Five Things We the Church Need Know About Technological Change (3 of 5): There is a Powerful Idea Embedded in Every Technology

This is part 3 of a five part series based on Neil Postman’s lecture “Five Things We Need to Know about Technological Change” applied to the church.

  1. Technology is Always a Trade-Off
  2. Technology Creates Winners and Losers

3. There is a Powerful Idea Embedded in Every Technology

image My friend Trey is an artist and a story teller.

Whether he has his camera in hand or not, he sees the world as pictures that tell stories. His recent photography and video editing work on www.iamsecond.com shows his skill, sensitivity, and passion (its gotten great reviews). Trey’s vision illustrates the old adage attributed to Mark Twain:

To the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

The ever-witty Twain is telling us that the tools we use shape the way we see the world. Postman put it this way: Embedded in every technology is a powerful idea, sometimes two or three ideas. To the man with camera, everything looks like a picture. To the man with a computer, everything looks like information. To the man with twitter, every life event is a clever 140 character statement. Of course, we don’t need to take these aphorisms literally, but they do tell us that every technology has a prejudice, a subtle influence, or an embedded message.

King David & Technology in the Church

The catch is that those embedded messages are sometimes at odds with the Gospel and the Kingdom of Jesus Christ.

king david bridgman For example, consider the story of King David and the census (2 Samuel 24; 1 Chronicles 21). David, a lowly shepherd, became a king solely because the Lord was with him. But as king, he was presented with a powerful technology – the ability to count his soldiers and people. Whatever that technology was, it communicated that numbers – big numbers – were important. David sinned when he began to trust more in the number of his soldiers than in sovereignty of God. There was nothing morally wrong with counting, but the powerful idea behind counting had an influence on David’s spirituality. If he had thought through the implications of the technology of the census, perhaps he could have still used it without putting God second.

If Postman is right that technology always has a trade-off of some kind, then there is a chance that incorporating a new medium or technology in the church (or our personal lives) will have some influences which are compatible with Christianity and some which are not. Our task is to spend some time thinking about these influences before we implement them. Of course, most technology has the embedded message of “speed” which says, “don’t think about technology – just try to keep up!”

However, there are a few recent examples of technological products whose creator seem to have though through their possible negative messages and attempted to counteract it:

  • Nintendo Wii – By definition you play the Wii inside, but every 20 minutes or so, it tells you that you should go outside and play. This may not seem like a big deal, but when a $250 product is telling you “Stop using me,” that’s pretty amazing.
  • ROOV – For all the personal connections that Social Networks allow, they also encourage us to relate through a technology and not face to face. ROOV on the other hand is specifically designed to facilitate “offline” face to face relationships.

Perhaps if we spend some time thinking like Nintendo and Roov, we could enable the beautiful story-tellers, like Trey, while avoiding some of the pitfalls into which even great leaders like King David fell.