I am reading a book right now by Jaron Lanier called You Are Not A Gadget. Lanier was one of the original web architects and his buddies include the big names in the tech and internet world. He is exploring something very interesting in the book. I am only about a chapter in, but so far this is the underlying question he is posing: what happens when everything on the internet is focused at “the crowd?” And if everything is focused on the crowd, or the collective society, won’t we lose the individuality that makes us all human and unique?
He uses the term “locked in” to explain what he means. When someone creates something – a program, a format – almost accidentally or by chance, and it becomes so popular so fast that it becomes engrained in technology, we are all locked in to using it and understanding it. So much so that it would take a unified and concerted effort to undo such a thing.
Here are the two analogies he uses. MIDI and files.
MIDI is how almost all music is transferred and used in your iPods, phones, computers, etc. It was created by a buddy of Lanier’s, and it was created for a single purpose: to transfer piano notes to the computer. That’s it, just transfer some notes. Piano notes are a black and white thing. It’s either an A or C flat. The format worked and the rest is history of course. But what Lanier sees as a problem is this – the program was written to transfer something that was definite in music (a note), but by design it cannot capture the beauty that is in a bending guitar note or the way a bow moves across a violin. These are unique and singular events, each one is different in the way a snowflake or finger print is. Fast forward to when we are all locked in to using this format. We all understand the way it translates to our ears. Now think of a musician in the digital age. You may make music almost entirely in a recording studio room at a mix board. If you think of musical notes as being defined in a yes or no format, where each note has to be defined, can you even operate in a way that doesn’t take this into account? Think of how your language can determine the way you think. A Mayan or Incan could not have possibly shaped thoughts the same way as an American or German in the 21st century. Your language creates guidelines and rules to your thoughts. Lanier is arguing that the way we interpret musical notes can do the same thing. I think we will lose something if artists begin to lose the ultimate creative freedom, where each note or each cord can be truly unique. Not to mention if each note can easily be copied by any number of people.
The second analogy was that of files. We didn’t have to have files, as the author points out. In fact, the first version of the Apple computer that never shipped, didn’t have files. But files have become the unanimous way that all information is stored and cataloged. The language analogy works even better here. If we all think of knowledge the same way, and that is has to fit into a certain category, aren’t we just working toward a collective mind?
The author is clearly disturbed by the monster the he helped to create in the Web 2.0. But I think his questions can be applied to Christians, and specifically the church.
The author points out the fact that most programs and applications on the internet are built with the same audience as pop music in mind. And that is the broadest range of people that exists. The internet pop culture crowd is actually even larger than a pop music crowd since it does not have the language barriers. But what does this mean for the church? It means that it will have to be prepared to understand and operate in a world that it has never seen before. In the current and future world, people are constantly sharing “information” and are consistently moving towards using the same few programs or websites in the same ways. One big challenge, and opportunity, for the church exists because of this.
The challenge is that people have a narrower version of self. The author points this out as well in his prologue. He says that you have to be someone before you can share yourself. This has important implications that are easy to overlook. When you tweet that you are driving to the store, what does this really contribute or say about you? Not to say this is a bad thing to do. All of our sources of knowledge – Facebook, Twitter, iGoogle, RSS feeds – tailor information to us. We have no real sense of self online. We view only what we choose to view. Our “selves” can never be shaped by an obscure article that we didn’t know would interest us. (Of course, this is possible. But the vast majority of research indicates that people increasingly use the internet for entertainment, not educational reasons, see The Dumbest Generation.) People, especially young people, have a view of self as that which can be easily defined and shared with as many people as possible. The best way to show the theological and spiritual implications of this is found in John Stott’s Basic Christianity. He shows a simple diagram that displays how God intends for us to prioritize our lives:
In this hierarchy, all is good and well and we will behave in a way that gives glory and reverence to God first. You see, the beauty of the design is that you can really only spend the majority of your time on 2 out of 3, and in this system it would be the first two, or God and then others. The reason this works is that when we spend time on ourselves, we tend to sin. And by “tend” I mean always. Selfishness, envy, pride, all result in spending too much time on ourselves. So by putting our priorities on God first and others second, we are left little time to spend with ourselves, and therefore will sin much less.
The new hierarchy that can result from the online view of self is the complete opposite:
When almost all of our time online is spent updating people on what’s up with ourselves, and then looking at what everyone else is doing, it is dangerously easy to forget about God. And this is increasingly what is happening. In fact, this has been happening for quite some time and people have changed their theological questions altogether. No longer are they even asking questions, but wondering why He is relevant at all (see New War, New Training post on Jim White’s Church & Culture blog). So the church needs to be ready to answer not just the questions of why God, but also how can you reach people who don’t even realize the order of their priorities and why they must change them if they want salvation. People cannot receive God’s full gift without understanding just how important they are to Him.
Christians need to be ready to answer these questions. But even more importantly, they need to be ready to “bring God up” in a way that they haven’t had to in the past. With the shift from asking if they should believe in God, to asking why should they believe in God, comes the new challenge of starting the conversation of Jesus’ salvation. It used to a questions of apologetics, it was already there. The questions existed. Now they don’t. It will be up to Christians and the church to shake people and wake them up to see they do need to have a personal relationship with the one true God.
Jim White’s Church & Culture blog, post “New War, New Training”
You Are Not A Gadget, by Jaron Lanier