Note: Eric Eekhoff is a reader of Mere-O. When he was a member of the Christian blogging community, he established himself as one of the most thoughtful observers of the intersection between theology and technology. I invited Eric to write a review of Tim Challies’ book, in hopes that it would foster conversation around Tim’s contribution to the topic. For additional thoughts from Tim, see my interview with him in Christianity Today.
Tim Challies’ book The Next Story: Life and Faith after the Digital Explosion begins with a story about the largest nuclear bomb ever detonated. This explosion leveled hills and filled valleys, while leaving “smooth and unnatural landscapes both terrible and haunting.” This explosion is a metaphor for the proliferation of digital devices in the last few decades.
The problem with this digital explosion, says Challies, is that because of the speed with which it came upon us, we are very adept at using technology but we haven’t had time to properly think about technology. He wants us to think both theoretically and theologically about technology. These three spheres – experience, theory and theology – provide a structure through which Challies organizes the book.
The book begins with the theological, where he warns against being a technological pessimist or optimist. There is a middle ground between the two. After defining technology as “the creative activity of using tools to shape God’s creation for practical purposes,” he lays out the following theological principles of technology:
1) Our ability and desire to create technology is a good gift from God.
2) Technology, like all of creation, is subject to the fall into sin.
3) It is our application or use of technology that determines if it is God-honoring or not.
Of note here is that Challies doesn’t always follow his own definition of technology. Challies often slides back and forth between talking about technology as a creative activity and talking about technology as the tools we use while doing that activity. This is just a clarification, not a critique. Philosophers of technology have often talked about technology in more than one way. Carl Mitcham, for example, talks about technology as object, technology as knowledge, technology as activity, and technology as volition.
Challies then transitions from the theological to the theoretical. He discusses 5 principles of technological change, drawn mostly from a speech by Neil Postman. The question that Challies wants to answer in this section is whether all the new digital technologies that surround us will “change all that is dear to us, the things we value most.” After developing the theoretical and theological principles of technology, Challies gives a brief review of digital communications. He takes us for a ride starting with the Pony Express and ending with the Amazon Kindle.
From here, Challies moves to Part II of his book where he discusses various technologies and effects of technology. Beginning with the rise in communications technologies, Challies points out that not only has our ability to communicate increased, but so has our desire. He suggests that our desire to communicate can become an idol, distracting us from God.
Next Challies looks at mediation, saying that our lives are lived in front of screens. Mediation, for Challies, is something that stands between. Digital media, in particular, stand between the creators and the receivers of images, sounds, data, and information. For Challies, communicating through media is “a lower form of communication” than unmediated or immediate communication. He calls this unmediated communication “face-to-face” communication. Challies believes that before the fall into sin, man enjoyed immediate, face-to-face communication with God and that this is the ideal we should strive to in our communications with other humans. Any communication that is mediated is a concession in our sinful world and electronic communication “can be one of the worst ways of communicating.”
In the next chapter, Challies looks at distraction and how our digital devices want our attention. They disable our minds, preventing us from concentrating for too long on any one thing. For Challies, the danger of distraction is that it leads to shallow thinking which in turn leads to shallow living.
From there Challies goes on to talk about information glut. The vast amounts of information that stream to us through our devices is one of the main causes of distraction. Challies’ worry is that information overload leaves us unable to gain knowledge and wisdom. Our easy access to information is also causing our memories to atrophy. We no longer have a need to memorize anything since we can simply google it.
Challies next concern is how our view of truth has changed after the digital explosion. With the advent of Wikipedia and Google, Challies says we now view truth as consensus and relevance. The Wikipedia model of truth is that the majority decide what is true, while the Google model of truth is that what is true is that which is relevant.
Finally, Challies writes about privacy in a digital age. Challies concern is that we are always under surveillance – by security cameras, our credit card purchases, our Google searches, and our cell phone records. At the same time, life after the digital explosion encourages exhibitionism and voyeurism. We want to be seen on web cams or YouTube. We want to be heard on blogs or Twitter. But we are called to be humble and respectful to others, Challies says.
Challies makes a number of good points throughout the book and brings up concerns (distractions, information overload, etc.) that most of us probably have about technology. Even when I found myself disagreeing with his conclusions, the issues and questions he dealt with were valid.
However, there are a number of concerns I have with the book. First, his theology of technology was quite inadequate. While Challies says that our ability and desire to create are a good part of creation, the technological devices we actually make are fallen. Mediated communication technologies are described as concessions and not ideal. They are second-best to the non-mediated communication man enjoyed with God in the garden. Challies seems to view technology as a necessary evil.
Recall that the subtitle to the book is “Life and Faith after the Digital Explosion.” Also recall that the book began by describing a large nuclear bomb that destroyed everything in its way. This is the metaphor Challies chose to use to describe our newest technologies. The “explosion” metaphor is unhelpful. As an alternative, many Christians have thought of technology in terms of “cultivation,” not “explosion.” Cultivation suggests human activity while explosion suggests a force that happens to us. Cultivation suggests a good that allows for growth and flourishing while explosion suggests an evil that lays bare everything in its path.
Challies third theological point also presents some difficulties. His third point suggests that technologies are amoral. It is how we use the technologies that determine whether they are good or bad. For Challies, “it is not the technology itself that is good or evil; it is the human application of that technology.” This position is known as the instrumentalist position by many philosophers of technology. It is a position that is widely rejected. Technologies embody values and politics and cultural norms. The fact that technologies can be used for good or for bad things is a rather uninteresting point to make. Technologies affect us and others in ways that may have nothing to do with how we use them.
What is odd about Challies instrumentalist position is that he doesn’t even hold to this view later on in the book. For example, in his discussion of distraction Challies is worried about more than how digital devices are used. Even if they are only used in good ways, Challies notes that our smart phones and email and Facebook feeds are prone to distract us. So there is a disconnect between Challies theological statements about technology in the beginning of the book and his actual analysis of various technologies at the end of the book.
Another concern I had with the book was how Challies talked about mediation. As stated earlier, for Challies a medium is something that stands in between. What he doesn’t quite get right here is that media don’t just stand in the way, they are enablers. Phones don’t just stand between you and me, they enable us to have a conversation. To view media as something that enables rather than something that stands in between allows us to see mediation in a more positive light. For Challies, mediated communication is worse than unmediated or immediate communication. He says that unmediated communications is the ideal to strive for and anything mediated is only second rate (at best).
There are a number of things wrong with this position. First, Challies provides almost no argument for why mediated communication is worse than unmediated communication. He mentions one Biblical reference (Gen. 3:8) where Adam and Eve heard the sound of God walking in the garden. Challies interprets this to mean that Adam and Eve enjoyed face-to-face, unmediated communication with God before the fall. But Genesis 3:8 occurs after Adam and Eve had already sinned.
Second, it isn’t exactly clear what Challies means by unmediated or immediate communications. Presumably, given his definition of medium, unmediated communication means any communication where nothing stands between two people. But how far do we take this? Does clothing stand between two people? How about cultures? Or language? Or air molecules? Challies never indicates what he means by this or where the line should be drawn.
Third, the lack of nuance in this position is unhelpful. Challies even (briefly) mentions a tool elsewhere in the book that would help him better evaluate communications technologies but unfortunately decided not to use it in this case. The tool I’m thinking of is McLuhan’s tetrad. The tetrad is a set of four questions to ask of any technology. These questions help determine what the technology enhances, what it makes obsolete, what it retrieves and what it reverses into. As Ian Bogost points out**, the tetrad helps us resist “our temptation to pass judgment on [technology] crudely – as merely good or bad, productive or distracting, enabling or dangerous. Such an analysis also reminds us that no technological object can be seen as a simple force of either progress or destruction.”
Challies has offered a timely book on a topic that many people are concerned about. His chapters on distraction and informationism are especially helpful. However, his generally negative view of technology and his lack of a robust theology of technology weakens many of his arguments. What I missed the most from his theology was what is to be done about the fallen nature of technology. He briefly mentioned our need to redeem technology but failed to follow through on what he meant by that. Indeed, for Challies technology is fallen – like a nuclear bomb out of the sky – and we are forced to live in the landscape its explosion leaves behind.
** For an excellent example of the tetrad being used to evaluate Facebook, see Ian Bogost’s essay “Ian Became a Fan of Marshall McLuhan on Facebook and Suggested You Become a Fan Too” in Facebook and Philosophy
Eric Eekhoff works as a electrical engineer and has engineering degrees from Dordt College and Iowa State University. He lives in Iowa with his wife and son.