Monday, February 16, 2015

BookPastor >> "Flickering Pixels" (Shane Hipps)

TITLE: Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith
AUTHOR: Shane Hipps
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009, (210 pages).

Christianity is fundamentally a communication event, so says Shane Hipps, lead pastor of Trinity Mennonite Church. In writing this book, the author shares about how Marshall McLuhan's work on media affecting our brains ended up influencing him on the way technology works. More crucially, with this renewed insight, he is now a champion in helping people to be users of technology, and not to be used by technology.  He reminds readers that they need to keep both eyes open rather than letting one of our eyes be replaced by technology. This is especially when wisdom and discernment are concerned. He believes that BOTH the message and the method of transmission are important. Tools are not necessarily neutral because the medium changes according to the message and vice versa. Even screens themselves are part of the message. For technology can take on a life of its own and the rest of us users with it, just like the Matrix movie where the mirror that becomes a window to another world becomes another world by itself. The many different communications devices and mediums have created what Hipps call a "Global Village." He uses the mirror very effectively to show us that mirrors or tools are mere extensions of ourselves. We cannot like Narcissus who becomes infatuated with self-love. Unlike most interpreters who see the story as excessive self-love, McLuhan points out that the issue was the lack of recognizing the self.

Hipps also points out four dimensions to all media: 1) amplification or extension; 2) Every new media obsoletes the old; 3) Nothing new under the sun; 4) Dark dimension. Of particular interest in this final dimension which is most difficult to see. It is the concern of the author that more people learn to recognize the dark and deceptive powers hidden. Several dangers are highlighted in various chapters. There is the problem of learning which renders faith way too cognitive.  Using the Western method of learning that begins with the alphabets (A-Z), he sees the Western method as one that is linear, rationale, leading to a particular conclusion. We even use such methods to share the gospel. There is the problem of progress that seems to overshadow God. The advent of the printing press has resulted in greater cognitive work in such linear fashion. However, this leads to the problem of a lack of appreciation for "mysticism, intuition, and emotion." Thus, we hear of accusations of mere head knowledge, or knowledge of God without experiencing God. He talks about distancing and detachment that technologies can bring about. When something becomes overly "objective" at the expensive of subjectivity, we find the diminishing of humanity and humility. It is on this very platform that technology has adopted: objective, individualistic, and increasingly used at defying God. Like Samuel F. B. Morse who sent the first electronic communication on May 24, 1844 and questioned "What hath God wrought?" or German philosopher Friedrich Nietzche in 1883 who faith in modernity developments led him to declare that "God is dead." McLuhan recognized this and made the following claim: "We shape our tools and afterward our tools shape us." On the Internet, we learn about how disparate pieces of information, random sharing, and unconnected news become our main diet in how we see the world today. On what basis do we then share? What items are news worthy? What snippets are worth sharing? What is useful to one may not be useful to another. What about too much information? How about large corporations manipulating Wikipedia? This is the problem of worldly wisdom vs heavenly wisdom. Worse, some people do not have a clue what is wisdom.

"The Internet encourages only the knowledge-gathering stage without considering coordination or meaningful connections. Despite Google and Wikipedia's best efforts, understanding is not born of the answers algorithms provide - answers and understanding are not the same thing....Unfortunately, the Information Age does little to encourage the development of wisdom." (71)

Hipps adds the difference between wisdom and information gathering.

"This requires time, experience, contemplation, patience, suffering, and even stillness to obtain. But the churning sea of information never settlers long enough to allow for the emergence of wisdom. We are left instead with the 'conceit of wisdom rather than real wisdom' and become a burden to society rather than a boon." (71-2)

There is a problem of how Christians's faith are shaped more by media and technology rather than theology and practice. For example, the words "Jesus wept" compared to a dramatic image of Jesus crying on an image. Which triggers our emotions more? Then there is the problem of speed. He compares "dimmer-switch" conversions like Thomas and the early disciples with "light-switch" conversions like Paul. Technology is increasingly creating an expectation of "light-switch" responses. As images increasingly replace the word, the way we choose and think will also change. Metaphors overshadow methods. For images tend to make us overly conscious of our looks. They showcase more beauty rather than raw talent. The irony of technology is that we seems connected, but yet disconnected. Technology can try to make one feel closer together but nothing beats intimacy up close and personal. The videos of mobile phone companies showing happy faces watching family far away on TV screens is a case in point. Then there are addictions and conflicts due to the way we use electronic mediums. Connected just based on key points rather than contextual understanding will turn relationships into mere highlights. I was glad to read Hipps's reference to Bible reading becoming more difficult with each technological increment. While it is true that bibles are more easily available electronically, it is a challenge to spur inner receiving of the word. Hipps compares the left-brained reading of old that works hard to understand the Word for what it means. With technology, this left brain becomes more "sedated" because technology has heightened our right brain expectations. He asserts that we need brain balance.

"In other words, bulging left-brain muscles are an essential tool for understanding the Bible. Unfortunately, our digital diet sedates the left-brain, leaving it in a state of hypnotic stupor. The left-brain begins acting like our great Uncle Jerry nodding off in the recliner after Thanksgiving dinner. Large portions of the Bible are growing faint and becoming inaccessible to the lethargic left-brain." (147)

He comes full circle toward the end of the book to remind us that "certainty can be a great friend of arrogance." What I glean from it is that the understanding of how technology influences us ought to be an open book. There is no reason to shut down all other views. However, there is reason to ponder at how technology continues to impact our reading of the Bible. Like the building of the tabernacle where God used more than 200 verses in Exodus to describe it. In an age of iPhone, how can we communicate the same thing? Finally, the send-off message was, the Church is God's medium and message. It is about relationship between God and man. Instead of letting technology carry the message, it is more important that we BE the message God has called us to be.

Well written, Hipps has lots of good things to say to us about how technology is influencing us. The examples he used, the ideas he posed, and the warnings he included are necessary checks to a world infatuated with technology, social media, and the engines of modern media. Once we read this book, looking at a tablet or a smartphone will never be the same again.


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