Dostoevsky’s 1984 Saved Him from Our Brave New World

1984 vs. Brave New World

In the introduction to Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman contrasts the worries about future technology by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Though much has been made about the totalitarian government depicted in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Postman highlights how Orwell and Huxley’s contrasting worries play out in information and importance. While Orwell worried that good information would be hidden by a scary government, Huxley worried good information would be hidden in a pile of insignificance.

Postman’s words were recently amazingly illustrated by Stuart McMillen. Here is one of the panels

Orwell-Information

Huxley Informatino

Continue reading Dostoevsky’s 1984 Saved Him from Our Brave New World

Everything’s Amazing, Nobody’s Happy

Comedian Louis CK was on Conan O’Brien recently and did a hilarious job of illustrating what happens after several generations pass and the kinds of problems we see in the world shift:

His observations are a great example of Neil Postman’s idea that Technology Tends to Become Mythic – technology that was once new eventually becomes something we assume has always been around. After it has been around long enough, we often forget the large problem it originally solved and complain about increasingly smaller and smaller “problems.” Sometimes a comedian does a better job communicating than a professor – the medium is the message.

Five Things We the Church Need to Know About Technology (5 of 5): Technology Tends to Become Mythic

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

  1. Technology Is Always a Trade-Off
  2. Technology Creates Winners and Losers
  3. Technology Contains a Powerful Idea
  4. Technology Is Ecological, Not Additive

5. Technology Tends to Become Mythic

hand crank window 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)

Five Things We the Church Need to Know about Technological Change (4 of 5): Technology is Ecological, not Additive

This is part 4 of 5 considering the implications of Neil Postman’s Lecture, “Five Things We Need to Know about Technological Change” for the church. I have re-titled it, “Five Things We the Church Need to Know about Technological Change.”

  1. Technology is Always a Trade-Off
  2. Technology Creates Winners and Losers
  3. Technology Contains a Powerful Idea

4. Technological Change is Not Additive, It is Ecological

Remember that youth group illustration for sin where you put a drop of food coloring in a glass of water, mix it up, and then ask the audience if there is any way to “unmix” it? It’s a powerful visual meant to show that once we sin, we are changed, and we can’t go back to our former, pure state.

This illustration is also apt for what happens when a technology enters the world. New technology is not merely added alongside other things, it changes the world it enters and alters the relationships that existed before.

Societal Examples of Technology as Ecological, Not Additive

  • Mass Transit – When a city adds mass transit (buses, trains, etc.), this form of transportation does not merely sit along side cars. Instead, the ecology of the city changes. People stay in one place for longer, so they shop and eat differently. Roads wear differently, meaning there is less need for construction, or construction jobs. Gas stations, living quarters, and so on all shift around mass transit.
  • Music Downloads – There was a reason music executives feared the Internet. They knew that something like Apple’s iTunes music store would not be an additive change to the music industry, but a major ecological shift to the way music was produced, bought, sold, and consumed. They were right.

Church Examples of Technology as Ecological, Not Additive

The church too has experienced technological change in an ecological, not additive way. Of course, the changes are not always “bad,” but major shifts in the church can be traced to technological changes:

  • Printing Press – The classic example of how technological change affects the church is the story of how the printing press enabled the Protestant Reformation. Certainly many things were at play in the Reformation, but the printing press allowed Luther’s writings and – perhaps more importantly – his German translation of the Scriptures to make it into the hands of commoners. Before the printing press, the Bible was in Latin and the authority was in the Roman Church. Afterwards, the Bible was in many languages and authority was dispersed. Before Gutenberg, no one ever said, “Read your Bible.”
  • Large Church Buildings – The 1950s saw the formation of the megachurch, powered by large buildings, microphones, and speakers. But the megachurch-era didn’t just usher in large Sunday mornings – it oversaw the formation of age, gender, and interest based sub-ministries within churches. Before 2,000 member churches were common, there were few college ministries, young adult ministries, or dedicated youth ministries in the form we see them today. Consider this difference:
    • Twenty 100 member churches require 20 teaching pastors
    • One 2,000 member church requires 1 teaching pastor, 3 associate pastors, 1 adult pastor, 1 youth pastor, 2 secretaries, 1 janitor, 2 worship leaders, 1 sound board guy, etc.

Just as the church was never the same after the printing press and the megachurch, churches will continue to change from recent technologies, perhaps most significantly from the Internet.

Hopefully, by realizing that technology is ecological rather than merely additive, we can guard against trends which would make the body of Christ into the cyborg of Christ :) But as my good friend Josh points out, the Spirit seems to work his way both in spite of and through technology. So let us be like Sons of Issachar, who “understood the times” (1 Chron. 12:32) and be wise, neither fully embracing, nor fully rejecting technology.

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.

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?

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