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S1E8: Fire! Wire!
(The following is the manuscript for episode eight of season one of the Breaking the Digital Spell podcast, which premiered on October 9th, 2018. Available wherever you get your podcasts, or you can listen online here.)
When we first started talking about mediums several episodes ago, we used this quote from Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves To Death as our starting point:
“We might say that a “technology” is to a “medium” as the brain is to the mind. Like the brain, a technology is a physical apparatus. Like the mind, a medium is a use to which a physical apparatus is put. A technology becomes a medium as it employs a particular symbolic code, as it finds its place in a particular social setting, as it insinuates itself into economic and political contexts. A technology, in other words, is merely a machine. A medium is the social and intellectual environment a machine creates.” - Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death
For the past several episodes, we’ve been focusing on those “social and intellectual environments” created by televisions and the early Internet, and how those mediums have played a part in shaping our thoughts about God by promoting a secular way of thinking towards Christianity and religion as a whole. But what about the machines themselves? What role do they play in all this?
We’ve not focused too much on the technology of television sets and the Internet up until this point because, to be quite honest, it would be pretty boring. I personally find it fascinating, but if the goal in understanding the past is to help us understand the present digital world we live in, focusing on older forms of technology wouldn’t serve that end well. Whether your television is an old cathode ray tube television, a plasma display, or an LCD or OLED display, the medium created by the television set is going to be relatively similar to an older/newer television set, even if the picture and sound quality is different. The same is true with the Internet – whether you’re using Google Fiber and getting ridiculously fast speed, or you’re in a small town and are lucky to get 50 MBs in download speed, the medium created by the Internet is still relatively the same even if one loads a webpage in milliseconds and the other in (what feels like) an eternity. As this season starts moving more into current technology, we will start looking at the machines themselves as much as the mediums created by the machines, but I think it’s worth examining some of the technological changes brought with the Internet and look at some of questions raised with that, and we will start with a topic I’ve mentioned briefly in the past but haven’t spent too much time on yet: is there a difference between the printed word and the digital word?
I mentioned early on in this season that “a technologically optimistic view of technology sees the good that can come for Christianity when technology makes the transmission of text, words, documents, and books more doable and more available”, and obviously that’s one of the best things about the Internet. While I think that the Internet has brought negative consequences for Christianity, namely by empowering individuals to experience Christianity at the expense of the physical, embodied people of God, I also fully believe that the Internet has been one of the best things for Christianity insofar as it has allowed for text pertaining to Christianity to be more easily accessible. There’s a reason why Christian leaders were so quick to adopt blogging as a communications medium in the early 2000s – Christianity is a religion centered around the written word, and blogging was (at the time) the most cost efficient ways to publish written material and get into the hands (or, more accurately, on the screens) of people without the financial obstacles of publishing and buying physical books. And, speaking of books, the eBook industry exploded because, in general, you could buy books for significantly cheaper because the physical overhead of making and distributing physical books wasn’t a factor. My Kindle library is massive, and my physical library and Kindle library combined are barely a fraction of the library I have in Logos Bible Software – a library that I forked over $1,300 for and still haven’t exhausted looking at the digital books it came with. Digital word processors – be it Microsoft Word, Apple’s Pages, or Evernote, the note taking software I’ve been using religiously for nearly a decade – have made writing significantly easier and more convenient, with tools that allow you to do things you couldn’t do if you were writing by hand.
Its hard to imagine a better evolution of the printed text than what we have in the creation and expansion of digital text. But is reading digital text on a screen the same as reading physical text on a page? Recall what Neil Postman said of televised Christianity a few episodes ago: “If the delivery is not the same, then the message, quite likely, is not the same.” And while that might have been true of television and the Internet, does this hold up with a comparison of digital text to printed text? After all, if you look at a page of a book in a Kindle, and if you look at that same page of the same book in physical form, aren’t both pages saying the exact same thing, word for word?
In a sense, yes, and in a sense, no.
Let’s start with the affirmative: yes, propositionally speaking, both the digital page and the physical page of our hypothetical book are saying the exact same thing, word for word. The same ideas are being conveyed, the same argumentation is being used, and the terms of engagement for reading a physical book are still required in order to read the digital book as well. But isn’t that all that really matters? Not necessarily. For one, consider the extra things you can do with digital text that you can’t do with physical text. Usually, with digital text, you can customize it: you can change the font, the size, and the spacing relatively easy. You can also usually expand on the text within the text itself – in a Kindle you can highlight a single word and immediately pull up definitions, pronunciations, highlight it, or type out a note on it – and theoretically, that note could be several pages long by itself! If a text is hyperlinked, you can pull up that link and read whatever comes up. You can’t do any of these things with printed text in a book. You can physically highlight the text, and you can physically write in the book, but the shape and size of the printed text is what you’re stuck with. If you come across a word or phrase you don’t recognize, there’s no internal dictionary to help you out, and of course, you can’t put hyperlinks in physical print. And, to be clear: none of these things are inherently bad things. Part of the reason why I invested in a Logos library is because I wanted to be able to interact deeper with the texting using the indexing and cross-reference features Logos is known for. It has made sermon prep – on the handful of occasions during the year when I get to preach – significantly easier because I don’t have to thumb through volumes of books and physically keep them open to mine their content. Logos does that for me. But are these simple additions to physical text – like highlighting text with a highlighter or writing a note in the margins of the page – or are these features the result of a fundamentally new kind of text altogether? If Nicholas Carr, author of the groundbreaking book “The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains”, is correct, these features of digital text testify to digital text not simply being an evolution upon printed text, but something entirely new altogether:
“Traditional media, even electronic ones, are being refashioned and re-positioned as they go through the shift to online distribution. When the Net absorbs a medium, it re-creates that medium in its own image. It not only dissolves the medium’s physical form: it injects the medium’s content with hyperlinks, breaks up the content into searchable chunks, and surrounds the content with the content of all the other media it has absorbed. All these changes in the form of the content also change the way we use, experience, and even understand the content.” -Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains
Several episodes ago, when we talked about how we actually go about reading the book, we looked at how you read a book if your goal is reading for comprehension. Reading for comprehension requires you to be able to concentrate on the text of the page and tune out distractions for a considerable period of time, to be able to understand the language the text is written in, and you need to be able to parse the vocabulary and grammar of the text and understand what’s being said in each sentence. But not only do you need to be able to understand each sentence that you’re reading, you need to be able to understand each sentence in relation to each sentence, each paragraph in relation to each paragraph, each chapter to each chapter. You need to be able to link ideas, concepts, arguments, and illustrations together if you want to understand what the author is saying. However, you don’t always need everything with the goal of reading it comprehensively. The ability to skim text – to interact with it as quickly and efficiently as possible – is equally as important as the ability to read comprehensively. In urgent or desperate situations, being able to quickly and effectively skim text could have life-or-death consequences. But we need to ask ourselves – if digital text, changed in the ways Carr described earlier, changes the way we understand the content, which direction does that understanding take us? Does it take us in the direction of reading comprehensively, or reading to skim information? I’ll let Carr, with help from Anne Mangen, answer this one:
“A page of online text viewed through a computer screen may see similar to a page of printed text. But scrolling or clicking though a Web document involves physical actions and sensory stimuli very different from those involved in holding and turning the pages of a book or a magazine. Research has shown that the cognitive act of reading draws not just on our sense of sight but also on our sense of touch. It’s tactile as well as visual. ‘All reading’, writes Anne Mangen, a Norwegian literary studies professor, is ‘multi-sensory.’ There’s a ‘crucial link’ between ‘the sensory-motor experience of the materiality’ of a written work and ‘the cognitive processing of the text content.’ The shift from paper to screen doesn’t just change the way we navigate a piece of writing. It also influences the degree of attention we devote to it and the depth of our immersion in it.” - Nicholas Carr, including a citation from Anne Mangen, in The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains
Digital texts is geared towards skimming text because the way you interact with digital text is fundamentally different than reading a book. When you look at a page of a physical book, you are looking at a physical page of a book, and in order to turn the page you must physically do so. When you look at a page of digital text, you are looking at a screen, and in order to turn the digital page of the book, you must click, scroll, or press a key – and none of those are the same as physically turning a page. So if the way we physically interact with the text is different between the two, and the sensory stimuli is different between the two, what effect does this have on the way we think? How does this impact our brain?
I don’t want to spend too much time here because the concept of neuroplasticity – the idea that our brain can be physically altered by our actions and experiences – is such a massive concept and we will visit it again in later episodes, but I think we can and should briefly look at how the technology – the machines – we use have physiological effects on us; they literally change us. And we know this to be true in other ways – your eyes get bloodshot if you stare at a screen for too long, or your ears hurt if you sit close to loud speakers, for example. The idea of technology having a physical impact on us is not a new idea, but what if it’s having a physical impact on us in ways we can’t necessarily feel or discern? This quote from Carr is pretty technical but notice how the brain itself changes itself in response to actions and sensations:
Every time we perform a task or experience a sensation, whether physical or mental, a set of neurons in our brains is activated. If they’re in proximity, these neurons join together through the exchange of synaptic neurotransmitters like the amino acid glutamate. As the same experience is repeated, the synaptic links between the neurons grow stronger and more plentiful through both physiological changes, such as the release of higher concentrations of neurotransmitters, and anatomical ones, such as the generation of new neurons or the growth of new synaptic terminals on existing axons and dendrites. Synaptic links can also weaken in response to experiences, again as a result of physiological and anatomical alterations. What we learn as we live is embedded in the ever-changing cellular connections inside our heads. The chains of linked neuron’s form our mind’s true ‘vital paths’. Today, scientists sum up the essential dynamic of neuroplasticity with a saying known as Hebb’s rule: ‘cells that fire together wire together.’ - Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains
So every time we click a mouse, or type on a keyboard, or stare at a screen to quickly digest some digital text, that has a physical consequence on us. The more we do it, the more its easier to do it. The easier it is to do it, the more we want to do it. The more we want to do it, the less we care about any of the potential side effects. Because this podcast is about the ways technology and media shape our thoughts about God, I think it must be stated that technology and media not only have philosophical effects on us, but psychological affects on us as well. It’s important for us to understand that technology and media influence both what we think about, and how we even think at all. This is not an accident – God our designed our brains to be plastic and malleable, and God does not design things poorly. But, living in a fallen and sinful world, that plasticity can (and often does) lead to results that only perpetuate the brokenness of this world – addiction, mental disorder, forgetfulness, distractedness, and more. Could it be that some of the issues we experience in society today have arisen because of the collective re-shaping of our brains as a result of the new technology and media we live with? I don’t think that’s a controversial conclusion to come to. And if this technology has the power to reshape our brains as a result of our use of it, what happens when the brains of a collective society are changed as a result of the technology we collectively use? When everyone is coming culturally – and mentally – accustomed to skimming digital text instead of reading for comprehension, what are the results? Maryann Wolf, writing in The Guardian, believes that:
The possibility that critical analysis, empathy and other deep reading processes could become the unintended “collateral damage” of our digital culture is not a simple binary issue about print vs digital reading. It is about how we all have begun to read on any medium and how that changes not only what we read, but also the purposes for why we read. Nor is it only about the young. The subtle atrophy of critical analysis and empathy affects us all. It affects our ability to navigate a constant bombardment of information. It incentivizes a retreat to the most familiar silos of unchecked information, which require and receive no analysis, leaving us susceptible to false information and demagoguery.” - Maryann Wolf, “Skim reading is the new normal. The effect on society is profound”
Digital technology has opened the floodgates of information for us, and has packaged that information to where we must skim it if we are to be able to handle it all. Is it good for society if we get so used to skimming information all the time that it impacts our ability to read comprehensively and thoroughly? If the amount of digital text we consume – if the amount of digital text we skim – is so massively overwhelming that we can’t control its influence on us and its influence on others, what kind of impact does that have on our minds? What kind of impact does that have on our worship as Christians? Even if we disagree as to how specifically it impacts us, I think we can agree that it does have a tangible impact on us. And if digital text has a impact on us, what kind of impact do mediums that are built around digital text have on us? On the next episode of Breaking the Digital Spell, we finally arrive at the most powerful set of mediums that have ever existed. We arrive at the space where skimming digital text and a highly repetitive, mind-altering activity involving people you actually know merge together – in a space called Myspace.