The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

Social Media and the Church

I recently talked with DJ Chuang on the podcast Social Media Church. He and I had a great discussion, and we left a lot of subjects open-ended. You can check it out here.

Our conversation left more to be said than we had time for. These follow-up thoughts will whet your appetite for the whole podcast.

All technology is social media. DJ and I talked a lot about both technology and social media, but I’m not sure if this came through clearly: All technology is social media. What I mean is that every technology shapes our relationships—with God, with others, with ourselves, with creation. That makes it social by definition. For example, the clock changed our relationship to time. The train, the car, and fracking changed our relationship to land. Medical technologies change our relationships to our bodies—as do tech toys like the Apple Watch and the FitBit. Of course, the Internet is profoundly shaping our relationships with each other. But has technology really changed our relationship to God?

In response to that question, we can say that the Bible—which is a technology—has affected our relationship with God. The old scrolls helped us to listen to God’s Word, and when those words were transferred into a books with pages, we began to search the Scriptures by page number—and eventually by chapter and verse. Today, we search the Scriptures online by keyword. Each iteration of the Bible shapes how we relate to God through his Word.

Another way technology changes our relationship with God, which I mentioned in the podcast, is through the devices that make our lives easier and more controllable. The easier it is for us to secure food, shelter, safety, medicine, and contact with others, the less we need to rely on God. Whether we intend to or not, each device we adopt can make us a little more independent from God. It’s not that we intentionally turn away from trusting God. We simply grow accustomed to depending on our devices instead.

Another social media we didn't touch on is the church pew. The pew, surprisingly, is very much a social media. I’ve written more about it in my ebook From Pews to Podcasts, but I wasn't focused on it as a social medium there.

Pews are a social medium because of the ways they changed our relationship to each other. Before the 1400s, churches had no pews. People moved in a fluid mob (a “mass” you could call it) from the pulpit to the altar to the stations of the cross. This crowd-driven arrangement had people constantly shifting and moving and interacting with each other.

Today, of course, we sit it pews or chairs instead. And when it comes time to greet others, what happens? We greet only those we can reach from our row, hemmed in by the people we’re sitting between.

Now take those pews away. We’d move about freely, more able to walk over and shake the hands of those across the room, or maybe even make amends with someone whom we have wronged. But with pews, the threshold to making that contact is much higher, and can actually become a barrier. Both for connection and confession become harder and less convenient. And that is a social reality. The pew in that way is social media just as much a Twitter or Facebook is.

Like I said, my conversation with DJ was just the tip of the iceberg. It was great to be able to bat around a few ideas with him, and I hope we have the chance to do it again. In the meantime, you can dive in to some of these ideas and more, by downloading my free ebook over at NoiseTrade, From Pews to Podcasts: What Technology Wants for the Church.


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Book Review: The Resurrection of Rey Pescador

The world of Rey Pescador has all the familiarity of the Internet, world travel, American cities, and religious beliefs. Yet it feels strangely foreign. Rey Pescador, a Latino poet from Chicago with an ego as big as Lake Michigan, is the most famous person on the planet. And he is the only person on the planet with a human heart.

Readers will recognize their world, all the way down to Chicago’s streets and Catholic accoutrements. Yet reading The Resurrection of Rey Pescador feels like looking through binoculars with two different magnifications. This disorientation keeps readers wondering, and reading.

Rey Pescador’s author, Al Cedeno, offered me a review copy because of my interest in technology. And this being a tech-oriented blog, I want to explore the ways tech is presented in the book. First, a bit of the story’s history.

Starting in the 1970s, people began adopting artificial hearts, and with them the guarantee of immortality. By 1982, the government has mandated that all newborns are given artificial hearts. These hearts have features that filter out cancer-causing agents in the blood and provide annual reports on the health of their host bodies.

For the story’s narrator, a Catholic priest named David, the Robotic Heart Campaign poses new theological questions about life, death. and the state of the human soul. Meanwhile, corollary questions emerge. With humans having installed mechanical hearts, does our understanding of machines also have to change? What about machines that have human organs installed? Where’s the line between human and machine, especially when there are varying percentages of human and artificial? Do machines deserve human rights too?

Cedeno certainly gets it right in this regard: The mere existence of a technology, with its potential to extend human life, presents us humans with basic ethical questions. We can ignore or avoid them, but that doesn’t eliminate their pressing reality. Every new device, simply by existing, poses problems we must decide about. If we can extend human life, why wouldn’t we? Every device forces to answer this question. Avoidance isn’t an option. The best we can do is understand the questions that our devices are asking.

Rey Pescador’s world is so disorienting precisely because it is so similar to our own. It is so disorienting because we lose track of which world is which—where do the similarities stop and the differences begin? After all, artificial hearts already exist in our own world. What Cedeno has done is made them widespread and extended their potential. Everyone has one, and they extend life indefinitely.

His approach is exactly right: “What will this technology do to our society if it is widely adopted?” We have seen our own generation transformed with the widespread availability of the Internet, mobile devices, and the integration of the two. The result is “big data” and the civil rights questions and privacy issues that come from it. Instead of cell phones installed in our pockets, Cedeno installs tickers in our chests. How does the world change? In a world where technology saves lives, what does death mean? And in a world where no one dies, what does resurrection mean?

This is the world of Rey Pescador. The Resurrection of Rey Pescador will leave you with plenty of questions . . . . then again, technology is already posing many of them to us every single day.

How Cars Created the Megachurch



I'm excited to have a new article up over at Christianity Today's PARSE blog, titled "How Cars Created the Megachurch." Here's an excerpt.


     To choose a church at all, then, we tend to turn inward and reflect on our own wants and needs. “What do I really want in a church? What am I looking to get from it?” This strategy isn’t necessarily selfish; it’s practical. But besides being practical, the strategy also becomes habitual. And like any habit, it shapes the kind of people we become.

     Well-meaning writers shame us for church hopping and church shopping, and they tell us to “stop dating the church.” But accusing church shoppers of simply being selfish oversimplifies the problem. It places all the blame on the individual. Is this really accurate? Is it constructive? What if selfishness is simply a necessary strategy for reaching decisions in an age of abundance.

     The abundance of choices and the absence of limitations is the blessing and the curse of the car. And church shopping may not be a problem of character.

     It may just be a problem of cars.

Read the rest here.



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Tesla Introduces “New Safety Features and Autopilot,”
but also New Risks


Tesla may very well be the most forward-thinking car maker on the planet. Their sexy designs and fully electric motors make driving a Tesla the ultimate status symbol. Here in Illinois, every license plate has a number somewhere between 1-2000 and suffixed with “EL,” which I can only assume means “electric.” And the numbers probably mean that the state is counting each Tesla one by one. Deservedly so.

This week Tesla announced their newest design, the Dual Motor Model S, which they claim is “the fastest accelerating four-door production car of all time.” Sweet. But they buried the lead on this story: “New Safety Features and Autopilot.” Here’s what they said on their blog:
Our system is called Autopilot because it’s similar to systems that pilots use to increase comfort and safety when conditions are clear. Tesla’s Autopilot is a way to relieve drivers of the most boring and potentially dangerous aspects of road travel – but the driver is still responsible for, and ultimately in control of, the car. The Autopilot hardware opens up some exciting long term possibilities.
Now I’m a fan of Tesla, which may be obvious, but the promise of “exciting long-term possibilities” doesn’t fool me. Tesla, like most tech companies, is presenting their technology with uncritical optimism, presenting only the benefits of Autopilot. Consumers, however, would be wise to consider both sides.

Tesla promises that Autopilot could increase “comfort and safety” and “relieve drivers” of boredom and the “potentially dangerous aspects” of driving.” But only “when conditions are clear.” Yet, safety is only half the story.

Tesla likens their Autopilot to “systems that pilots use.” However, autopilot isn’t entirely smooth sailing either. Nicholas Carr points to recent studies about problems that pilots are facing:
Pilots’ “automation addiction” has eroded their flying skills to the point that they sometimes don’t know how to recover from stalls and other mid-flight problems, say pilots and safety officials. The weakened skills have contributed to hundreds of deaths in airline crashes in the last five years. . . .
As the Dual Motor Model S merges with traffic, these same risks entering our roads and highways. Yes, they promise to relieve boredom and potential dangers, but they also incur new risks at the same time. Tesla’s Autopilot feature will present us with new problems. And yet.

“The driver is still responsible for . . . the car.” In case there is any doubt, Tesla wants to make that clear. And they want to assure you that you are “ultimately in control.” Yet, how can you be responsible for a car’s performance when you didn’t program the car’s software?

Tesla’s computer software is evaluating the road and making driving decisions without you. The person behind the wheel isn’t deciding. Just like airline pilots, why should you be paying attention when they are out of your control?

So who is responsible when an accident occurs? Tesla certainly wants it to be you. Why? Because if the car crashes, they don’t want to be held liable. Liability is too costly for them. But with more and more automation in automobiles, liability is a question that the courts may have to resolve.

The courts or, possibly, you.

If drivers take the time to really consider what Tesla is offering, the public may decide they’re not buying it. Despite the “exciting long term possibilities,” the long-term risks of “automation addiction” may simply not be worth the cost. The costs may simply be too high, no matter what the sticker price is.

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Is technology shaping the future of church?

Is technology shaping the church of the future? Christianity Today recently published a review of the book Slow Church. I scrambled for a highlighter when I reached the end of this paragraph:
Slow Church joins a host of movements inspired by the Slow Food revolt begun in the 1980s, a global coalition that resists the industrialization of all aspects of food. Not all churches have been seduced by what Smith and Pattison call “Franchise faith” or “McDonaldization.” Still, the authors say, at least some fast-food, consumer-culture values—an obsession with efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control—have unwittingly crept into many houses of worship. (italics mine)
When I read this, I thought, Those aren’t consumer-culture values; they’re technological ones. The authors overlooked the real culprit—technology. Cars, buses, and airplanes help us travel farther faster—efficiency. The Apple Watch numbers our heartbeats and counts our calories—calculability—and promises to help us to synchronize our lives to others'—predictability. Food becomes filled with preservatives and chemicals we can’t even pronounce, all in the name of control. The Slow Food movement, which the authors allude to, understood this.

The Slow Food movement perceptively recognized technology’s role. They reacted to the “industrialization” of food. Industrialization is simply another term for “technologization.” And if we’re going to talk Slow Church, then pastors need to be equally perceptive.

Like the proponents of Slow Food, pastors and ministry leaders should pay attention to how their own methods and strategies are tech driven. How are they looking for efficiencies, calculability, predictability, and control? Often it starts with “stewardship.”

Church leaders often embrace new technology in an effort to be “good stewards” of scarce church resources. Scarcity is real, and stewardship is admirable. It has the appearance of faithfulness too. But real faithfulness may also involve trusting in God’s abundance. The loaves and fish remind us of this. When our churches are lacking resources, increasing our efficiency should not be our knee-jerk reaction. If it is, have we stopped depending on God’s abundant provision? Do we only need God when we’ve reached the limits of our technology?

Technology’s values seek more and more to put control in the hands of humans. We want to lock things down. But when have efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control ever been signs of God’s Spirit? Rather, I’ve found that living by his Spirit often involves being available, interruptible, patient, and dependent on God. The more technology we have, the less faith we need.

As we surround ourselves with more and more technology—this tablet, that smartphone—we come to expect efficiency and control. We grow accustomed to them. We become experts in them. We base our lives around them. They become daily, hourly habits. And these habits shape us—heart, mind, and body. These technologies disciple us.

I’m far afield from that brief paragraph I first highlighted. My point is this: The “consumer-culture” label is a bogeyman. Worse: It’s a nebulous generalization that leaves us feeling helpless. Blaming consumer culture doesn’t help anyone. Technology gives us something concrete to consider, even if it hurts.

When we recognize that these consumer values are actually technology-driven, we can begin to see the options we have. Churches can begin to take a hard look at the technology it’s using: communication management tools, tithing kiosks, attendance tracking, child-safety system, multisite solutions. Are they efforts at good stewardship or ways to circumvent the Spirit?

Some may read this and wonder, Well, what exactly is he suggesting? Abandoning these systems? We couldn’t do church without them. And I think that’s partly my point.

Our beliefs about what church is—our ecclesiology—is powerfully influences by the technologies we use to “do church.” And those same technology systems not only influence how we think about church now, but also shape—and limit—how we imagine the church of the future.

We do not need to go back to some idyllic church of days gone by. Although that’s not even an option at this point; we depend so much on our devices. Technology has foreclosed as many possibilities as it has opened. The fact that we can’t imagine church without technology should give us pause.

Until we really grasp how technology is shaping our churches today, we will lack an imagination wide enough to follow the Spirit into the future.

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How Technology is like Marijuana


I was recently talking with some friends from Colorado when the topic of legalized marijuana came up. Since Illinois, where I live, is considering similar measures, we were talking about the benefits and consequences of Colorado’s shift.

We’ve all heard about “medical marijuana.” The biggest benefit to commend marijuana is that. In the name of health benefits and pain relief, marijuana advocates have made the case that it should be legalized for a certain, albeit narrow, portion of the population. It will improve their lives and relieve their pain, in some cases severe pain. And no one can really disagree with that. Nor do we need to. However, opponents of legalized marijuana, even if it’s for other reasons, end up looking like heartless brutes who have no compassion for chronic sufferers.

Add to this a second benefit: money. Apparently, by legalizing marijuana and taxing those sales, Colorado’s government has raked in the cash. This cash, they say, can be invested back into schools and roads and more. Who doesn’t want to improve their kids’ education? The benefits. How will Illinois ever resist? I submit, it will not.

Of course, then there’s the consequences. Most people will agree that legalizing pot will probably have some downsides to. However, what those consequences are and how severe is yet to be determined. In most people’s minds, it’s only a matter of time.

As my friends and I talked about this, I realized that marijuana and technology actually have quite a bit in common. In terms of money, the similarity is obvious. Just like the state of Colorado, companies and individuals stand to make a lot of money from the use and development of new technologies. That’s why Silicon Valley has the deepest pockets in the world. Technology can make them rich, and they’ll willingly pursue new opportunities to expand it. But technology is also like marijuana when it comes to health benefits.

Often times, new and extreme technologies are Trojaned in using the guise of healthcare. Take brain-computer interfaces, as an example. This is bleeding-edge technology, but also potentially world-changing.

How are tech companies justifying the development of BCIs? By using it for medical uses. They’re seeking to help paralyzed people function again. These people have had traumatic spinal cord injuries and BCIs offer them the opportunity to regain some level of mobility and independence. Just like marijuana in Colorado, technologies are promoting themselves as godsends for healthcare.

The next step, in all this, would be to point out that, just like marijuana, technology also has long-term, unforeseen consequences. But here, you’ll run into resistance. People will begin coming to technology’s defense.

Few people are willing to consider that technology could have potential downsides. They simply can’t imagine that a technology that helps paralyzed people could actually cause problems down the road. Besides, if the BCI will help people in need, the reasoning goes, then it’s worth the cost. For anyone willing to question this, marijuana’s “heartless brutes” become technology’s “Luddites.” In both cases, the public chooses the immediate and tangible benefits, while ignoring, or never considering, what the long-term and less visible consequences might be.

Sticking our heads in the sand when it comes to technology, though, isn’t a new approach. Take the keyboard, for example. Its predecessor, the typewriter, was first invented and promoted as a technology for deaf-mutes. Rasmus Malling-Hansen, a Danish minister and inventor in the mid-1800s, created the earliest working models typewriters. The invention “was meant to compensate for physiological deficiencies” (rosa B) . Of course, despite it’s noble intentions, the typewriter and keyboard rapidly expanded into the lives of people who had no such handicap at all.

The same dynamic is certainly true for marijuana, and may someday also be true for brain-computer interfaces. What kind of world will we live in when everyone uses them? The question is as crazy as the idea once was of every person having a computer. But today, not only do we have personal computers, but mobile devices that are always connected to the Internet. In the past decade, the world change has shifted before our eyes in astounding ways.

The point is that, like marijuana, technology certainly offers benefits. But we cannot let the benefits cause us to overlook or ignore the consequences. And like marijuana, technology’s negative consequences will not be as immediate or visible, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

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Love Letters and the Unabomber

“Can technology be redeemed?” 

Orthodox Christians hold that the world is broken. But relatively few Christians consider how this brokenness extends to the technologies we use everyday. If they do, they’ll eventually begin to wonder, “Can technology be redeemed?” The answer, it seems, would be Yes. But, if we try to explain how, it gets tricky.

Most Christians tend to argue that redeeming technology means using technology for good and not ill. It means achieving positive outcomes and not negative ones. It means harnessing nuclear energy to power our homes, not to bomb our enemies. It means using the Internet to spread the Gospel, not pornography. This strategy is right and good—using technology for good and not ill—and it may in fact be part of what “redeeming technology” could look like. However, it cannot stop there. A more holistic approach must include a deeper understanding of technology’s impact.

Whether we use the Internet for the Gospel or for porn, we are still using the same technology. Apart from whatever outcomes we achieve, the practice itself changes us and our societies.

Take email for example. At one time, you sent letters by post. You could write love letters, or you could be the Unabomber. Good outcomes and bad. But it was the same technology. Now you use email instead, and you can likewise send love letters or computer viruses. Again, both good and bad.

But surely you’ve noticed that the letters we send have changed too. Some say the quality has gone down. What do we mean by quality? It could partly be quality of writing. It could also be quality of subject matter.

But it’s not merely a matter of quality. In quantity, the number of letters has increased. And this quantity may be linked to quality. Because we have more emails to write, we have less time to devote to each letter. We don’t have time to re-read them or edit them. Just type stream of consciousness and click Send.

And in terms of quality of subject matter, part of it may have to do with the immediacy of email. There’s no more waiting for news to arrive. No delays in information. With postal mail, you might update a friend about significant events since your last letter. With email, little thought is given to recent news anymore—only what is at hand is mentioned, if at all.

Thus, the practicesof letter-writing changed the contentof the letters we write. More letters means less time to write. More frequent letters means less time for worthwhile to accumulate. (The same dynamics are at work in the 24-hour cable news.)

Or consider group emails. With postal mail, an email thread would have been virtually impossible—to the point that no one really did it.

So even though we see email as the direct descendant of postal mail, their qualities are actually very different. They are hardly related at all. The style has changed. The content has changed. The sending and receiving has changed. All this before even getting to love letters and computer viruses. There’s a lot to talk about before we can even use words like “good” and “bad” to describe technology’s outcomes.

When we look at out habits first, we are better able to answer the real questions of good and bad. Is it good that we can “reply all” to one email thread? Is it good that we can forward a private letter with one impulsive click? Is it good that our letters are shorter, less thought out, less newsworthy? Is it good that our letters are always typed and never handwritten?

Those questions are harder to answer clearly. The changes are sort of good and also sort of bad. We kind of like these changes. And we kind of regret them. All in all, our society is changing for better and also for worse because of these changes. And these changes are changes in our habits, first and foremost, and our habits are changing because of our new technologies. So the Christian idea of “redeeming technology” isn’t as straightforward as we initially had hoped. It’s not a question of love letters versus the Unabomber. That’s only a lazy glance at the question. It does not look at the deeper habits and social impacts of the daily use of technology.


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