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.
That 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.