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Technology: today’s idol

Communication is faster – and vastly less thoughtful

-Tim Challies talks to Mark Powell-

Tim Challies is a pioneer in the Christian blogosphere, having one of the most widely read and recognised Christian blogs anywhere. He is editor of Discerning Reader, a site dedicated to offering discerning reviews of books that are of interest to Christians, and author of The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment. A self-employed author and web designer, Tim lives with his family on the outskirts of Toronto, Ontario.

You yourself are a blogger. With all that’s available to us on the web, why should we even bother going to a book?

I think the main benefit of books is that there’s a whole development process that goes into making a book. So, when people say “Blogs are eventually going to replace books”, they don’t know what they’re talking about, because the two are different media. Blogs are quick and urgent and largely unedited. Books go through this long laborious process of research and writing and editorial. Most people don’t know this, but when you submit a book to a publisher it’s usually six to 12 months before that book is actually released, and in that time it’s going through this very thorough process. So I think that books offer a much deeper, more editorialised view of a subject, whereas blogs are very urgent. If somebody passes away today, we can write a blog about their life tomorrow. A more in-depth and thoughtful approach will be a year later when we’ve actually written a book about him or her.

In your book The Next Story, you talk about the history of different forms of communication. How does that shape and even change how we view ourselves?

We as human beings are in some ways a product of our technology. Technologies form us. When you go back and look through human history you see that our means of communication changed and then there are many other changes that come about as a result. And so, you can really trace human history by these changes and modes of communication. You can look back to the printing press, back to the telegraph, even back to the Roman road system which was in its own strange way a communication system.

Recently we’ve come to the internet, this digital world, and it’s really changing everything about us. And so we’re just learning as we go. We think we’ve just started when we get an email account, or we’ve just started using the internet, but what we haven’t realised is that we’re actually changing ourselves, we’re changing everything about us, and that’s something that we usually only see later through the rear-view mirror.

In The Next Story, you say that technology is not value-neutral. What are some of the underlying values that are shaping the users of digital technology and social media perhaps without them even realising it?

Well, certainly digital media is about urgency and that’s sort of what we’ve been speaking about – that things can appear in an instant and get around the world in a flash. Just think back to the history of some of the terrible things that have happened over the history of the Internet. Somebody puts out a tweet and very quickly, I mean instantly, it’s around the earth. And so, the internet values that urgency.

You were saying to me earlier, “I used to blog but then Facebook came along.” Well, blogging required some level of thoughtfulness because it’s associated with your name and you know it’s going to live on at your blog. Facebook values urgency because once you post it, it’s gone. You’re probably never going to see it again. So again, there’s a lot of urgency in the digital world that is making us live faster-paced lives, but I also think it is reducing the amount of thought and time we ponder things before we release them to the rest of the world.

I love to read the Puritans. And the Puritans have this way of taking a big idea and then shortening it to a quick sentence. And so, they were “tweeting” in their own way long before Twitter. If you read Matthew Henry you’ll see that he has a paragraph and then he has this sentence, and that sentence is gold. But that sentence didn’t just happen. He had to take lots of time into developing that idea and boiling it down to one small thing. I don’t think we’re doing that today. We’re just being urgent rather than thoughtful.

“Technology is very closely related to idolatry. Our technologies have a way of feeding our idolatries.”

You talk in your book about the various idols in our hearts that fuel our addiction to the internet. Can you explain what you mean by that particular dynamic?

I think if you look at the history of technology through a Christian lens you will see that technology is very closely related to idolatry. Our technologies have a way of feeding our idolatries. Once I make an idol out of popularity I will want to be popular and well-known. And technology is very able to help feed that idolatry. You can see that, usually in other people, how technology furthers their idolatry.

Of course, it’s also true that technology also furthers noble purposes. So, if we’re true about seeing God’s Word go out, and we really want to see people encouraged, technology is able to help us with that as well. On that note, I love Gospel Coalition Australia. It is one of the sites that I follow. I read it every day and I think it’s a great example of people using technology to reach out to a country and to reach a group of people. Technology is wonderful at doing that. Again, it’s not value-neutral, but on the other hand it can always be harnessed for really good purposes. But we just have to have an awareness that those bad things can seep in as well. So, we’ve got to be mindful of that.

What are some of the overall attitudes that Christians should have when approaching digital technology and social media? 

I think we should see it in one sense as an inevitable development. We have to recognise that this is the world in which we live. You speak to some parents and they say, “I don’t let my kids do this, and I don’t let my kids do that.” But part of our parenting now is teaching our kids to use these things well. We only get 18 to 19 years with our kids before they’re gone. By the time our kids are gone we ought to have trained and mentored them into how to use these things. Our kids have to be media-savvy. They have to be able to use these things without completely falling apart as soon as they’re out of our sight. It is a very important thing that people frequently overlook.

And then, again, we have to guard against our sense of urgency. There’s very little that we need to say right now. For every tweet that you write, delete nine out of ten of them and you’ll be a better person. The world will certainly be better for it.

Just be aware that face-to-face communication is still better. Email, Facetime and Twitter are all good. But there’s something about face-to-face. The big promise of the Gospel is that we get to see God face-to-face in Jesus Christ. We love the Bible, we’re longing for the day we can be face-to-face. I am not knocking the Bible: it’s just an acknowledgement that being face-to-face is better – that’s what we long for. And I think we’ve got to realise that. And it applies to our digital communications as well.

“Email, Facetime and Twitter are all good. But there’s something about face-to-face. The big promise of the Gospel is that we get to see God face-to-face in Jesus Christ.”

In a chapter in your book, you talk about the danger of distraction, especially in relation to digital technology. What impact do you think that is having on us spiritually?

When I first wrote the book the iPad had just come along and so we were looking at that as a Bible replacement. And at the time people were writing articles saying, “Take your paper Bible with you to church. That’s very, very important.” Today, that’s irrelevant. You look around and very few have a printed Bible. It’s just that media goes on, technology goes on.

The beauty of the Bible is that it was a single function device. You’d be reading your Bible and you’d never get a buzz or a little notification from Facebook. It only did one thing. The worst you could do was to flip to the end and see maps, and lose yourself in that. But it was a one–function device and it did that well. Our phones are equally good at showing us the Bible, and I love reading the Bible on my iPad and the opportunity to use my software for it. However, I’ve got to be aware that it’s not a single-function device. It’s almost an infinite-function device. So, if I’m using it for all of these different purposes, I need to be careful that when I want to use it for worship, or when I want to use it for Bible–reading, I’m committing to just that one thing, and that’s difficult to do.

You also mention the practice of “skimming” – when you look at a digital screen, you skim across the surface. Do we lose anything by coming to church with a digital phone or iPad, compared to say a paper book?

I think a working definition of technology is, “everything that was invented after I was born”. So, we would say that the iPad is technology. But the book was once new technology too. Jesus never used a book, and the very early church fathers didn’t use them. They used scrolls. We look at a book as being the perfect technology and since it pre-dated us, we assume that it has always existed. In fact, when we think of “the Bible” that’s what we think of – two pieces of leather with pages between them. That’s not what the Bible is. The Bible is the canon, the complete collection of God’s authoritative writings. Jesus knew the Bible as scrolls, as parchments. The point being, our kids aren’t going to think of the Bible as a “printed artefact”, they’ll think of it as an app, and it will still be God’s Word, because God’s “word” is the canon, the collected scriptures.

I think we tend to embrace technology very quickly because we see the possibilities in it. Which is, we’re very good at looking at a new technology and seeing all the great possibilities, but we’re very bad at assessing the risk. An example I like to use is the ditching of hymn books in favour of PowerPoint on the screen. That was in its own way
a very costly switch.

People have made that switch very quickly and thoughtlessly. What we lose when the hymnal goes is our collection of songs that we sing and master. That collection was semi-permanent and we added to it only slowly and very thoughtfully.

Think about this example. What happens when we get rid of our paper church directories in order to get an electronic version? Initially, it seems like a very good move. It saves money. It gets rid of printing costs. But it also gets rid of all the older people in the church – most are not on Facebook, they’re not using their computers and so now they don’t have a directory. Churches have done a lot of things where they just haven’t thought through carefully enough all the implications of changing technology and I think there’s been a cost with that.

“It’s too late to ask, ‘Should we go to go to app Bibles?’ We already have. You look around the church now and that is what you see.”

If there is one bit of advice that you could give to families with technology, what would you say?

So the edition of my book that you have been referring to is the second edition. We added that specifically for families. And that’s really because between the first and the second edition I’d changed in that way. I said it earlier and I want to re-affirm this to
parents, “It is your job as a parent to teach and train your children in using technology.” You can’t just assume that they’ll get it. You can’t assume that they’ll use it well. You must teach and train them. This is just part of your discipling of your children. It also means to some degree you’ve got to discern what they’re using. You’ve got to keep an eye on what they’re doing. You’ve got to know the apps. You’ve got to talk to somebody who is a little more up–to–date on these things. Say to them, “My kids are using this app. What should I know about it?”

I compare it to the car. You don’t just give your kids the keys to the car and say, “OK, now off you go and learn how to use it.” You go out and you train them. And then when they’ve proven themselves, they can take the car around the block. Or maybe they can drive to the shops. But you’re going to give them incrementally more and more, and I think that’s the way you have to treat devices. You should be saying to them, “You prove you can use this well, then I’ll let you use this a little more. You prove that you can do this, I’ll let you do that.” Then eventually, by the time they’re adults, hopefully we can send them off to live confidently.

Mark Powell is associate pastor at Cornerstone Presbyterian Church, Sydney

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