artifacts, and we’ll apply them to Twitter to see what new things we can learn about it.

1. What does Twitter assume about the world?

  • Twitter – like many of today’s technologies – assumes a world that already has a lot of other technologies such as the internet and mobile phones.
  • More importantly, Twitter assumes that lots of people are constantly connected to some kind of internet enabled device, but are physically disconnected from their friends.

2. What does Twitter assume about the way the world should be?

Twitter wants to make the world better by connecting these physically disconnected people. As Twitter puts it on their home page,

Twitter is a service for friends, family, and co–workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?

In other words, Twitter assumes friends should “stay connected” throughout the day and that the vehicle for this should be “quick, frequent” status messages.

3. What does Twitter make possible?

  • Twitter makes it possible to know a lot about what people are thinking and doing without actually being around them. One interesting result is that friends who see each other infrequently can be up to speed about one another’s life when they meet, allowing them to move quickly into deeper conversation.
  • Twitter also makes it possible to send and receive breaking information extremely quickly. Recently, earthquakes in China, forest fires in California, and a plane crash in Denver were first reported on Twitter by those experiencing the event.
  • Twitter users occasionally use their status to ask their follower for quick help with certain kinds of problems (usually technical).
  • Twitter also makes it possible to quickly organize an event or movement of people (see question 5).

4. What does Twitter make impossible (or at least a lot more difficult)?

  • Theoretically, Twitter makes it impossible to be completely disconnected from one’s friends. However, if one were to follow a few hundred people and read every message that came in, Twitter would also make it impossible to do anything else. It would be impossible to do any meaningful activity (at work or in physically present relationships) while stopping to read a short message every few minutes. A quick Google search on “twitter overload” suggests is an all too common phenomenon.
  • Twitter users often find themselves thinking or saying, “I should so twitter about that.” In a way, Twitter makes it difficult to not consider every event as something worth mentioning on the Internet.
  • When a user has Twitter open for several hours and then closes it, it can be difficult not to wonder “What is everyone doing?” or “Did someone @reply me?” Much like the feeling of phantom waves after being in the ocean for a few hours, the waves of Twitter conversation can take time to die down.
  • Twitter also makes it impossible to share any more than 140 characters. Of course, one can still use other tools for more than 140 characters, but this limitation does shape the kinds of communication found on Twitter.

5. What new culture is created in response to Twitter?

Hundreds of new tools and websites (i.e. new “cultural artifacts”) have been created in response to Twitter, some to extend its functionality, others to help with the aforementioned “twitter overload,” and still others that copy its features.

In addition to new artifacts, a new kind of cultural/communal meeting called a Tweetup has been created by Twitter users. A recent example is Train Friday, an event organized in just a few days by Dallas-area Twitter, many of whom had never met in person.

Conclusions

Crouch’s five questions prove to be another useful tool for understanding not just “How can I use a technology?” but “What does it mean to use this technology?” and “How will this technology change me and the world?” Of course, this is not an exhaustive look at twitter or use of Crouch’s ideas, but I hope it gives you a good start.

Tools for Tech Thinking: McLuhan on Twitter

MarshallMcLuhan The first question we usually ask about technology is “How can this technology be used?” However, as stewards of creation the deeper questions that we should first ask are, “What does it mean to use this technology?” and “How will using this technology affect people?”

Thankfully, there are great thinkers out there than can have developed tools we can use to better understand the nature of a technology. In this first installment, we’ll look at Marshall McLuhan’s Four Laws of Media (also called the Tetrad) from his book Laws of Media and apply them to Twitter as an example.

1. What does Twitter extend?

Twitter-256x256 A car extends our feet and ability to travel. A phone extends our voice and ability to communicate.

  • Twitter also extends our voice, but in a very specific way. It  extends our ability stay “in conversation” about our daily activities and thoughts.

2. What does Twitter make obsolete?

On a technology level, the car made riding horses obsolete. On a human level, cars make walking to a destination obsolete.

  • Twitter makes obsolete older tools like a quick Budweiser “Waaas Up?” phone call, a blog post, or an email. On a human level, it can also make obsolete catching up conversations around a water cooler .

3. What does Twitter retrieve?

A few hundred years ago, when people lived in small communities and worked together regularly, everyone knew what everyone was up to. Today’s large cities take this away.

  • Twitter, along with a lot of social technologies, can retrieve this age-old sense of connectedness. For friends who live in different cities or work in distant offices, Twitter can retrieve the sense of knowing what one’s friends are doing and thinking.

image 4. What does Twitter reverse into if it is over-extended?

This is McLuhan’s “negative” question where he gives examples like the ability to project one’s voice is lost if the microphone is overused and the ability to walk long distances is lost when one relies on vehicles.

  • Twitter can connect physically distant individuals, but when overused it can also isolate a person from those who are physically near (like spouses) reversing into a state of more disconnectedness.
  • Twitter can also reverse into a level of shallowness, because communication is limited to 140 characters.
  • Twitter can also reverse into a mess of noise and distraction since so many voices are speaking  at the same time.

Of course, this is not an exhaustive understanding of Twitter (or McLuhan’s thoughts!), but just applying these four questions sheds a lot of light on what Twitter is.

In the comments, feel free to apply McLuhan’s questions to another technology!