You have a doctoral degree in something called “Media Ecology.” What is that?
Media Ecology is the study of media as environments. Just as the study of natural ecology is the study of natural environments, media ecology looks at the man-made environment to consider how inputs and outputs in the technological milieu enhance or impede our species’ chances for survival. It’s a term coined by Marshall McLuhan in March 1968 and then put out into public by Neil Postman on November 24, 1968. At McLuhan’s suggestion, Postman created a graduate program in Media Ecology that lasted until Postman’s death in 2003. So while I didn’t graduate until 2005 from New York University’s program in Media Ecology, I was fortunate enough (beginning grad school in 1995) to study under Dr. Postman for eight years.
Which thinkers have influenced you the most, and why?
In chronological order of influence, they would have to be: G.K. Chesterton, Mortimer Adler, Walker Percy, Neil Postman, Marshall McLuhan, Jacques Ellul and Walter Ong. Adler’s book How To Think About God: A Guidebook for the 20th Century Pagan came along at just the right time in my life and made me more intellectually honest with myself. Chesterton pushed me over the edge into committing to the faith. It was life-changing to discover Postman, who described the world I lived in (in 1992) better than any other single author, and who was himself influenced by McLuhan, Ong, and Ellul (among others). Postman more than anyone else gave me hope that the world was understandable and he personally put me on my life’s path of becoming a professor — without him, I’d still be in the corporate communications world, doing advertising, marketing, or public relations. As I read deeper and further, going beyond our grad school syllabi, it was thrilling to discover that McLuhan was profoundly influenced by Chesterton, that Ong was a former student of McLuhan’s, that Ellul’s two greatest influences were Karl Marx and Karl Barth, and that all of these thinkers were either devout Christians or else deeply impressed (in Postman’s case) with the need to take religion seriously. So for me the value of these thinkers was that they allowed me to be in the world and yet not of it at the same time, to engage with the world’s thinking and understanding of itself in the historical moment, but to also live in a dialectic with the Incarnation, what McLuhan called the “thing” or the “fact” of revelation. Ellul said he faced alone this world he lived in, tried to understand it, and confronted it with another reality he lived in, yet which was utterly unverifiable. I find these thinkers to be like-minded with my own thinking because they found life in just one (sacred) or the other (secular) realms to be fairly flat if not downright boring or stultifying. But embracing both, and bringing them into dialogue with each other, well, since then I’ve never been bored.
What’s bad and good about technology?
It’s fast, cheap, effective, and cool. That’s the good part. The bad part is that it’s fast, cheap, effective, and cool. If we become what we behold, my concern with technology is not what we do with it, but what it does to us. The analogy I’ve been using most recently is the question of prostitution. What’s wrong with prostitution is fairly obvious, but in general it’s always going to be there, from being the world’s oldest profession to being increasingly legalized all around the globe. The answer to the “problem” of prostitution is, I believe, not actually to be engaged on the mass or group level, but on the individual level. This is why neither Jesus nor Thomas Aquinas (for example) argue against prostitution, but do argue against the personal effects. The Ten Commandments obliges the individual to “not commit adultery” — it never suggests that thou shalt outlaw prostitution. Jesus forgives the woman caught in adultery, on the one hand, but on the other he doesn’t makes light of her sin and he gives a far sterner warning to men: if you have lusted after a woman internally then this is tantamount to adultery. So he both raises the personal bar and lowers the group cost. And this gets to the heart, I think, of both real freedom and how real freedom in the face of technological determinants should be conceived — we don’t want sobriety by outlawing alcohol, we want sobriety by achieving self-control while in a bar with friends. Which is to say, freedom comes on the individual level, which is always highly contextualized, contingent, and culturally framed. People in Singapore aren’t free from the negative effects of chewing gum; they are free from the temptation of chewing gum because the whole country has outlawed it. That’s not real freedom, which always involves a choice. In the same way, there is no technology, even those that are inherently “bad,” that should be eliminated (okay: maybe nuclear weapons could go), but there are collective effects of technology that individuals can be made aware of and can personally resist. So I can walk while texting and call it multitasking, but if it makes me bump into things or people I can also be conscious of this likely effect and thereby choose to text only when I’m not moving so I don’t pose a risk to myself or others.
What technologies are good and helpful?
This is an unanswerable question, because it forces a non-existent dichotomy. All technologies have a “good and helpful” aspect and they also have a harmful and debilitating effect. I like chairs, which seem utterly neutral or positive as a technological invention — especially nice big, comfy chairs. But cultures that sit on chairs experience more colon cancer than cultures that squat. Neil Postman argued that all technologies are a “Faustian bargain” – they give something, and they take something away. Freedom, I think, comes in knowing what these two things are, and in making the choice of which you value more. In our household, we’re still not squatting. One of my favorite technologies is the bicycle, since I can hardly think of anything bad that could come from it, and since it increases, health, happiness, and enjoyment of the outdoors in almost all its uses. But if you’re Lance Armstrong, chances are good you know precisely what can go wrong if you ride a bike too much.
How does one discern between good and bad technology? Discernment is the key, and it is discernment not that tells you which is good and which is bad, but tells you that every technology has both a good and a bad side, and then lets you discern whether or not you want to use it. My favorite example of this is the Bruderhof community who noticed that after using television for a year, their children had stopped singing the community songs and spiritual hymns they used to sing on the playground. So the decision was not over the question, “Is television good or bad?” The question became, “Which do we value more: good television or singing children?” And that to me is true discernment.
Explain the important distinction between tools and tech.
Well, I would say that all technology can be either a tool, a toy, or a weapon. And some of this is inherently obvious, but sometimes the definition is dictated by the user’s intention, such as when the butler commits murder with the candlestick: here’s a tool that’s being used as a weapon. In modern mass culture, most toys are children’s (i.e., miniaturized and ineffectual) versions of adult tools or weapons. But in the Garden of Eden, Jacques Ellul argues that there could be no technology, because to have a technology would imply that something was incomplete, missing, or in need of repair — which is contradictory to a “perfect” or “complete” world. I would refine his argument by saying that man in the garden could have had toys, and that the fall of man can be seen as recognizing the effect of technology’s uses. The word “fruit” can be read as “effect” quite consistently with other uses of the term in scripture, such as the “fruit of the spirit” or “by their fruits you shall know them.” And there is no knowledge of good and evil like knowing how good intentions can lead straight to hell. So a toy can become a tool can become a weapon startlingly quickly – perhaps the strongest example of this is the “dawn of man” scene in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. You see the ape-man playing with a bone as a toy, moving other bones with it. Then he discovers its properties as a tool, since he can make other bones dance, move, or jump as a result of where and how hard he hits them. And then, almost instantaneously, he discovers that by hitting hard enough, he can smash the skull of a dead animal, and the scene then intercuts with him smashing the skull of a living animal in order to kill it. All this seems fairly consistent with the fall of man and the immediate necessity for killing animals to have their skins for coverings, and the exile from the garden, the loss of community (and communication, according to Josephus) with the animal kingdom, and the wandering in exile. You can also read the Cain and Abel story as the first recognition (and survival threat) of technological superiority. Cain the farmer kills Abel the domesticator of animals because he sees his way of life threatened, the way the iceman would naturally resent the refrigerator salesman.
Was the print revolution of the 15th-16th centuries an advance over prior oral and written culture? What was gained? What was lost?
Wow — that’s a huge question, and dissertations have been written on it and it’s still not fully answered. What was gained, thanks to Martin Luther and the power of the printing press, was the right to challenge the abuses of the church without necessarily burning at the stake for doing so (if only Jan Hus had this technology!) But without the printing press, Martin Luther would most likely have died an unknown heretic who violated all three of his monastic vows (chastity, obedience, poverty). As I understand it, modern Catholicism sees this portion of its history as a failure on their part to not internally reform soon enough. The other thing that was gained was representative money, an impossibility without the printing press to make receipts for the gold on store. But if the printing press created “Sola Scriptura” at the expense of orality (i.e., “tradition”), it also created more than just a “single” Protestant Reformation. According to the World Encyclopedia of Christianity, the “one true church” now has over 33,000 officially recognized denominations. And if military victories go to the technologically superior entity, then it’s certainly the case that the church has become impotent through a “divide and conquer” scheme — by their fruits shall you know them! So what was gained was greater intellectual freedom for the individual, vernacular translations of scripture, capitalism, democracy, the nation-state, nationalism, patriotism, and a massive increase in both the words of a language and the literacy of the population. What was lost was, ultimately, a coherent and meaningful narrative by which people led their lives. The psychological security of the average medieval peasant was, I think, far more profound than that of today’s well-paid, well-insured, well-adjusted citizen who is doing fine but taking Prozac to keep his ennui or depression at bay. If I’m a member of the one true church, but then have to choose between 33,000 denominations, well suddenly the whole thing gets called into question and people like Richard Dawkins start to make a lot more sense because they at least have one consistent story that solves the paralysis of choice quite easily: choose either (a) believe nothing, or (b) believe one of these 33,000 tales. If freedom requires a choice, then technology requires an efficiency to those choices, and most people simply don’t have the time, energy, or inclination to go through all their options on the believe side of the ledger. So I think, ultimately, atheism is a natural outgrowth of all this, the way nudity is the end result of too many fashion choices (this was the point of Robert Altman’s film Pret-A-Porter). It becomes the last resort of the rational mind, even as it defeats its own purpose.
What do you say to people who claim technology/media are neutral? Isn’t it possible to put content into various forms?
I’m very nice to people who say this. McLuhan, however, called them “technological idiots.” On a case by case basis, it’s fairly simple to demonstrate that there is no such thing as a “neutral” technology. The classic example is nuclear energy: you can split the atom to make bombs or to make cheap electricity, so it’s all in how you use it, the argument goes. But as Ellul points out in The Technological Society, even nuclear development had to go through the bomb-making phase before it arrived at “clean green nuclear energy.” And of course, ask the people of Japan how “neutral” they think nuclear energy is — after living through Hiroshima and Fukushima, there is a pretty strong recognition that nuclear energy is not neutral. Right now Germany and Switzerland, largely as a result of Fukushima, have voted to be entirely nuclear-energy-free within the coming decades.
To the second part of your question, the answer is of course, yes, but the when you put content into various forms you change the content subtly but significantly. The classic example here is the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy presidential debate. If you heard the debate on radio, you thought Nixon won because he made better points and argued more rationally. If you saw it on TV, you thought Kennedy won because he looked better, presented better, and contrasted better (with his darker suit and facial make-up) on a black-and-white TV screen than Nixon did, who looked washed out and old. So the medium really does affect the message, as McLuhan argued. For Christians, one of the strangest (and perhaps hardest to recognize) things was that Christ never wrote anything down, never asked anyone to write anything down, and never suggested that salvation could or would come from the written word. If anything, he was the living embodiment of the spoken word in real time, which was the key to his power against the state, against the ruling religious authorities, and against what Neil Postman called the “hardening of the categories” that writing had created. His reduction of 613 written Jewish laws to just two is only imaginable by the power of speech, and his saving of the woman caught in adultery is equally impossible without live words spoken to living people in a courtroom setting. He recognizes the law but says, “Let the one who is without sin throw the first stone” and bingo-presto, case dismissed! Technically, this was a mistrial because the judge, jury, and executioner had all left, so there was no one left to “hold court” with the accused. This story is the one time we get Jesus writing anything down in all of Scripture, and to this day there are as many theories of what he wrote down in the sand as there are theorists. I see it as a New Testament parallel to the written law of God that Moses breaks on the way down Mt. Sinai, but I’m no theologian. The irony, of course, is that we only know all this because someone did write it down, and that someone is ultimately, God. But McLuhan asks a good question when he wonders why early missionaries transmitted phonetic literacy along with the gospel everywhere they went, since the one has nothing to do with the other. And it is a strange but known fact that literacy is the basis of technological development for a country, and yet technological development is one of the surest signs that a culture will lose its faith. So the paradoxes abound.
Again and again Christian leaders – Protestant and Catholic – have called for the churches to make ever better use of technology to proclaim the Gospel. Is this naive? Unavoidable? Helpful?
Yes. Watch the YouTube video “Contemporvant Growtivation” to see this in action. This makes brilliant satirical fun of the increasing use of technology to transmit the gospel. I think Ellul has it right when he says that the church cannot make use of propaganda (i.e., modern technology and its communication techniques) without becoming a purely sociological institution, and so I think it presents a growing crisis for the church, but I’m in a very small minority with this perception. Ellul says that what is done in the service of Jesus Christ should take its character and effectiveness from Jesus Christ, which to my mind means that we should imitate both the medium and the message of Christ in order to be effective witnesses. Look at the effect of twelve disciples, eleven at the end of the day, who travelled and used the medium of embodied speech to transmit the gospel. Now look at the effect of Joel Osteen, who in a single telecast probably reaches hundreds of thousands more than these eleven did in their entire lifetimes. Which is the more effective? I think contemporary Christianity’s biggest perceptual obstacle is the confusion of numbers with efficacy. It seems like a mindset formed by the market share needs of capitalism, not by the recognition that the salvation of individuals is the key to it all. When you look at Christ’s effect, he primarily affected individual lives, very rarely the group. Even in the feeding of the five thousand, the miracle was that everyone ate, not that they had their lives transformed. The individual encounter with Christ, however, that has always been the key to genuine conversion and transformation.
Explain what McLuhan means when he says the Incarnation is the one time form and content are the same.
“The medium is the message” was McLuhan’s famous dictum, by which he meant the form dictates a lot more of the content than ever previously recognized. But it was never a literal truth, only a helpful metaphor to help the individual perceive how the medium shapes the message. But it WAS literally the case, McLuhan said, in one and only one case: Jesus Christ. In that case, the medium and the message are literally one and the same. This is the key to understanding McLuhan, and his media theory, and is equivalent to Einstein’s C, the one constant in a universe where everything else is relative. Interested readers should consult The Medium and the Light (1999, Stoddart) edited by Eric McLuhan, or see my forthcoming piece in the Renascence journal entitled “The Medium Is the Messiah.”
I’m posting this on our CLC website, having done this interview over the Internet. Is that ironic? Are we hypocrites?
It is ironic indeed. But it’s also fast, cheap, effective, and cool! My hope is that as a result of reading it, readers will be inclined to reverse engineer their engagement with media: by reading a book next, and then by following that up by inviting me to speak — live and in person! – to their campus, group, or church. I’m much funnier in person…
But to be serious: the beginning of a technology’s use does not have to be its end. If your close friend is dying of cancer, and you shoot him a quick e-mail of regret and sorrow before he goes, well then that would be a shame. But if you use e-mail to arrange a time to visit in person, then that’s redeeming the shallowness of e-mail for the purpose of real embodied communication. So the hypocritical use of a medium can always turn into something valuable, just as what man meant for evil God can use for good.
We simply swim in tech nowadays. Most of us couldn’t do our jobs without our computers, at least: word processing, the web as a major source of information, email for communications, et cetera. How does one swim against this tide?
There are two valid options, as I see it. The first is actually the easiest: become Amish. The second is even harder: swim upstream. McLuhan compared it to an Edgar Allen Poe short story called The Maelstrom. By noticing the pattern or effect of the whirlpool, one man in the story saves himself by jumping out of the ship and clinging to a piece of flotsam that is strangely swirling up instead of being sucked down by the whirlpool. So too can we devise a strategy of individual survival by being good at pattern recognition and by paying constant attention to the ways in which new media and technology can pull us down into their unintended side effects. It’s no surprise that the DSM V will have the most entries at the same point in human history as we have the highest number of new technologies to create psychic imbalances in our built environment.
How should Christian leaders – clergy, lay leaders, music ministers, etc. – think about using tech in their ministries?
Very very carefully. My first recommendation is to read Jacques Ellul’s “Effect on Churches” section of Propaganda. My second is to recognize that the church is not competing with Starbucks, the mall, or the movie theater for audiences. I think Henri Nouwen gets it right [in his In the Name of Jesus – ed.] when he says that the leaders of the future will be those who have the courage of being culturally irrelevant, because they will recognize that what the soul in technological society truly craves is the worship of the true and living God, not the temporary two-hour appeasement of the burden of self-consciousness that can be had anywhere else and with higher production values. So recognizing that worship and entertainment are not synonyms, understanding how icons (cultural and religious) work both semiotically and spiritually, knowing that “ecclesia” is the people and not the building, and knowing that value is a function of scarcity (and not repeatability), that is where I would start with teaching clergy how to think about tech use in their ministries. By and large, most people hate church for the same reason they hate meetings run by PowerPoint: if I can get this electronically on my laptop at my own convenience, why am I even here?
Should we be using things like the Amazon Kindle or the iPad, or do such devices damage our sensibilities?
Christians created the book culture in the west, so it would be historically ironic if we uncreated it by adopting the e-books that are out there. Ultimately, I think this is a question of tangibility. You want to be able to have it embodied, and to take on a life of its own, which is why you can’t or won’t throw away that dog-eared copy of _______ that you’ve had since college. Your notes in the margin, your favorite pages worn so thin from re-reading, all this is true religion: to re-read is the meaning of relegere, and that may be where the word religion comes from (the other option being religere, to rebind, which is also a book metaphor as well as an effect of re-reading). If we are what we repeatedly do, then re-reading Scripture is crucial to defining us as a people of faith, historically known as a people of the book. But I think for Christians (unlike Jews or Moslems who are also a people of the book) this has a special significance because the core of our belief is that the Word was made flesh, the story, the narrative, the idea, the invisible God actually becomes embodied in this physical and fallen world, and takes on our suffering. I think real books embody that same thing in a way that e-books simply can’t. So I wouldn’t say that e-books are going to kill or damage our sensibility, but I would say that hardcopy books are much more inclined to preserve this metaphysical bias and understanding.
What does tech do to religion?
Of the five great technological eras (Oral, Writing, Printing, Electronic, Digital), the digital era has had the most interesting unintended side effects on religious practices. I say “interesting” because they are (a) still not entirely known and (b) still not fully assessable in the greater context. My next book, coming out from InterVarsity Press, is on this very subject and is tentatively titled Seven Vices of the Virtual Life. It is not “The” seven vices, because there may be more or less (just as the original seven vices were eight originally), but by “vice” I mean unintended consequence or “side-effect” and these are all quite new problems created by the new technologies. So this hopes to be the first Christian critique of media that is based on form, not content, and thus much less of a moralizing book than a helpful guide through the waters of media effects. So, for example, I don’t have a chapter on pornography as one of the ‘bad’ things about modern media, even though it so obviously is. Instead I’m looking at how the form of modern mass media creates information overload, which yields the new problems of desensitization, individual numbness and collective indifference, what psychologists have called ‘empathy fatigue’ for a decade or more now. In this context, pornography can be understood as a subset of this larger problem. Interestingly, it seems to be a self-sustaining feedback mechanism at play: the user logs on, surfs around, feels bored, disconnected, disembodied, and then turns to porn and masturbation to ‘get in touch’ with his physical being. Older media forms didn’t produce this effect in anything close to these numbers. For women, the temptation to “cutting” is quite similar: users report the common perception that in cutting themselves they are not worried they might die. Instead, they cut as an answer to the fear that they might not be alive: they cut themselves to confirm their physical existence. Only a media environment that had first disembodied and desensitized the user to that extent could produce such an effect. Why men tend to re-embody themselves with self-stimulated pleasure and women with self-stimulated pain is a question for the psychologists, so the book contains a lot of what McLuhan called “probes” – questions that may or may not have currently known answers, but deserve to be investigated.
Recently Rod Dreher blogged about the rapid “decline of the Churches” in the modern West, blaming it in large part on the culture of “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” wherein, more or less, a generic god made in one’s own image exists to make one happy. What role, if any, has technology played in the decline of the Church in the West? And can it be countered?
I think Dreher is certainly on to something. Tyler Wigg Stevenson asks a similar question in Brand Jesus when he wonders what part of his life he is dependent on God for when he has a high-paying job, medical insurance, life insurance, nice suburban existence in a safe neighborhood, good schools, and is white, heterosexual, and middle class. The answer, of course, is less and less. And this gets back to the earlier point about technological development ultimately yielding a collective loss of faith. No one has ever done a correlation study comparing atheism-to-theism levels of iPhone-to-landline users, but it might yield interesting results. With over 500,000 apps available, the user can literally become a god by having “the whole world in his hands.” Is the Church countering this effectively by endorsing the preparation-for-confession app? I have my doubts. But your question also gets back to the ancient story of why Abram left Ur: worshiping gods made by human hands is a form of technology worship. Abraham is the first to realize this is wrong and becomes the founder of monotheism. May his descendants be blessed and many!