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.