Technological Passivity

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By Jim Tune

The workshop was called “Technology, Social Media, and the Church.” As the presenter spoke enthusiastically about opportunities new technologies offer the church, he explained that technology is neutral, and that it can be used for good or evil. The important thing, he said, is that we use it to advance the gospel.

I’ve made similar remarks. While it’s true technology can be used for good or evil, I’m not so certain it is neutral. Christians say, “The methods change, but the message stays the same.” Not so. The medium always affects the message.

In the mid-1960s Canadian intellectual Marshall McLuhan put it succinctly: “The medium is the message.” McLuhan, who was ahead of his time, also coined the expression “global village” and predicted the advent of the World Wide Web decades before the Internet was invented.

The medium always shapes the message. Take the printed word. Before the printing press, communication was mostly oral, knowledge was local, and illiteracy was normal. The printed word transcended borders, fueled the Protestant Reformation, broke the social dominance of the literate elite, and bolstered the growth of the middle class. The printing press was the first assembly line, the prototype for much of the modern mechanization that followed. For the first time in history, the printed word became the standard way of communicating and learning in the Western world.

In his book Flickering Pixels, Shane Hipps asserts that the values of efficiency and linear sequence even reshaped the gospel. Hipps says, “Under the force of the printed word, the gospel message was efficiently compressed into a linear sequential formula.” That formula:

Such a stunning compression of the gospel would not have been possible prior to the age of the printed word.” The medium, in this case, truncates the message.

Consider TV. Walk into a room full of people and turn on the TV. Notice how the dynamic totally changes. If you switch on a nature channel, within 30 minutes you might see a lioness give birth to cubs, a cheetah run down a gazelle, and a mother ostrich care for a brood of chicks that just hatched before your very eyes! In real life, however, you could leave a camera on location for 30 days and not see any of those events. Media, the constraints of editing, the need to entertain—all those things work to distort, abbreviate, or change the message.

The same is true of social media. Services like Facebook present only an edited and carefully curated version of our real selves. Social media forces us to take our identity and push it through the filters of the medium. Like meat through a sausage grinder, what comes out of the other side is both like and unlike what we started with.

In Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, McLuhan was even more blunt: “Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot.”

Having structured our lives around such mediums, it becomes difficult to think critically about them. No medium is passive. Perhaps it’s time for the rest of us to become less passive about our blanket acceptance of their neutrality.

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