Tag Archives: mobile telephony

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.

The Phone Stack

Phone StackEarlier this week, I ran across a story about a group of friends who have devised a clever way to keep themselves from getting distracted by their phones when they meet at a restaurant. After everyone has ordered, they all put their mobile phones facedown in the center of the table, sometimes stacked in a tall pile (which they call the “phone stack”). As the meal progresses, various phones might buzz or ring as new texts arrive, notifications are displayed, or calls are received. When this happens, the owner of the phone might be tempted to flip it over, but doing so comes at a cost: the first person to touch their phone has to pick up the check!

I like this idea for two reasons. First, it’s an ingenious yet simple mechanism for avoiding that all too common experience where your fellow diners spend more time interacting with their phones than with each other. Instead of pretending that mobile phones are not really a distraction, it puts them front and center, acknowledging their potential for disruption, yet declaring that their human owners still have the power to ignore them when engaged in face-to-face community. Turning their phones completely off might be even better, but keeping them on yet ignoring them seems to require even more reflective discipline. The public and very noticeable ritual of stacking the phones also acts like a kind of witness to others in the restaurant, advocating for the importance of being fully present when one has that rare opportunity to sit down with friends.

The other reason I like this is that it is a nice example of a more general phenomenon. When social groups adopt a new device, they often create rules or games like these to govern the use of that device when gathered together. Small, close-knit groups like the one that invented this game can easily enforce their rules, but larger cultures go through a social process of working-out new social norms that are generally followed, at least to some degree. For example, movie theaters have been running messages before the films for several years now asking audiences to silence their mobile phones, but I’ve noticed recently that they have expanded this message by asking audiences to also refrain from using their phones at all, silently or otherwise, during the film. Just as it is rare to now hear a mobile phone audibly ring during a film, I hope it will soon be just as rare to see the glow of a phone screen as an audience member responds to a text message.

What kind of rules or games have your families or friends created to limit the use of mobile devices when gathered together?

Emotional Telecommunications

I recently ran across a TED talk where a designer describes some prototypes he made that simulate various intimate, physical gestures—holding hands, blowing on the cheek or neck, even kissing—over a telecommunications link. Take a moment to watch this video:

Now, it’s obvious from the presentation that even the designer himself was a bit skeptical as to whether any of these was really a good idea, much less practical. Do you really want to be “kissed” by your mobile phone, even if it is just acting as a proxy for a loved one far away? And how would they keep that sponge wet in dry climates? I’m guessing the solution would involve trapping body sweat, which just makes it all the more distasteful!

Nevertheless, what intrigues me about these experiments is the way in which they show a “working out” of not only what the mobile phone might be good for, but also what it really is in its essence.

When the mobile phone was introduced, it was described as simply a wireless version of something we already knew and understood, and it was primarily targeted towards business use. But as we’ve seen over the last decade, the mobile phone has morphed into something beyond just a simple wireless telephone for business. With the introduction of each new feature—texting, cameras, media players, data connectivity, and general-purpose operating systems with installable applications—we have had to reevaluate what this device actually is, and what it is good for. The social meaning we ascribe to it has changed from “wireless business telephone” to “portable information communication device.”

These experiments take the process even farther, suggesting a new, even more general potential meaning for the mobile phone: “interpersonal proxy.” Perhaps the right way to think about the mobile phone is to realize that in essence it enables interpersonal relation at a distance. The form that it takes is obviously a pale substitute for face-to-face (or shall we say lips-to-lips?), physically-present interaction, but when that kind of interaction is not possible, it serves as the next best thing. Over time, the fidelity of the link will improve, delivering an experience somewhat closer to a physically-present interaction, but it will of course never be the same.

In some ways, this reminds of the classic 1983 film Brainstorm, which imagined the ability to record a person’s experience of an event or memory by capturing brainwaves and writing them to tape. The tape could later be replayed, allowing the same person or another to relive the experience with such visceral detail that it would seem to be really happening. The plot thickens when they discover that replaying the experience of someone having a heart attack actually causes the “viewer” to have a physical heart attack as well. As The Matrix would explicate many years later, “the mind makes it real.”

Experiments like this will no doubt attract the ire of cultural critics who will complain that emotional telecommunications will only further encourage people to prefer mediated, impersonal interaction. There is no doubt that some people do prefer the emotional safety that mediated communication affords (see Turkle’s Alone Together), but those who actually do empirical studies of new social media usage have found time and time again that most teens use social media as a supplement and not a substitute to physically-present relations (for example, see The Young and the Digital by S Craig Watkins). Just as my generation talked for hours on the telephone when we couldn’t meet face-to-face, the current generation uses social media, but that doesn’t mean they are using it as a complete substitute for in-person interaction.

So what do you think of emotional telecommunications? Would you like to be able to kiss your loved one through a telecommunications link when you had to be away from home? Or is that going to far?