Category Archives: Reviews

The Shallows (a Review)

[updated on 12 May: I was in a bit of a bad mood when I wrote the original version of this review, and I think I got a bit too snarky at points. This obviously irritated a few people (see comments below), and probably made it more difficult to understand what I was saying. I've updated this to remove the snark, and clarify a few things that were missing from the original review. My apologies to those who found the original irritating; hopefully this version will be less so.]

The ShallowsScattered. When I talk with friends about their lives these days, I often hear that word. They feel like there’s far too many things vying for their attention, too much information to absorb, too many things to keep track of. They wonder what happened to all that time that our labor-saving devices were supposed to reclaim for us. But more importantly, they worry about how their constant flitting from one thing to another is altering the ability to concentrate, to focus on one thing for an extended period of time. They are concerned that the manifold distractions that seem to multiply like furry tribbles are keeping them from contemplating and reflecting on what really matters most in life.

Similar concerns underlie Nicholas Carr‘s book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains. Carr states in the introduction that over the last few years, he had noticed that he was finding it increasingly difficult to concentrate on one particular thing for any length of time. It was much harder for him to sit down and get lost in a book, or to follow an extended argument in an academic paper. Instead, he gravitated towards the short snippets of information he received via his various information technologies: emails, blog posts, web pages, tweets and the like. Although he was getting older, he suspected that the real cause of his increasingly scattered mind was those chaotic and insistent flows of information, so he set out to research what neuroscience has discovered about the ways information technologies effect our brains.

Carr’s book is essentially an attempt to put some scientific muscle behind one of Marshall McLuhan‘s most provocative statements: “The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts, but alter sense ratios and patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance” (Understanding Media, 31). Carr argues that these changes in “sense ratios and patters of perception” are actually material, structural changes that occur within the brain, changes that affect the way our brains work, and the kinds of tasks we are able to do.

It turns out that our brains have a certain degree of “plasticity.” That is, our brains are constantly changing, physically reacting to the stimuli we receive, the tasks we do often, and the tools we use to do those tasks. Like water carving out a channel, neural pathways that fire often become stronger and more conductive over time, making it easier for us to leverage that part of our brain in the future. Sometimes this even causes a physical enlargement of our brain cells. For example, Carr discusses how cabbies in London have a measurably larger posterior hippocampus, which is the part of the brain responsible for storing and manipulating spatial information.

But this plasticity can also have a “dark side,” Carr asserts. If we spend more and more time consuming small bits of disconnected information, our brains will physically restructure to optimize for that kind of thinking, and thus we will lose our ability to perform what he calls “deep reading.” Such a loss, Carr declares, will be detrimental not only to our creative engagement with the world, but also our general cultural wisdom.

Carr does an excellent job reviewing the scientific evidence for neuroplasticity, leaving little doubt that the things we use to convey information shape the physical makeup of our brains. He also stresses that these changes happen very rapidly, regardless of age or prior education/experience. He highlights a study in which the brain patterns of those who had not previously used the Internet began to resemble long-time users after just six days of exposure (121). In the afterword, he also makes it clear that generational differences, or the kind of education one has had, should make no difference:

I’ve always been suspicious of those who seek to describe the effects of digital media in generational terms, drawing sharp contrasts between young ‘Internet natives’ and old ‘Internet immigrants.’ Such distinctions strike me as misleading, if not specious. If you look at statistics on Web use over the past two decades, you see that the average adult has spent more time online than the average kid (226-7).

In many ways, we really shouldn’t be all that surprised that our brains physically change to accommodate new tools. Each new technology requires some getting used to, and over time we develop new skills and abilities that we didn’t have before. The question is, however, do these physical changes actually affect the way we think and behave? If so, do they do so deterministically? If six days of exposure to the world wide web were enough to make the study subjects’ brain patterns look like long-term users, does that mean that those subjects would now start to think and act just like those long-term users as well?

Carr seems to answer this in the affirmative, but I think this is where his book is the weakest. Although he includes a paragraph to acknowledge that technological determinism is problematic, he nevertheless argues like a determinist throughout the rest of the book. His basic premise seems to be that reading books always creates a linear, logical, focused, detached mind, while using the Internet (in any shape or form) always creates a non-linear, reactionary, distracted, tribal mind. This assertion, of course, is based on similar ones made by McLuhan and Ong, but I’ve always been rather suspicious of it. In addition to being a bit insulting to pre-literate societies and those who don’t typically read books, I think it also suffers from a lack of necessary distinctions.

Carr echoes the media studies claim that reading printed books always results in the same kind of psychological and cultural effects, regardless of the content of those books. He notes that “Whether a person is immersed in a bodice ripper or a Psalter, the synaptic effects are the same” (72). The implication is that synaptic effects result in psychological and behavioral effects as well, so he would expect that someone who reads mostly escapist fiction, or even pornography, should end up with the same sort of mind as someone who reads mostly philosophy. Carr takes this even further, however, and says that these same changes happen very quickly and regardless of age or previous education or experience. The implication is that if you stop reading printed books and only read on the web, you will quickly become a distracted, shallow thinker.

I remain unconvinced by this argument for a few reasons. First, Carr seems to be lumping a wide array of information technologies into what he calls “the Internet.” He makes no distinctions between demand-pull media (such as web pages and ftp file downloads) and instant-push media (such as SMS text messaging or Twitter); instead he just declares that all of it is designed to convey a constant, unstoppable stream of distractions. He also discusses eBook readers without making any distinctions between genre; escapist fiction might work perfectly fine as an eBook, while other genres might not.

Second, Carr also seems to be assuming that all people gain wisdom and creatively engage with the world in the same way. Recall that his argument hinges on the idea that physical changes to the brain will result in particular psychological effects, regardless of age or prior education/experience, and this, he warns, will result in a loss of cultural wisdom and a decline in creativity. But I have known many people that I would not hesitate to call ‘wise’ who no longer read books at all. Instead, their wisdom is of a different kind, and comes from a long and persistent engagement with the material world: gardening, farming, fishing, etc. To say that wisdom comes only from reading printed books seems to me to be a bit problematic.

Third, I find his claims about a loss of creativity to be a bit surreal given the explosion of creativity enabled by digital tools and social media. Yes, much of it is inane and derivative, but one must also consider the degree to which these tools have also enabled talented artists to make new kinds of work, and get that work in front of more people. One might try to argue that on the whole, average cultural creativity is declining, but I think that would require some harder data, and I don’t think Carr provided them.

Lastly, my own experience with the book also raises questions about his thesis. I’ve used a computer since 1980, have programmed them for a living for many years, and have spent quite a lot of time on the Internet. Yet I was able to sit down and read Carr’s book over the course of a few days. I followed his argument closely, engaged critically with his claims, and creatively wrote a review of it on this blog. If, as he claims, the Internet will quickly turn me into a shallow and uncreative thinker, regardless of my age or previous experience/education, how was all of this possible?

Despite these shortcomings, Carr’s book will no doubt remain an enduring fixture in the debates surrounding the Internet, mobile communications, and social networking. Those interested in the topic will no doubt want to become familiar with the book, which is very easy to do, as Carr’s writing style is easy to read and very approachable.

Television in Fiji

Miss RepresentationThis week I had the pleasure of attending a screening of the film Miss Representation, a documentary about the way women are portrayed in the media. I highly recommend watching it, especially with your daughters. Like all activist documentaries, it’s full of shocking statistics that are completely decontextualized and un-cited, but the overall argument of the film is one that would be pretty hard not to agree with, at least to some degree. One doesn’t really need statistics to notice that there are problems with the way women are portrayed in the media, and that those portrayals are going to have some negative affects on women, especially adolescent girls.

After the film, there was a panel discussion during which one of the panelists offhandedly mentioned something that peaked my curiosity: a study that had been done on how the introduction of television to a rural Fijian area had affected the way adolescent girls thought about their bodies and eating habits. I did some searching when I got home, and found the original study, as well as a followup article that delved more deeply into the links between television and body image.

It turns out that Fiji is a perfect place to investigate this. Unlike Europeans and Americans, Fijians traditionally encouraged and celebrated what the primary author describes as “robust appetites and body shapes” (Becker et al, 2002: 509). A bit of girth was conventionally associated with strength and hard work, not laziness, and attempts to purposely reshape one’s body through dieting or exercise were typically discouraged. Prior to the introduction of television, there had been only one reported case of anorexia in all of Fiji, and other kinds of eating disorders were almost non-existent.

Given this kind of cultural foundation, the researchers asked, what kind of influence would television have? Would Fijian women and girls become increasingly body conscious and develop eating disorders like their Americans and European counterparts? Or would they retain their traditional body aesthetic and eating habits?

I should also note at this point that it wasn’t just the general technology of television that was being introduced to Fiji—it was also television shows and advertisements created in the United States, New Zealand, and Australia. With the exception of a short local newscast, all the programming came from cultures where the definition of a beautiful body was thin, tall, and fit. The popular shows in Fiji were ones that many of us have also seen or at least heard of: Xena, Warrior Princess; Beverly Hills 90210; Melrose Place; and the Australian dramatic series Shortland Street. All of them starred men and women who had a distinctly different body type than the typical Fijian. And interspersed throughout these shows were advertisements, most of which featured…you guessed it…exercise equipment and diet formulas.

The researchers conducted two studies of adolescent Fijian girls, one in 1995 just after television was introduced, and one three years later. In addition to capturing basic body measurements and TV watching behavior, the participants also responded to an “eating attitudes test” that included questions about binging and purging. Those who indicated that they had binged or purged were then interviewed to learn more about why they did it, and wether exposure to these TV programs may have played a role.

The results are pretty shocking. In those short three years, the percentage of families with a TV rose from 41% to 70%, and the percentage of girls who had unhealthy scores on the eating attitudes test had also risen from about 12% to nearly 30%. The use of self-induced vomiting, which none had admitted to in the first study, had risen to just over 11%. A feeling that one should eat less was also significantly higher, and 74% of the girls reported that they now felt like they were “too fat.”

Now, we should also temper this with all the caveats, most of which are noted in the original study. The number of participants was relatively low, just over 60, and not exactly the same between the two measurements. The participants were also self-reporting, which can often skew results. Not all forms of disordered eating behaviors rose (the use of laxatives and diuretics did not change, nor did incidents of binge eating). Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the introduction of television was not the only aspect of Fijian culture that was changing during this period. Fiji, like most places in the world, was rapidly changing due to globalization, and Fijian girls had already been exposed to American culture via magazine and other print media long before TV arrived.

Nevertheless, these rapid and significant changes in eating habits certainly require explanation, and this is where the in-depth interviews with girls who reported binging or purging came into play. It is pretty clear from the quotes highlighted in the second article that many of the girls were trying to loose weight because they wanted to emulate the characters they saw on TV, primarily because those characters seemed so powerful, successful, and confident. The girls assumed that these qualities naturally flowed from the actresses’ tall, thin, and fit body shapes, and that reshaping their own bodies to match would be necessary in order to be competitive and ultimately successful in a quickly globalizing economy.

XenaOf particular interest was the girls’ desire to be more like Xena, who they saw as a strong and powerful woman who could successfully compete in a man’s world. In this sense, Xena provided a powerful feminist role model, but again the assumption was that her power came from her thin, athletic body, and not from her intelligence or integrity.

So what should we take away from all of this? Should we blame the medium of television for these rather sudden changes in eating habit and body image? Or could that medium have been used to convey shows featuring other types of body shapes? For example, would the results have been different if the programming shown had been made in Polynesia or the UK? Or does television, as a predominantly visual medium, naturally favor actors who resemble the producing culture’s ideal body shape, and thus end up determining the content that comes across it?

Regardless of how you answer these questions for yourself, I encourage you to watch the film Miss Representation and talk about it with your daughters, nieces, and friends. We need to help young women see through the impossible standard of beauty that is paraded constantly before them, and find other kinds of powerful, confident women that they can turn to for role models.

Efficiency and Ellul

Glass Half Full/EmptyThere’s an old engineering joke that goes like this: an optimist looks at the glass and says, “it’s half full”; the pessimist looks at the same glass and says, “it’s half empty”; and the engineer looks at the same glass, consideres it for a moment, and declares, “that glass is twice as big as it needs to be!”

Anyone who is an engineer, or who has known an engineer, or better yet is married to an engineer, probably at least chuckled knowingly at that joke. Although the joke plays on a stereotype, it’s really not that far off. Engineers do tend to have a certain obsession with efficiency, much to the chagrin of those non-engineers who have to live with them.

My wife can attest to this. Before I returned to graduate school, I was a software engineer for over a decade, and I still dabble in programming when I’m not teaching. All those years spent designing and implementing software systems have given me a certain sensitivity towards the relatively efficiency of doing something one way or another. When walking somewhere, I’m always seeking out the most direct yet safest path. When running errands, I carefully plan out my route in order to minimize the time they take. I even sort my grocery list by store aisle so that I can get everything in one pass. This sort of efficient, in-and-out approach to shopping certainly frustrates my highly-creative wife, who would rather wander and explore, taking delight in the surprises she finds along the way. Neither of our approaches is better than the other—we just think differently, and although we might annoy one another at times, we also find our differences refreshing.

I’ve been thinking about my attitude towards efficiency lately because I’ve been re-reading Jacques Ellul’s classic book The Technological Society. This book is a favorite among Christian critics of technology, and it’s not all that surprising why: Ellul is a brilliant and perceptive thinker, and his book provides a very insightful analysis of the ideology that he thinks underlies all of modern culture.

Despite the title, though, Ellul isn’t really talking about ‘technology’ in the sense that we commonly use the word today. This is where I think many people can easily misread Ellul. He is not really concerned with the products of technological practice—those shinny electronic gadgets and media that consume our attention. Instead, he is concerned with what he calls in French “la technique.” This is more of an attitude, a way of relating to the natural world and to each other, that prioritizes efficiency above all other values. It is the attitude of modernism and progress, the attitude of those who advocate for the “one best way” of doing a task, the attitude of those who see nature and people as merely “resources” to be used as efficiently as possible.

When we adopt this attitude, Ellul cautions, we quickly start confusing means with ends. When technique takes priority over ethics, we become obsessed not with how to live well, but with how to get the highest return on our investment. We begin to see the natural world and human society like machines that can and should be tuned to deliver the best possible performance. And when those machines create problems, we develop new techniques to correct them, never considering that those new techniques will probably create new problems of their own.

Ellul’s “characterology” of technique is certainly interesting and compelling, but this time through the book, I started to notice certain assumptions that Ellul makes that raised red flags in my mind. His understanding of efficiency stood out the most. He consistently characterizes efficiency as something that is completely objective, cold, and rational chiefly because it is measurable. This is true to an extent, but it presupposes two things which are not objective at all: choices about which of the many possible things you  choose to measure; and choices about the context in which one conducts the measurements.

For example, how would you measure whether one car is more ‘efficient’ than another car? Focusing on the performance of the motor seems like a reasonable thing, but the motor is only one of many subsystems in a modern automobile that one might care about. Even if you do focus on the motor, what makes one motor more efficient than another? Fuel economy, for which the EPA offers standardized ratings, might be one consideration, but torque and pulling power at various RPMs might be another. Even if you choose fuel economy as your only concern, there is a second assumption buried in those EPA numbers: the driving conditions under which they determined those measurements. The EPA can tell you relative differences in miles-per-gallon based on their particular tests, but those results could easily come out differently under different conditions. In other words, what you choose to measure and how you measure it are not always obvious and forgone conclusions. Someone makes those choices, and they do so for specific reasons.

The truth is that measuring ‘efficiency’ in practice is never quite as simple nor objective as a philosopher might imagine. When one looks closely at how such measurements are constructed and communicated, one often sees quite a lot of assumptions being made that are then effectively hidden from the final results. In science and technology studies, we refer to this as “black boxing,” where the methods and assumptions used to construct a particular “fact” are stripped away as that fact travels away from it original source (see Latour, Science in Action; or Vaughan, The Challenger Launch Decision). You can see this all the time in news articles about recently published scientific studies—the original paper will make explicit most of the assumptions and caveats, but these are typically stripped away as the findings are reported by the press. Suggestive correlations quickly become causations, and tentative findings become “proofs.” Similarly, MPG ratings or other kinds of efficiency measures always have stories behind them that are stripped away when they are compressed into a few numbers on a window sticker. Consumers may use them as if they were solid objective facts, but they are born out of a context, and are less objective than one might think.

When I worked in the software industry, we had similar sorts of standardized benchmarks that were supposed to reveal the efficiency of one program over another. For example, spreadsheet programs were measured for recalculation speed based on a particular set of complex models that bore little resemblance to the models used by our actual customers. Relational database management systems were measured based on the execution of a particular set of transactions over standardized schema and data, but that was only one possible way of using these highly-flexible storage engines. Although these tests were supposed to help consumers and developers determine which program to buy, they really couldn’t tell you much about how these programs would actually perform in your particular context of use. It was also widely rumored (and probably true) that software vendors specifically tuned their products to perform the standardized tests as quickly as possible, even if those tunings ran counter to what was needed under more real-world conditions.

Regardless of how we measure efficiency, do you think that Ellul is correct in assuming that efficiency is the thing we value most in our culture? Do you make your decisions solely based on efficiency, or do other considerations come into play as well?

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.

Thinking Through Technology, part I

Thinking Through Technology by Carl MitchamOver the holidays I started a new book that I think at least some of you will really want to read. It’s entitled Thinking Through Technology: The Path Between Engineering and Philosophy, and was written by Carl Mitcham back in 1994. It is by far the most complete review of the philosophy of technology I have ever read, but it also calls for a research agenda that is very close to my own.

The book is divided into two parts. Part I, entitled “Historical Traditions in the Philosophy of Technology” is a rather long (and at times very dry) review of the existing literature, but with a few added twists. Mitcham very keenly observes that there are really two separate bodies of work that both use the name “philosophy of technology.” The first comes from engineers who step back from their day-to-day work to philosophize about what they do (e.g., Kapp, Engelmeier, Dessauer). The second comes from humanities scholars (philosophers, historians, sociologists, etc) who make technology their primary object of inquiry (Mumford, Ortega Y Gasset, Heidegger, Ellul, etc). He refers to the former as Engineering Philosophy of Technology (EPT), and the latter Humanities Philosophy of Technology (HPT).

Although these groups seem on the surface to be doing similar things, Mitcham shows how they are actually approaching the subject from vastly different perspectives. EPT tends to take a kinder view of technology, and is more analytic when it engages with specific devices or systems. HPT, on the other hand, tends to be far more critical of technology, and more interpretive when examining specific cases. EPT pays more attention to the act of engineering, stressing its inherent creativity and links to the other arts. HPT pays more attention to the societal “impacts” of technology, taking a far more technological determinist view.

This should not be altogether surprising, Mitcham notes, when one considers the personal experience and motivations of those in each camp. The engineers-turned-philosophers speak from their direct experience making things and bringing new devices and systems to market. Because they understand the technologies at a deeper level, they can also analyze new systems more carefully, teasing out what is essential and fixed versus was is accidental and changeable. They also tend to recognize that any technology exists within a rich sociotechnical system of use, a system that is just as influenced by social forces as it is by technological ones.

Humanities scholars that examine technology typically don’t have any direct experience with the making of new technologies, nor do they have much in the way of theoretical engineering knowledge. They are reacting to a society that has seemingly lost interest in what these scholars know and love: the classic works of western thinkers found in most humanities curricula. They see the public glued to televisions, or in more recent years mobile communication devices and social networks, and fear their impending irrelevancy. Mitcham notes that HPT can often appear as “a series of read-guard attempts to defend the fundamental idea of the primacy of the nontechnical” (39); that is, attempts to reclaim the idea that what matters most in this world is not engineering or its products, but the never-ending reflection on what it means to be human and to live justly together.

What I appreciate most about Mitcham is that he recognizes the need for both EPT and HPT. If we are to ever get a handle on what technology is and how it relates to society, we need the perspectives of both practicing engineers and humanities scholars. Each has only one part of the puzzle, and each has quite a lot to learn from the other.

After discussing EPT vs HPT, Mitcham ends Part I with the most complete review I’ve ever seen of the usage of the term ‘technology’ in scholarship. Here he relies more on the history of technology, though his sources are a bit dated, and thus his critiques are not necessarily as relevant given the more recent scholarship in the field. Still, he does a much more complete job of analyzing the use of tekhnē in classical Greek than I have ever seen before, and uses that to make the argument that technology in the modern era is fundamentally different from pre-modern craft and architecture. I would agree with him on that, but Mitcham is unfortunately so far silent on whether we are now moving into a post-modern era, and if so, how engineering and its products might be shifting again into something entirely different. Perhaps he will get into that in part II.

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.

Better Off

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live without electricity? We’ve all had a taste of that when the power goes out temporarily, but imagine living day-to-day without electricity, as well as all those things in your life that rely on a steady supply of it: computers, televisions, game consoles, telephones, lights, refrigerators, clothes washers and dryers, fans, dishwashers, air-conditioners, thermostat-controlled furnaces, etc. What would your life be like? Would you have more or less time for leisure? And in the end, would you be happier?

This is what Eric Brende set out to discover for himself when he left his graduate school life at MIT and moved with his new wife to an agricultural community in the American heartland that even the Amish consider antiquated. The inhabitants of this community (who he dubs the “Minimites” due to their Mennonite religious tradition and minimal use of technology) practice a subsistance-farming lifestyle without the use of electricity or motors of any kind.

Brende and his wife lived with the Minimites for eighteen months, and he chronicles his experiences, as well as his more general thoughts on technology and culture, in his book Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology. Despite the absolute-sounding subtitle, neither Brende nor the Minimites reject technology altogether; as I have argued in previous posts, that would be impossible unless you artificially limit the definition of the word ‘technology’ to some arbitrary subset of devices. Instead, Brende set out to discover just how much technology was really needed to live a healthy and happy life. Ultimately, he wanted to discover “a balance between too much machinery and too little,” and a method for finding that balance in whatever circumstances he found himself in the future.

Throughout his adolescence, Brende had become increasingly disenchanted with modern technology, noting that many devices seemed to create more work than they actually saved. As Ruth Schwartz Cowan observed in her book More Work for Mother, so called “labor-saving” domestic appliances introduced in the 19th and 20th centuries often had the opposite effect; after adopting them, consumers typically found that they had even more work and less leisure time than before. For example, cast-iron stoves required more frequent cleaning and care than open-hearth fireplace cookware, and the new possibilities afforded by their separate ovens and cooking surfaces tended to raise expectations about the complexity of meals. Automatic clothes washers and dryers promised to reduce the burden of laundry, but the easy washing of cheap and plentiful cotton textiles just encouraged people to buy more pieces of clothing and wash them more frequently. In the end, we have lots of “labor-saving” and “time-saving” devices, but we seem to have more work and less time than ever before.

Brende observed this phenomenon himself as a teenager when he calculated out how much it would cost to buy and maintain the car he felt was necessary to get him to and from his minimum-wage job located on the other side of Topeka. He discovered that most of his earnings would be quickly consumed by his mode of transportation, leading to the disturbing conclusion that he was essentially working to pay for the machine necessary to get him to work. In many ways, it seemed like he was serving the car more than the car was serving him.

Brende’s description of his experiences amongst the Minimites is surprisingly frank, and typically devoid of naive Romanticism. Although there are times when he seems to gloss over what must have been truly arduous and monotonous work, he is also careful to describe in detail just how difficult and primitive this kind of lifestyle really is. He notes that it was especially difficult for him primarily because he did not grow up in it, and thus lacked the critical “know-how” that makes many tasks far easier. He relates how the men and young boys of the community often observed his herculean efforts at farming with a smirk, later explaining to him how the application of a simple technique, or use of a cleverly-designed tool, would produce the same results with far less work.

Stories like these highlight that the Minimites are not really averse to technology in principle; they are just exceedingly careful about adopting new technologies that might affect the community in ways that would undermine their social values. They use a wide array of tools and simple machines, and they often conduct controlled experiments with new technologies they are considering adopting. In other words, they are not anti-technological; they are just extremely reflective and purposeful about the kinds of devices they choose to adopt or reject.

During his eighteen months, Brende makes a number of observations, but the one that I found most interesting had to do with time. Subsistance farming requires daily work, but Brende noticed that this work actually accomplishes three things at the same time: the chore itself; the physical exercise that resulted from it; and the building of relationships with family and neighbors who labored alongside. In the typical urban lifestyle, we go to work in an office building to earn the money we need, then go to the gym to “work out” since our office job is not physically demanding, and then come home to spend a few hours of “quality time” with our families. Because we separate these activities into a linear progression, we end up with far less time than if they were merged together, as they typically were in a pre-Industrial lifestyle.

Of course, the Minimite community is not without its flaws, and Brende does not shy away from pointing them out, though he does so in a respectful manner. Families are ruled by authoritarian patriarchs. Gender roles are strictly enforced, and children’s interactions with the opposite sex are highly controlled. They believe that their church is the only true church, but it still suffers from the same kind of politics every church does. Not everyone in the community is really happy, and some choose to leave it during Brende’s stay.

Nevertheless, Brende’s description of the Minimite community is highly compelling, and he does a fantastic job of helping the reader imagine what it would be like to live with far less technology. Although you may not agree with conclusions, nor want to attempt a similar kind of experiment, you will find that it is difficult to just ignore or dismiss what he says. The value of this book is that it sparks your imagination, and forces you to reflect upon your own relationship with the technologies in your life.

I actually assign this book in my World History course, and I’ve noticed that my students tend to react to it in one of three ways. Some find the idea of such an experiment highly compelling, and are eager to try something like it in the future. Others are not interested in taking that deep of a plunge, but find that the book helps them better reflect on their own use of technology. But the final few have a highly-visceral negative reaction to the book, and proceed to critique it by pointing out the inconsistencies of the experiment, or the supposed naiveté of the author.

I find this last reaction to be the most intriguing. I suspect that their reaction has more to do with a subconscious feeling of being judged for their enjoyment of modern technology than any real substantive critique. Brende never claims that the Minimite lifestyle is consistent, nor that it is ideal—Brende’s mission was to find balance and a method he could use to achieve it regardless of the circumstances he encountered in the future. The Brendes also left the community at the end of the experiment and now live a more technology-filled life, albeit one that utilizes far less technology than the average American. Although he can sometimes come across in the book as overly prescriptive, I don’t think he desires to judge those who have found a way to have a healthy relationship with modern technology. Instead, he desires that everyone do the hard work of determining the minimal amount of technology they need in order to live a healthy and happy life.

So does this kind of experiment sound compelling to you?