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S1E1: To Ask the Question...
(The following is the manuscript for episode one of season one of the Breaking the Digital Spell podcast, which premiered on August 28th, 2018. This episode, and the entirety of season one, are available wherever you get your podcasts, or you can listen online here.)
1984 was a big year for Western democracy.
Just hearing the date can bring an unpleasant feeling, even if you weren’t even alive then, because of a certain book revolving around the now-infamous year: George Orwell’s 1984. I don’t think I need to spend much time describing the book; even if you haven’t read it, you know what it’s about. We get the idea of “Big Brother”, “thoughtcrime”, and “doublespeak” from the book; we all are familiar with the Ministry of Truth, and the lies they spew; the Ministry of Peace, and the wars they wage; the Ministry of Love, and the tortures they bring; the Ministry of Plenty, and the starvation they feed. The book was published in 1949, a few years into the beginning of the Cold War, and by the time the actual year 1984 was on the horizon, the Orwellian dystopia of the book 1984 wasn’t just fiction, but the literary reference point of everything America and other democracies were desperately fighting to ward off. When the year 1984 came and went, and Western democracy was still standing, there was a collective sigh of relief that Orwell’s prophecy wasn’t accurate the point of nailing the date of totalitarianism’s takeover of the free world. The year came and went, and the Cold War raged on.
A year later, in 1985, author and professor Neil Postman published a little book called “Amusing Ourselves to Death”, and he opens the book with a bold claim: it wasn’t George Orwell’s vision of the future we should have been fearing. Instead, there was someone else’s vision for the future that we should be afraid of, a vision buried and forgotten in Owell’s dark shadow. The author was Aldous Huxley, the book was called “Brave New World”, and the vision was equally as dark – but not on the surface. There is an oppressive totalitarianism in Huxley’s vision of tomorrow, but it’s not externally opposed on us by the state, which is undoubtedly part of the reason why America, still years away from the end of the Cold War, found Orwell so horrifying. Instead, the oppressive totalitarianism is caused by…us. I’ll let Neil Postman, as read by my wife, explain:
“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared that the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy-porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. . . .In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us. -Neil Postman, “Amusing Ourselves to Death”, emphasis mine
Neil Postman’s book was subtitled “Public Discourse In The Age Of Show Business”, and his thesis was that television was doing more than giving us cheap entertainment, but that it was shaping the way we think about politics, religion, and education, and that – whether we intended it or not – we were putting color on the canvas of Huxley’s brave new world. His book soon became a hit, and would go on to sell 200,000 copies and be translated into several languages. Neil didn’t hate television – on the contrary, he praised what he called “junk television”, which included the likes of “The A-Team” and “Cheers” – but he was deeply concerned that they way politics, education, science, journalism, and religion, were being reshaped by the demands opposed by the medium television. As his son Andrew recalls in the introduction of the 20th anniversary edition of the book, one time Neil appeared on television to discuss the thesis of his book and noted that, as they were having a serious conversation about the health of society and culture, a mandatory television break was arriving within the next 30 seconds so that colorful, banal advertisements for toothpaste or cars could be aired, putting a forced end to a necessary discussion.
The news anchor corrected him; the commercials weren’t coming in 30 seconds, but in 10 seconds.
Neil would pass away from lung cancer in October, 2003. But two months before his passing, several employees from a marketing firm called eUniverse would band together and launch a little known website called MySpace – and just as the world was changed through the advent of television and (eventually) the internet, the world was about to be changed again through the advent of social media. We are now 15 years removed from the humble beginnings of MySpace, and with MySpace came not only the advent of social media, but helped fuel the explosive beginning of the Smartphone Era and the trend of adding “smart” in front of every new fancy gadget, be it our Smart TVs or Smart Thermostats, or Smart Cars. And even when the word “smart” doesn’t necessarily fit in the front of something, the word “reality” might be used instead, as in Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality. While I enjoy watching shows on my gorgeous 55” 4K TV, I look forward to the day when I can upgrade to 8K, and then to whatever comes beyond that. Needless to say, we are living in a time where technology is growing, changing, expanding, evolving – and its awesome! We all know this; we all can go on and on about how technology makes our lives easier, better, more comfortable, and more fun.
And yet, the last year and a half has been a slow-moving wake up call for society as we begin to grapple with some of the unintended consequences of the technology and media we (thought) would bring us so much joy and happiness. When we signed up for our various social media accounts, we had no idea of how it would change our political landscape and come to play such a significant role in our elections. When we picked up our smartphones from our providers, we had no idea that “smartphone addiction” would become a buzzword of growing concern. When we signed up for Netflix to binge watch The Office, we had no idea that we would someday be discussing the merits of a show centered around a teenager’s suicide – and how it would lead to a documented increase in teenager suicide across the nation. We were so enthralled at the possibilities of this new technology and the hype behind this new media that we didn’t consider asking if there would be any downsides mixed in with the upsides, and we are realizing that perhaps the downsides are resulting in minimal profits to society – perhaps, in some cases, even a loss. It’s why Apple and Google are rolling out features into iPhones and Androids designed at curtailing smartphone usage. It’s why Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was called to testify before Congress about the role Facebook played in the 2016 Presidential election. Its why health authorities are beginning to sound the alarm on the dangers of Netflix binging on consumer’s mental health, even on how binge watching impacts our sleep at night. I haven’t even gone into the epidemic of pornography, the law’s current inability to handle cyberbullying among teenagers, the threat of automation leaving skilled workers without jobs, or a whole host of distressing issues. Our technology has changed the world – but maybe not in ways we wanted it to.
While all of the questions about how social media has changed politics, or smartphones have given rise to addiction, are perfectly good and valid, I think there is an even more pressing question for Christians to ask: how have all these changes in technology and media changed our theology? How has it changed the way we think of the bride of Christ? How has it changed the way we love our neighbor?
I know that, with those questions, we can point to many ways where technology and media have changed these things for the better, and I know that’s certainly true for me. Social media allows us to connect with other believers from all over the world, and to encourage and support each other from incredible distances. Smartphones allow for powerful apps that can help us stay in the Word during the day. Digital ebook services have made reading books cheaper and more convenient, whether its the newest works of bright new authors or cheap public domain copies of old dead theologians. A whole economy has opened up for people with skills and training in these new fields that provide new avenues of creativity, expression, and management; I personally experience all three of these as a social media manager and content creator for a church. But what about the ways where technology and media have changed things for the worse? Even though I can point to dozens of examples where technology and media have positively benefited my theology and blessed my relationship with my neighbor, I can also think of dozens of ways where the opposite has happened. The same social media that allows me to connect to other believers all over the world also shows me a world of unbelievable brokenness and despair, despair that creeps into my mind and leads me to question the goodness of God given how many voices cry out in pain online. The same smartphone that allows me to spend time in the Word at any time also gives me the greatest get-out-of-boredom device that allows me to tune out any unpleasant situations – or snub annoying individuals that I’d like to avoid. And what about the Internet? Has being immersed in a world where the Internet is available anywhere and everywhere changed the way I absorb and process information? What have I gained – and what have I lost – by not having to internalize facts and knowledge, but by simply knowing where I can go to find the information that I need? How does the Internet, as a medium, change the way I think – about God, about the church, about the Bible, about ministry, about theology, about friends, about family, about politics, about society, about life?
And thats what this podcast is about. Its not about convincing you to throw your MacBooks out the window, pack your things, and move to the middle of nowhere, free from any technological influence whatsoever. Nor is it about instilling a fear of the device you’re currently listening this into, as though there were some big, grand conspiracy to turn you into some mindless lemming. Instead, Breaking the Digital Spell is a podcast about asking questions about the technology and media we take for granted, and honestly assessing the full range of impact they have on our lives and theology. Specifically, for this first season, we are going to look at the various evolutions of technology throughout history – from writing, to the printing press, to televisions, the Internet, and the future – and examine how, whenever these technological breakthroughs occurred, our theology changed with the times – and ask ourselves, what changes are on the horizon? What does this mean for the future of the church, for the future of evangelism, for the future of living as faithful, ordinary Christians? Because buried underneath these questions is an even more important question: why does it even matter?
I would submit to you that these questions matter because, if we believe that we are called to fulfill the Great Commission, we cannot effectively do that without understanding the world we are being sent out to. We cannot effectively share the Gospel with our neighbor if we don’t understand how our neighbor, and we cannot understand our neighbor unless we understand ourselves. We cannot love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength if we do not understand how our hearts, souls, minds, and bodies are being captured and captivated by the technology and media we consume and interact with. We cannot break into a world ruled by distractions – from text messages, from Twitch streams, from email, from eSports, to social media, from schedules, from noise, from nonsense – if we do not first understand how our lives are affected by these distractions. In a world dominated by digital mediums, we must understand what these mediums do to us if we are to faithfully proclaim the Gospel in, through, and around these mediums, and the first step in doing that is to do what Neil Postman outlined in the conclusion of his little book:
These questions, and dozens more like them, are the means through which it might be possible for Americans to begin talking back to their television sets…For no medium is excessively dangerous if its users understand what its dangers are….This is an instance in which the asking of the questions is sufficient. To ask is to break the spell. - Neil Postman, “Amusing Ourselves to Death”, emphasis mine