Tag Archives: media

When Religion Meets New Media (A Review)

One thing I find troublesome in the Christian commentary on technology is a lack of systematic, empirical study of how people are actually using technology in practice. I think this stems from the fact that most of this commentary is based on the ideas of only a few thinkers, and most of those thinkers come from philosophical traditions that favor theoretical rumination over empirical research. When they do employ contemporary examples to back up theoretical claims, they typically rely on alarmist articles in the popular press, or hold up extreme and unusual cases as if they were representative of the norm. As that witty but difficult to attribute aphorism goes “the plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data’.”

When Religion Meets New MediaIn her book, When Religion Meets New Media, communications professor Heidi Campbell begins to rectify this problem by examining in detail how “people of the book” (Jews, Muslims, and Christians) are actually engaging with new media technology (mobile phones, computers, and especially the Internet). But this is actually only half of the book’s value: as she presents her findings, she also articulates a new analytical method for future studies in this field to follow.

Her method, which she calls “the religious-social shaping of technology approach,” builds upon ideas from the social shaping of technology (SST), and in particular the social construction of technological systems (SCOT) approach developed by Pinch, Bijker, and Hughes. Much of older media studies, including those works of Marshall McLuhan that are often cited by Christians, assumes what is known as a “technological determinist” approach, where technology is seen as an autonomous force that “impacts” the adopting culture in deterministic ways. The SCOT approach, in contrast, argues that new technologies are just as much shaped by the adopting culture as the other way around. Over the last three decades, SCOT researchers have documented a rather large set of historical cases that demonstrate this mutual shaping of technology and culture, and Campbell’s work adds yet more examples to the set.

Campbell particularizes the SCOT method for the purpose of studying a religious group’s engagement (or disengagement) with new media. She suggests “four distinctive areas that  should be explored and questioned in order to fully understand a religious community’s relationship towards new forms of media” (17). First, the history and traditions of a community need to be mined to discover previous interactions with newly-introduced media, which tend to influence contemporary negotiations. Second, the social values of the community must be revealed, as well as examined in practice, to determine why the group reacts to the new medium or device the way they do. Third, the community’s method of social negotiation must be examined in order to understand how they will work out whether the new medium is allowable or not, or under what particular circumstances and in what contexts one may use it. Fourth, special attention must be paid to the way members of the community talk about the new medium (their “communal discourse”), as this tends to influence the way members think about the medium, and thus decide if it is appropriate or not.

Campbell also identifies three factors that shape the religious response to media in general: how religious groups define their social boundaries; how they relate to their sacred texts; and how they understand religious authority. Because these factors obviously differ from group to group, the corollary is that there is no one, monolithic religious reaction to a give new medium. Boundaries and authority have some obvious influences, but her focus on relationship to sacred texts is intriguing. She notes that this relationship forms the basis of an implicit philosophy of communication, and thus establishes rules by which new media are evaluated (20).

Campbell then illustrates the application of her method by describing and analyzing the responses of various religious groups to mobile phones, computers, and the Internet. Two of these examples stood out to me. The first was the way the Anglican church has actively engaged the virtual reality world Second Life. After a group of Anglicans and Episcopalians met informally in the game, they decided to build a virtual cathedral and host online worship services, which they have been doing consistently since 2007. Instead of eschewing this online group, the offline church responded by setting up a new “online diocese,” known as the “i-church,” and fast-tracking the leader of this new online congregation into the diaconate. There are of course issues to be resolved surrounding the efficacy of bodily sacrements and the forming of true community in a non-material, virtual environment, but the point is that the Anglican church is not sitting back and pretending that virtual worlds like Second Life don’t exist, or that their members aren’t already spending time in them. Instead, the church is taking an active role in establishing their presence there, considering the implications, and ministering to the inhabitants of this new online “parish.”

The second example I enjoyed reading about was the creation of a “kosher mobile phone” for the ultra-orthodox Jewish community. Mobile phones, especially those with texting and web browsing capabilities, were initially banned by rabbinical authorities, as they feared the devices would expose members of the community to “dubious, unmonitored secular content” (163). The mobile networks noticed the bans and responded by negotiating with the rabbinical authorities on the design of a phone that could be considered kosher (i.e., acceptable under religious law). The result was a device and corresponding service that was explicitly reshaped to align with the community’s religious values: texting, web browsing, and video/voice mail are all disabled on the handset; a special regional dialing code was created for these phones; calls to numbers outside that code are checked against a blocked list before connecting, and charged higher rates; and only emergency calls are allowed to be placed on the Sabbath. To ensure that members of the community know which phones are acceptable, the handsets are labeled prominently with the standard kosher symbol.

Academics studying this area will no doubt find this book essential, but non-academic readers may find the writing style to be a little too opaque at times. Media studies, like any academic field, has its own set of loaded terms and jargon, and Campbell makes use of them frequently. Her focus on method may also turn off casual readers, but those who make it past the first two chapters will be richly rewarded with a detailed look at how many Jews, Christians, and Muslims are actively engaging with new media.

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Flickering Pixels (A Review)

It’s always hard for academics to review books that are essentially popularizations of ideas originally generated by scholars in their field. On the one hand, it is exciting to see the general public, and especially the more progressive part of the evangelical church, finally engaging with ideas that these scholars have spent the better part of their careers developing and honing. But on the other hand, popularizations are a bit like translations; if they are not done well, the richness and depth of those ideas can be lost in an effort to make them more “accessible” to a general audience. Popularizations of a single scholar’s ideas also tend to leave out the larger conversation that took place in response to those ideas, including the insightful and helpful critiques that have been made in more recent years.

But in many ways, scholars have nobody to blame for this but themselves. Too often, academics fail to engage the wider culture by popularizing their own work, preferring instead to engage esoteric conversations that only a few dozen people in the world can actually follow, much less care about. There are many reasons for this, some of which include the strange and often counterproductive requirements and incentives that academic institutions place upon their faculty members. But if academics find themselves frustrated by popularizations of their field, their response should not be stinging rebuke born out of a jealousy of the popularizer’s unwarranted fame. Instead, they should lead by example, and write a better one.

In that spirit, I want to congratulate Shane Hipps for his well-done popularization of Marshall McLuhan’s ideas in his book Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith. But I also want to offer some critique that will hopefully grow into my own popularization of technology studies, a popularization that I hope will be broader, more nuanced, and ultimately more helpful to both Christians and the wider secular culture.

I should start by admitting that making McLuhan accessible is no small feat, so Hipps deserves special accolades in this department. Anyone who has struggled through McLuhan’s writings knows that he can often come across a bit like Yoda—you’re never quite sure if what you just read was academic gibberish from a unstable mind, or pure genius (or perhaps a bit of both). McLuhan also tends to contradict himself; just when you think you understand his theory, he makes a point that seems completely contrary to what he was just saying, but he says it so emphatically that the reader is left assuming that the fault must lie with the reader, not the author.

Hipps does an excellent job decoding McLuhan, and presenting his own take on what McLuhan probably meant. Hipps is a truly gifted communicator, and his book should be readable by just about anyone who can follow a ten-minute sermon on Sunday morning.

Hipps uses a mix of fun pop culture references and appealing personal stories to illuminate McLuhan’s core ideas, as well as those of Neil Postman and Walter Ong, both of whom were highly influenced by McLuhan. My favorite is his use of a scene from the film The Matrix to describe how examining a medium for the first time can awaken you to seeing the world in a new way. Just before Neo awakens into the “real world,” he notices his reflection in a cracked mirror. The mirror then magically reforms, attracting Neo’s attention away from his reflection (the content) and to the mirror itself (the medium). When he touches it, the mirror’s surface seems to act more like mercury than mirrored glass, clinging to his fingers, then his hand, and then engulfing the rest of his body as his consciousness it moved out of The Matrix and back into his own physical body. Here’s the scene:

Unfortunately, Hipps also follows McLuhan down that problematic path of technological determinism. Hipps argues that technologies like the telegraph, telephone, television, and now Internet social media, are so powerful, hit us at such a deep level, that they have deterministic “impacts” on any culture that adopts them. This kind of thinking leads one to wildly overstated historical claims: for example, Hipps (following McLuhan, Ong, and Postman) tries to assert that writing and printing are primarily responsible for individualism, rationality, objectivity, detachment, and critical thinking. He then parrots McLuhan’s argument that photography and television will soon destroy all those capacities and return us to a kind of “tribal” social order.

Technological determinism can be an attractive theory, but the trouble with it is that it just doesn’t square with the historical and sociological research that has been done since McLuhan’s time. When McLuhan wrote his most influential works in the 1960s, the history of technology was still dominated by “hero inventor” stories, the kind of stories that you probably heard when you were in elementary school. These stories portrayed people like Watt, Evans, Edison, and Morse as geniuses who struggled to unleash their brilliant creations upon an appreciative but passive public. These inventions, the stories go, then had massive and unstoppable “impacts” on society that led us to where we are today. These kinds of stories tended to support McLuhan’s grandiose claims, and they mirrored the ideology of “progress” that was popular at the time.

But starting in the 1980s, historians and sociologists began reevaluating these historical cases and found that they were in fact far more messy and contingent than previously reported. As those scholars started to examine technological innovation and adoption in other cultures, they also quickly discovered that the same basic technology didn’t always produce the same cultural changes. Different cultures made different decisions in how these technologies would be structured, operated, and regulated, and those choices seemed to reflect each culture’s pre-existing social values. Once adopted, those technologies did often reshape the culture’s values in return, but not in deterministic or even consistent ways.

Technological determinism also misses the rather important role that users play during the adoption of new devices. As I have argued before, we should not assume that a particular technology has one essential purpose, or only one possible pattern of use. Humans are fantastically creative, and they often play an important role in determining what a new device actually is and what it is good for.

Today, historians of technology teach that technological determinism is half right—new technologies, and especially new communication media, do seem to enable large scale changes to the social order, but those changes are never solely determined by the properties of the technology itself. Social changes are always highly contingent on a number of factors, technology being an important one, but still only one of many.

So while Hipps’s book offers a very readable popularization of McLuhan’s ideas, I have to ask the question, are McLuhan’s ideas, presented without any reference to the critique they have engendered since the 1960s, really a benefit to the church today? McLuhan can certainly help us start to think about media more critically, but if we don’t also take into account the more recent scholarship that challenges and corrects some of his ideas, we run the risk not only of heading down problematic roads, but also of sounding out-of-date and out-of-touch with the wider secular society.