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December 17, 2009

7

Flickering Pixels and Message Shaping Media

by quaesitor

A couple of weeks ago, I was involved in the EA’s Digimission day with such online luminaries as Jonny Baker & Maggi Dawn – quite a fun event all round organised by the indomitable Krish Kandiah. And as if to prove how technologically on the ball it all was, we had a talk live-streamed from Phoenix Arizona by Shane Hipps (left). He is an engaging and fascinating guy – with a background in advertising (offering what he now regards as a counterfeit gospel of life-fulfilment through owning Porsches, amongst other things). He’s now a Mennonite pastor and a sought-after figure in so-called emergent circles. Copies of his book Flickering Pixels were available on the day and I was able to get one to read in advance. Click here to read the book’s opening paragraphs.

And I have to say it was a very enjoyable read indeed. I thoroughly recommend it. Clearly Marshall McLuhan is a massive influence, and indeed, he spoke of his debt to to him during his streamed address, as is (perhaps to a lesser extent) Neil Postman. The crucial insight of these scholars was to recognise that the medium of a message is by no means a neutral phenomenon. Everything from the invention of writing (as Plato had Socrates point out in his Phaedrus, with his Egyptian myth of Theuth and Thamus: oh those were the days, with the snail-paced plod through Plato’s impenetrable text for A Level – arrgrghgh) to printing, telegraph and wifi both affects the message AND the society that embraces that medium. McLuhan put it very provocatively:

The context or message of any particular medium has about as much importance as the stencilling on the casing of an atomic bomb (p25).

The Impact of Media

I found particularly helpful Hipps’ 4-fold articulation of the impact of any new medium (pp32-38):

  1. A new medium stretches, extends or amplifies some human capacity (e.g. a tennis racquet extends the ability of a hand, binoculars extend the ability of the eye, the phone the voice and ears etc)
  2. A new medium makes older technologies irrelevant or obsolete (or perhaps occasionally, to be fair, it might change how we view or use an older technology – e.g. cars didn’t render horses obsolete entirely)
  3. Every medium retrieves some experience or medium from the past (e.g. one example he gives is the surveillance camera, which is designed to protect in a way that evokes the medieval city wall)
  4. Every medium, when pushed to an extreme, will reverse in on itself, revealing unintended consequences (e.g. to takes the surveillance camera, it can actually restrict the freedom of those within the city wall).

It is this last dimension that Hipps is anxious to warn us about. We must wake up. Hipps offered in his talk, and expands in the book, 3 disturbing paradoxes of the reality of online experience, nicely summarised in 3 oxymorons (or perhaps that should be oxymora?!):

  1. We have become Tribes of Individuals
  2. We have Empathy with people online, but it is mediated, Empathy At A Distance
  3. We have the possibility of Intimate Anonymity – so that we do and share with people online things we would never open up to in real time/space.

Emergent Communities

Now one of the key yearnings of the emergent movement, it seems to me, is a striving after community – true community, life-embracing, sanctifying and gospel authentic(ating) community. And Hipps goes on to articulate some of his experiences of how media have disrupted or even broken that (e.g. through people answering mobile phones during a conversation, sharing photos with Facebook friends before closest real friends, using emails with LOTS OF SHOUTY CAPITAL LETTERS to have an argument with someone instead of just talking with them). This is very valuable stuff. And I was very struck and challenged by the Mennonite Commitments for the Times of Disagreement, which Hipps quotes in full (pp127-129). I’d not come across it before, and it is one of those things that deserves far wider readership. For as Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder is quoted as saying:

To be human is to be in conflict, to offend and to be offended. To be human in light of the gospel is to face conflict in redemptive dialogue. (p129)

So far so good. It is not hard to see why the internet is a far from ideal medium for building community life – and yet one of its most touted virtues is that it extends and creates community life (e.g. by so-called social networking) in exciting new ways. This is a word of warning that must be heeded – and its negative impact on genuine community engagement is one of its most serious consequences, a case of the medium reversing in on itself. But that doesn’t mean it should be avoided altogether. Of course Hipps is by no means saying that. It’s just that sometimes he sounds as if he might be.

I sometimes felt that towards the end, his was a case of babies and bathwater. It’s a partly question of what the web is for – and it is surely for a zillion things. That complex diversity is precisely the core of its phenomenal success, surely? It won’t inevitably destroy community, just impact it in new ways (some of which will certainly make it harder), not least because community-building is not the only thing it does (e.g. information distribution, democratic levelling, commerce, academic engagement, publishing, fun etc etc). He helpfully quotes McLuhan again, at the end of the book

There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening. (p182)

It’s just a question (again, as he says at the end) of learning how to use it rather than be used by it. Where this book does that, I think it is simply excellent. But every now and then, there are just a few too many sweeping judgments or less than careful generalisations. One example is his clever juxtaposition of an image of printed text and a photo of the serried ranks of pews in a church, with his comment, ‘after the printing press, church seating started to mirror the page of a book’ (p47 – see right – I hope this is not a copyright infringement – will remove it if so).

Well yes – it may be the case that one followed the other but there are plenty of examples in history where serried ranks of seats are found in pre-printing buildings – e.g. the chapels of medieval monasteries. It wasn’t an inevitable consequence of printing – it’s what’s called in the trade the post hoc propter hoc fallacy (familiar to all West Wing fans), which is short hand for the type of thinking that goes “because X comes after Y, X must have been caused by Y”.

Literacy Evils?

In particular, the impact of printing comes under particular fire – almost at times as the root of all evil and Public Enemy No 1 in the quest for authentic community life (I’m overstating this – but only just, I fear!).

Our entire educational system is based on the mastery of reading and writing. As long as these educational objectives remain, individualism will continue to be woven into every fiber of our beings. (p123)

Individualism is clearly one of the great flaws of western culture. But what is this saying, precisely? He’s, I’m sure, not advocating abandoning literacy programmes – after all, without them, people wouldn’t be able to understand his book. And if printing was such a problem, why publish a book in the first place? It’s interesting, for example, that the Mennonite Commitments for the Times of Disagreement mentioned above is a document distributed in print and online. Without literacy, its impact would be profoundly limited and localised. Of course, print media can and does reverse in on itself. But I suspect the advantages of not being literate are FAR outweighed by the disadvantages. I’ve said before on this blog more than once that our job so often is actually to teach people to read well: to read their culture, their influences, their music, their movies, the Bible!

Which is of course a challenge. Especially because of this phenomenon unique to our age, which Hipps articulates with great insight: the impact of the culture of technology on the generation gap.

This shift marks the first time in the history of the world that parents have limited access to the world of teens and children. Go back five hundred years to the dawn of the print age and the situation was reversed. Printing empowered adults. It led to a more pronounced elevation of adults over children It shrouded the adult world in mystery, leaving children on the outside straining to look in. A child wanting to access adult information was required to learn a complex code – phonetic literacy – which could take decades to master. (p134)

If teaching this generation to read seems a mountain to climb, then imagine how hard it must have been for those who sought to spread literacy in the post-medieval world, or in cultures which had no writing system whatsoever. And this is particularly crucial for a revealed religion, as Christianity has always claimed to be. From its earliest days, it has been shaped by texts, printed or not. Just because one culture finds some texts easier to handle than others is no reason to leave out the latter. He rightly observes (p49) that medieval people found Paul’s letters hard to penetrate but coped better with the gospels (partly because they could be communicated through image and drama). That seems to be happening again in our culture. But we don’t neglect Paul just because he’s harder.

My fear is that this is what some so-called emergents are doing though – and it’s not just for Paul but the whole bible. We must, must, must heed the warnings against (often arrogant and intensely individualistic) modernist hermeneutical certainties which Hipps rightly outlines (p58). But that doesn’t mean abandoning our diligence in reading well (with, for instance, what is sometimes called critical realism). And anyway, isn’t it ironic how, despite all its images and multimedia, how just plain wordy the web is?!

Changing the message?

The point in saying all this is that one of the book’s thrusts is that ‘our methods and our message must both evolve’ (p153, his italics). He accepts this ‘will sound odd’ but claims it is a consistent biblical practice.

But it is one thing to say that every generation grasps one aspect or another of the gospel, often in reaction to the previous generation’s blindspots (and the same goes for different cultures as they interact with each other) – and one of the joys of diverse communities (like All Souls, for one) is that we are constantly chafing against these differences as we engage together with the gospel. We always have more to learn, often from the least likely or expected.

It is quite another to suggest that the need is to change our message or that

Jesus is pointing us to a God who keeps communicating an ever-evolving message. That is why the Spirit is given. (p157)

It isn’t as simple as that. For there will be little to stop a church from losing its orthodox moorings altogether – isn’t that something which Paul for one warned his friend Timothy and us about in 1 Timothy 1:12-16? Note that I’m not saying we never change – far from it. We must always be changing, growing, developing. The Christian life is about the change business. That includes how we go about our ministry and communication – and we may even adjust our message (sometimes radically) because we understand something better or more clearly. But we don’t change the message! As Paul says in that passage, the Holy Spirit is actually given as much to help us guard the message as to grow in our understanding of it. I can already hear my emergent friends groan at me saying all this, but I don’t see how we can avoid this one…

This ended up much longer than expected! Apologies. But this book really challenged and stimulated me. Please do read it – it’s hugely insightful and helpful. But as so often with books like this, I found the cultural analysis profoundly helpful but was far from convinced by its prescriptions.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Nick
    Dec 18 2009

    Thanks for this long review, Mark. I’m a bit sceptical of this equation between reading and individualism. I think it’s a link that’s often made but has little evidence to support it. Surely literacy has been a source of coherence and community in the life and doctrine of the church? We know, for example, that it was characteristic of reformation churches to have the pulpit in the middle of the nave, with benches grouped round in a semi-circle so everyone could hear the Word being preached, rather than at the east end of the church. And the Reformation, as a pan-European movement rather than a localised revival came hot on the heels of the invention of printing with moveable type: surely not a coincidence?

    On the other hand, a church like All Souls has plenty of well-educated people (ie. with degrees, when the majority of the population do not have more than five ‘O’ levels or GCSEs), and sometimes we tend to slide into debate for debate’s sake and become a bit too wordy and verbose, which can be alienating for others who are not so privileged. So I agree with your call for us to learn to read and talk ‘well’. Sorry for rambling on!

    Reply
  2. Dec 28 2009

    >It won’t inevitably destroy community, just impact it in new ways

    I prefer “reshape” or “stretch” community, to “destroy”.

    Consdider how (for example) easily available motor transport reshaped families/local communities and how they got together/connected together – for example at Christmas or the impact of 50% of second homes on remote Scottish or Cornish villages.

    Previous channels for cmmunity and contact become stretched or redundant, or indeed rendered impossible.

    For another example, see how the fundamental shape of LA as a distributed city was defined due to the car being there when the city was created. Also, in relation, the problems which London had with traffic congestion in the 1980s were in New York in the 1950s and LA in the 1920s/30s.

    Are there lessons to be learned for the UK from what happened onlone in (e.g.) Finland 3 years ago (mobile services) or Korea 5 years ago (earlier universal bandwidth)?

    Rgds

    Reply
    • Jan 5 2010

      Thanks Matt – i agree entirely – and reshape / stretch certainly better terms.

      Reply

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