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 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.
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.
I love pulling out my iPhone – which I got just after my son was born – to show people pictures of my new little son. And I love a lot of the other things it does well like email, music, web browsing, and so on. At the same time, the recent ads for iPhone apps tell a lot about what we as a society think about our problems and the solutions to those problems.
Here’s how the ad ends,
That’s the iPhone, solving life’s dilemmas, one app at a time.
The iPhone is in fact amazingly good at solving certain kinds of problems, and it does so in really a really fun, slick way.
So What’s Missing?
While there are a lot of cool apps out there, I checked the iTunes store and I couldn’t find a single app that would solve any of the deepest “dilemmas” of human life such as piecing together a shattered marriage, making an ethical business decision, or stopping a bloody conflict between an Arab and Western country.
That doesn’t mean the iPhone is morally useless, but it does mean that the iPhone is limited to only solving certain “problems” and most of those problems are not terribly significant. Yet, the iPhone advertisers would have us believe otherwise by connecting the language of significance (“life’s dilemmas”) to what primarily amounts to consumerism (buying more songs).
Over time, if we’re not careful, we can start redefining what we think of as “problems” and “solutions” on the basis of what is advertised to us. It reminds me of a something Andy Crouch said in his book Culture Making:
The record of technology as science – relieving human beings of specific burdens and disease – is splendid. The record of technology as a metaphor for being human is disastrous…. The biggest cultural mistake we can indulge in is to yearn for technological “solutions” to our deepest cultural “problems.” – Andy Crouch, Culture Making, p. 60.
What Do We Have to Show for It?
Christians must not forget that we alone have something unique that cannot be bought, sold, packaged, or marketed – and that it is the only thing that can solve the deepest of “life’s dilemmas.”
Certainly medicine, projectors, and air conditioning help with certain human ailments, and they can be used in the mission of the church. But as we use these tools, we must resist the message that holding devices and pressing buttons is what ultimately makes the world a more redeemed, tender, or loving place.
The book is now out of print, but I have an unmarked copy, so if you’d like it, please leave a comment below (an RSS feed add would be great too, but of course not required). I’ll choose a random person in a week or so.
(also, please note that there is a point being made in this post)
My boss tells a great story about the first time his 7-year-old son Jacob saw a car with rollup windows. He came running in the house and said,
“Dad, we have GOT to get a car with those awesome cranks!”
For little Jacob, a motorized window was the default kind of window. To him, it was as normal as a tree or cloud. He couldn’t imagine the world without them, but he hadn’t yet learned that he was only supposed to think of new things as “cool.”
Technology as Mythic in Culture
Every culture has things that started as “new,” but over time become “normal.” We eat hotdogs at baseball games, we have 12 grades, we wear tuxedos to weddings, and so on. These go unquestioned, because it’s just the way thing are. In this sense, they have become mythic. (Here a myth is not a fairy tale – it is a shared story that powerfully operates in a culture. In reality it might be true or false, but in either case it is influential).
Technology too eventually becomes mythic and unquestioned. Once a human invention seems like it has always been here – whether it’s a blow drier, Google maps, or the alphabet – it has achieved mythic status. It has become the default against which we judge other things. The only thing we can’t do (without appearing a complete fool) is question technology that has become mythic.
Technology as Mythic in the Church
We the church have also allowed technology and beliefs about technology to become unquestioned, or mythic. Here are a few examples:
Personal Bibles – We all know that it’s good to have a personal copy of the Bible. In fact, most of us have several. But this is a really new and recent phenomenon. Before the printing press made Bibles widely available, the only exposure one had to Scripture was the public reading of the community’s copy. While I love my copies of the Bible (and my Bible software), I also lament that few Christians today know more than a handful of a verses by heart, whereas many believers before the printing press memorized entire books!
Technology = Progress – This is the foundational belief of our modern world. We believe that the more high tech something is, the better life will be. In reality this is mostly false, especially for Christians. High tech nations are not happier than low tech nations, and high tech churches are not more sanctified than low tech churches. The use of technology to reach a technological culture is wonderful, but we should be careful not to think more highly of that form of ministry than learning Cantonese to reach a Cantonese-speaking culture.
It is ironic that we young people who enjoy bucking trends and catch phrases like “Think Different” and “Question Everything” are so unwilling to question our technology. For us, it is like questioning our gender, our nationality, or mom’s apple pie. But if we are to be “in the world, but not of the world” we must question the technology we use and not allow it to become a more powerful myth than the great true myth of Christ’s power over all things.
My prayer is not that you take them out of the [technological] world but that you protect them from the evil one. (John 17:15)