What makes the edifi “Christian?” On Media, Habits, and Christian Virtue

Last week news spread about the release of Family Christian’s edifi, which is being billed as the world’s first Christian multimedia tablet.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking. At least I know what you should be thinking. What exactly makes a multimedia tablet “Christian?” There are a number of denomination-specific punch lines that come to mind, but I’ll leave those to your imagination. And, in fairness, I should note that I have not been able to find the notion of a “Christian tablet” linked back directly to the company or its representatives.

edifi-christian-tabletThat said, it is certainly clear that the edifi tablet is being marketed as a tablet specifically designed for Christians. According to the technology supervisor at Family Christian with the Bunyan-esque name, Brian Honorable, “It goes along with our mission: trying to get people closer to God … through a tablet.” Mr. Honorable also added, “We definitely had to tailor it to our customers.” Presumably, Christians.

So perhaps the question should then be, what makes a multimedia tablet Christian-friendly? To answer this question, we should see if any of the tablet’s features distinguish the edifi from its, dare I say, secular competitors.

Examining the technical specifications won’t get us very far. The tablet is a rebranded Cydle Multipad M7 manufactured by a South Korean company without the benefit of any divinely inspired design documents (so far as we know). If we look to the tablet’s software we get marginally closer. Family Christian’s website identifies four “family-friendly” features: the pre-loaded Family Christian Reader app (with five free Christian titles included), Safe Search Wi-Fi web browsing, 27 Bible translations, and Christian internet radio. 

In truth, this doesn’t get us much further. It would seem that all these features could be had on any other tablet by downloading a similar set of apps. For arguments sake, even if these apps were unique to the edifi, it would still be worth asking in what sense these rendered the tablet Christian, or even particularly amenable to Christians. More importantly, it points out a particular deficiency in the manner Christians typically think about media technology.

Generally speaking, Christians tend to be focused on content. Notice the emphasis of the edifi tablet: blocking out harmful content and delivering safe content. If the content is thus sanctified, so is the medium (in this case the tablet). The same thinking stands behind the deployment of Christian fiction, Christian radio, Christian television, etc. The medium is indifferent, the content makes all the difference.

Content is important, of course. That should go without saying. Focusing exclusively on content, however, does not go far enough. This is because the regular use of a particular medium will have consequences that are independent of its content.

Media theorist Marshall McLuhan, best known for announcing that “the medium is the message,” put it this way:

“Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts is the numb stance of the technological idiot.  For the ‘content’ of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.”

McLuhan understood that media have a way of inculcating certain habits of mind and heart regardless of the content they are used to access. Here is an example to consider. If you are of a certain age, you remember the days of the Pentium I processor and the 56k modem. At the time, we were mesmerized by what this now relatively primitive technology allowed our home computers to do. As a thought experiment, try to imagine what it would feel like to go back to these now. What would it feel like to use a computer straight out of the mid 1990s?

I’m guessing you’re thinking that you might rather not use the computer at all rather than deal with what would be painfully slow processes. In fact, by just imagining the scenario, you might be getting a bit anxious and antsy. That feeling is not insignificant. Our sensibilities have been habituated to a rate of speed that would render working with a mid-90s computer intolerable. Now ask yourself what difference content made to this development in what amounts to our capacity for patience?

The answer — none. You could have spent the last 15 years evangelizing online and reading Christian content on Christian websites, or you could have spent that time in countless less edifying, more nefarious activities. Either way your capacity for patience would’ve been affected. You would be just as annoyed by a slow loading page either way.

This was McLuhan’s point, at least in part. The use of media fosters certain habits, sensibilities, and dispositions. Over time these either amount to virtues or vices, to matters of character. When we think about media, indeed when we think of any technology, we should be just as concerned about the habits cultivated as the content communicated.

So what do we make of the Christian tablet? Nothing until we first drop the idea of a “Christian” tablet and simply try to understand through patient and self-critical reflection what habits a tablet in itself engenders.

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  • Bill Kerschbaum

    One other consideration is the hardware itself. Since its built in South Korea, it raises the question of humane labor conditions. Can you call a supposed “Christian friendly device” Christian if the very process of creating it dehumanizes those who are made in God’s image?

    Perhaps labor conditions are good at this South Korean company and this isn’t an issue in the edifi’s case, but it’s an important question nonetheless.

    • http://thefrailestthing.com/ Michael Sacasas

      A good point. I know nothing of the labor conditions under which the tablet is manufactured either, but this is a good reminder that the ethical considerations raised by technology extend well beyond the individual uses to which they are put.

  • Eric E

    I was about to say something similar. Most people only see part of a given technology’s life. They don’t see the designing, the manufacturing or the disposal of the technology. If “Christian” were an appropriate adjective for a technology, I would hope the entire life-cycle would be “Christian.”

    I think there is more going on here than just a focus on content rather than medium, though. Most people do this, not just Christians. The Christian music, film, television and now e-reader industry are contrasting “Christian” content to “secular” content. Even if all Christians were cognizant of the habits that we form while using various technologies, there is still the issue of why Courageous is considered a “Christian” film but Tree of Life isn’t. Why streaming Christian internet radio is, but Spotify isn’t. But that question has been answered before by numerous others, so I won’t get into that.

    • http://thefrailestthing.com/ Michael Sacasas

      Agreed, there’s a lot going on here that that elicits commentary. I left the question you raised unexplored in order to focus on the content/medium matter. But there is certainly a good discussion to be had about how evangelicals deploy “Christian” as an adjective. As you say, it is a discussion to which many have already contributed. With regard to media and technology, I think we might do well to eliminate the use of “Christian” as an adjective and makes use of more specific evaluative terminology.

  • Kevin White

    I think there is another angle on the edifi should that we should consider. It is a reminder that, whatever else it is, Family Christian Stores is a business, and a mid-sized niche business as well. One that faces heavy competition both from the big box brick-and-mortar book retailers and from online bookstores. Hence the residual focus on being a safe outlet, but filtered through Marketing to focus on safe, friendly things like “family” and not contentious things like “doctrine”.

    And hence the apparent focus on getting their own branded proprietary tablet, with its existence being a higher priority than its technical quality. Barnes and Noble has its Nook, in an effort to get just enough market share from Amazon’s Kindle to keep the company from being drowned. Borders tried with the Kobo, but it was too little, too late, and (IIRC) a licensed pre-existing product at that. And now Family Christian Stores is trying the trick, but they lack the capital to commission or license something cutting edge, so all they have is a last-gen, mediocre tablet with a Christian/”family friendly” app pack. But maybe it will be enough to get some of their core customers to stick with the brand.

    That doesn’t take away the distinct evangelical subculture spin. But just because it has some reflection on the subculture doesn’t mean it is immune to general trends.

    • http://thefrailestthing.com/ Michael Sacasas

      Yes, no doubt edifi is also a play for market share and your breakdown seems just about right to me. If the comments keep coming in we’ll end up with a complete workup of the cultural/economic/political/theological/etc meaning of the edifi. In truth, I simply took it as an opportunity to make the one point about the medium and the content. But as the comments have shown there is a lot more to be said.