I don’t know about you, but I find it so much more engaging to worship God without the artificial enhancements of sound systems and electric lighting, to worship God in more natural ways, under the open sky, with my naked feet in touch with the earth. It may sound strange to worship God this way, in this day and age. Yet if we recall the story of Jesus, this is often how he and his earliest followers engaged with God – praising and praying as they crossed fields, mountains, and lakes. It wasn’t so strange to them.
If you are interested in the cultural implications of computer technologies, I highly recommend reading this article from Neil Postman on “Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change.” He sums it up as follows:
“And so, these are my five ideas about technological change. First, that we always pay a price for technology; the greater the technology, the greater the price. Second, that there are always winners and losers, and that the winners always try to persuade the losers that they are really winners. Third, that there is embedded in every great technology an epistemological, political or social prejudice. Sometimes that bias is greatly to our advantage. Sometimes it is not. The printing press annihilated the oral tradition; telegraphy annihilated space; television has humiliated the word; the computer, perhaps, will degrade community life. And so on. Fourth, technological change is not additive; it is ecological, which means, it changes everything and is, therefore, too important to be left entirely in the hands of Bill Gates. And fifth, technology tends to become mythic; that is, perceived as part of the natural order of things, and therefore tends to control more of our lives than is good for us.”
Over the holidays I found myself reading Charles P. Pierce’s “Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free” and found a number of points of resonance with Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death”, though in somewhat more colourful language:
“’Television is an emotional medium,’ Cline explains. ‘It doesn’t do reason well. This is entertainment, not analysis or reasoned discourse. Never employ a tightly reasoned argument where a flaming sound bite will do. The argument of the academic is sort of dull, but a good pissing match is fun to watch.'”
“But his views on the subject are better known than those of someone doing the actual research, who, alas, likely is not as gifted a broadcaster as he is.”
“Everything is entertainment now”
“The potent narcotic of reassuring simplicity.”
This gets me thinking about cultural shifts. The transition of culture from modernity to postmodernity broughts us many intellectual critiques of intellectualism, highlighting the limits of logic and the need for cognitive humility. Over time however I think popular culture has pendulum swung into anti-intellectualism and arrogant emotionalism, a kind of romanticism on steroids. Holism still proves elusive.
I’ve been meaning to jot this down for a while. Here is a collection of quotes from Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves To Death” that I found particularly thought provoking:
Epistemology and Media
“Every epistemology is the epistemology of a stage of media development.”
“This fact is the principal legacy of the telegraph: By generating an abundance of irrelevant information, it dramatically altered what may be called the ‘information-action ratio.'”
“We may say then that the contribution of the telegraph to public discourse was to dignify irrelevance and amplify impotence.”
“…civilized people everywhere consider the burning of a book a vile form of anti-intellectualism. But the telegraph demands that we burn its contents. the value of telegraphy is undermined by applying the tests of permanence, continuity or coherence.”
“And because of all this, the world as depicted by the telegraph began to appear unmanageable … And because of all this, the world as depicted by the telegraph began to appear unmanageable, even undecipherable.”
“By itself, a photograph cannot deal with the unseen, the remote, the internal, the abstract.”
“Its testimony is powerful but it offers no opinions–no ‘should-have-beens’ or ‘might-have-beens.'”
“Photography is preeminently a world of fact, not of dispute about facts or of conclusions to be drawn from them.”
“All understanding begins with our not accepting the world as it appears.”
“But there is no such thing as a photograph taken out of context, for a photograph does not require one.”
Like telegraphy, photography recreates the world as a series of idiosyncratic events. There is no beginning, middle, or end in a world of photographs, as there is none implied by telegraphy. the world is atomized. There is only a present and it need not be part of any story that can be told.”
“By the end of the nineteenth century, advertisers and newspapermen had discovered that a picture was not only worth a thousand words, but, where sales were concerned, was better.”
“The pseudo-context is the last refuge, so to say, of a culture overwhelmed by irrelevance, incoherence, and impotence.”
“a duet of image and instancy”
“Television is our culture’s principal mode of knowing about itself. Therefore – and this is the critical point – how television stages the world becomes the model for how the world is properly to be staged.”
“They do not exchange ideas; they exchange images.”
“There can be no liberty for a community which lacks the means by which to detect lies.”
“In a world of discontinuities, contradiction is useless as a test of truth or merit, because contradiction does not exist.”
“The public has adjusted to incoherence and been ‘Now… This’ amused into indifference.”
“Not everything is televisible.”
“There are several characteristics of television and its surround that converge to make authentic religious experience impossible.”
“There is no way to consecrate the space in which a television show is experienced.”
“The television screen itself has a strong bias toward a psychology of secularism.”
Entertainment and Spirituality
“I believe I am not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether.”
“The spectacle we find in true religions has as its purpose enchantment, not entertainment.”
“Enchantment is the means through which we may gain access to sacredness. Entertainment is the means through which we distance ourselves from it.”
“What Huxley teaches is that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate.”
I was just reading Christianity Today’s Top 5 Books On Technology and noted that Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman get a heavy plug. Books on media theory and the dumbing down of social discourse seem to be grabbing my attention of late.
Still mulling over Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, Huxley’s Brave New World, the Manga Bible and now Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. Principally in terms of the difference between text-based culture and image-based culture, and photography vs iconography. Question: to what degree are photos capable of functioning as narrative art?
We are flooded with photos from around the world and across time, but without context they can function for little else but novel amusement, for infotainment. Note the world wide web dominance of LOLcats for instance. O brave new world, I can see you in my SEO stats! And I can see your influence in worship services.
But as I have frequently intimated, without context, without narrative, the liturgical and iconographical potential of art is diminished. So its a key question for me now, given photography is ubiquitous, can it sustain a narrative without a human narrator? If so, how? Even if it is difficult, how?
New Scientist had the crystal ball out this week, reporting on “seven disruptive technologies that will change the coming decade”. In brief, they say we should keep an eye on:
- Robot Travel (commuting via telepresence, like in “Surrogates”)
- Augmented Cities (the looking glass invades shopping malls)
- Evolved invention (the automation of scientific discovery)
- 3D Printing (beyond models, we’ll be printing buildings)
- Brain-Machine Mergers (both invasive and non invasive)
- Text Mining (data mining of social networks for prediction)
- Digital Wallets (the back pocket bulge is no more)
Now, I’ve spoken on most of these technologies before, because every one of them already exists in embryonic form. But what I think warrants further consideration is this: if these technologies mainstream as they mature, and if they reshape culture as profoundly as the pundits are promising, how do we respond in terms of the cultural contextualization of Christian discipleship?
Here’s some questions that pop into my head, in no particular order.
- Will digital wallets fuel consumption? Some say yes.
- Could 3D printing be utilized for disaster relief?
- How might text mining enhance culture watching?
- Are there ethical land mines in brain-machine interfaces?
- Beyond helping the disabled, may it also fuel transhumanism?
- Could an artifical eye be hacked?
- Could telepresence lead to micro-term mission trips?
- What will creationist pastors make of evolutionary algorithms?
- Automation of theological inquiry and innovation?
- Is the singularity upon us even without artifical consciousness?
What do you think other opportunities and threats might be?
Can you any strengths and weaknesses in these technologies?
Whatever you think, as I said, whether we like it or not these technologies already exist in embryonic form. So there is an over-riding question that stands above all this: do we seek to be culture shapers or, decades later, the culturally shapped upon?
Is it just me or are faith conversations becoming less and less frequent online? I get the impression that, as Facebook becomes more and more public, the conversations are becoming more ‘safe’ and secularized.
I feel it myself. Whereas, when I began blogging, there was this subversive community feel to the whole thing, these days my Dad and cousins and everyone gets to see what I put in my status updates. So there’s this constant temptation to tone things down, less I be perceived as a religious nut. When social media becomes so public, where is the space for special interest conversation?
JewPS: track Jews with your iPhone. At first glance I wondered if neonazi skinheads or the Islamic Jihad was behind this one, but noooo. According to Keren Hayesod and the Jewish iPhone community it’s a kosher GPS app that is coming soon for iPhones. I’m still not sure what to think. If it’s genuine I can only imagine how it will fuel underground cultural and religious evolution.
Non-fatal baptisms are still a work in progress.
I’ve been thinking of ways to have fun with holographic multi-site pastors. Here’s the first five that come to mind for me:
- Approach the dais in a white frock and exclaim, “Help me, Pastor Kenobi, you’re my only hope.”
- Suggest the men’s ministry leaders combine mixed martial arts ministry with Star Wars chess, “But, let the Wookies win.”
- Front up on Sundays with a Ghostbusters proton pack, ecto-goggles and a ghost trap.
- Voice over, “Please state the nature of the ministry emergency” when multi-site celebrity guy is “activated” on stage.
- Paint a big “H” on his forehead and carry on about curries
This could be the best thing since church street signs.
Can you think of any more?