HipFlic 09-07-99

Flickering Pixels

How Technology Shapes Your Faith


Shane Hipps

Zondervan, 2009, 198 pp., ISBN 978-0-310-29321-7


The author's career in advertising provides a background for his understanding of media and how it affects our life and faith.  When the book was published he was the lead pastor of Trinity Mennonite Church.  An earlier book, The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture, provides greater depth for helping church leaders form God's people in today's world.  This book surprised me with its balance and fresh insights.    


"An effective ad tries to tap viewers' most intense and emotional experiences, the trigger for all consumer impulses." (12)


"Any serious study of God is a study of communication, and any effort to understand God is shaped by our understanding--or misunderstanding--of the media and technology we use to communicate."  (13) 


"Flickering pixels [the screens in our lives] …change our brains, alter our lives, and shape our faith, all without our permission or knowledge." (14)  "Technology both gives and takes away, and each new medium introduced into our lives must be evaluated." (21)


As Marshall McLuhan said, "the medium is the message."  "…whenever our methods change, the message automatically changes along with them.  You can't change methods without changing your message -- they're inseparable." (25)


Media are not neutral.  "They have the power to shape us, regardless of content, and we cannot evaluate them based solely on their content." (26)  "We need to train our eyes to focus beyond the surface of our technologies." (30)


"The chief error of Narcissus was not that he fell in love with himself but rather that he failed to recognize himself in the water's reflection."  "If Narcissus had understood that the water was simply a mirror reflecting his own face, the mirror's power would have been dispelled, and Narcissus could have gained control over it.  Narcissus…became enslaved to his own image.  When we fail to perceive that the things we create are extensions of ourselves, the created things take on god-like characteristics and we become their servants."  (34-5)


"Every medium, when pushed to an extreme, will reverse on itself, revealing unintended consequences.  For example, the car was invented to increase the speed of our transportation, but having too many cars on the highway at once results in traffic jams or even injury and death.  The Internet was designed to make information more easily accessible…but too much information or the wrong kind of information reverses into overwhelming the seeker, leading to great confusion rather than clarity." (37-8)


Reading and writing make up a technology that takes work to master.  "The broad introduction of literacy into an entire culture completely alters the way that culture thinks.  Writing restructures the worldview of entire civilizations." (41) 


"There is one expression that's true for everyone--we become what we behold.  That is to say, our thinking patterns actually mirror the things we use to think with." (42-3)  Some of the basic cultural differences that exist between eastern and western cultures are the direct result of the phonetic vs. the pictographic alphabet. (43)  "The phonetic alphabet is linear, sequential, and abstract; the Chinese alphabet is holistic, intuitive, and more concrete." (44)  Western philosophy parallels the phonetic alphabet while Eastern philosophy is basically nonlinear and holistic. 


"The tools we use to think actually shape the way we think.  The same applies to our faith as well." (45)


The printed medium restructured our imagination and beliefs, even the gospel.  Medieval cathedrals told the Bible stores via stained-glass windows that gave vague impressions of the biblical narrative.  The syllogism of print allowed a stunning compression of the gospel to a linear sequential formula:



Printing also helped cultivate reasoning skills and linear reasoning became the primary means of understanding and propagating faith.  "Printing makes us prefer cognitive modes of processing while at the same time atrophying our appreciation for mysticism, intuition, and emotion." (49)  "The exaltation of reason is the great legacy of the print age."  (50)


But print tends to devalue the heart.  Suppressing the heart deadens desire and tends to produce a domesticated god who resides in our head but not our hearts.  (51)  Desire is the path to experiencing God.


Reading and writing are individual activities.  The technology of writing favors individualism over community, leading us to spiritual disciplines of "quiet time" and "journaling" and a gospel that is primarily oriented to the individual.  Printing erodes the communal nature of faith. (56-7)


The telegraph helped plant the seeds of the postmodern age by separating communication and transportation, fact and context.  Previously information was rooted in a context that provided meaning and coherence.  The telegraph broke the information from its context, providing information without connection or sense of proportion, or basis for valuing one thing over another.  (66-7)


The Internet is the logical extension of the telegraph and "we are swallowed by a swarm of unrelated facts accorded equal importance."  It is challenging to find meaning and avoid being filled with useless trivia.  The subliminal message is that truth is like information, entirely idiosyncratic, mirroring the pattern of our media. (68)  


"Unfortunately, the Information Age does little to encourage the development of wisdom." (71)  "If we are not alert, the Information Age may stunt our growth and create a permanent puberty of the mind." (72)


Advertising is the direct result of the camera.  "Images have an incredible capacity to generate needs in humans that don't naturally exist." (75)  "Images initially make us feel rather than think."  "Images don't invite you to argue; they give you an experience." (76) "Image culture dramatically shapes the way we think.  It also determines what we think about." (77)  "One consequence is that our political discourse is now based on intuition rather than reason."  (77) 


With TV, "it's the medium, not the content, that changes us.  Believe it or not, the flickering mosaic of pixilated light repatterns neural pathways in the brain.  These new pathways are simply opposed to the pathways required for reading, writing, and sustained concentration."  "The televised brain candy we consume doesn't develop--or even require--any mental capacity." (78) 


"In an image-saturated culture, the concrete life-stories of Jesus gain traction once again.  The age of image restores a right-brain preference for parable and story over theology and doctrine." "The shift from emphasizing our intellectual beliefs to the ethics of following is a direct consequence of the influence of images." (82) 


"Depending upon your perspective, this shift is either a liberating confirmation …or it is a disconcerting threat….  The point is that our theology and practice are deeply informed and shaped by our media and technology.  We become what we behold." (84)


Video magnifies talent, not character.  Projecting one's image on screen neither encourages nor requires depth of character.  Images direct us to the surface of things.  (99)


Cell phones make us more efficient and connected but also introduce artificial barriers that separate us.  Mobile technology brings those far away much closer while making those near us more distant.  (106)  The electronic age is essentially a tribe of individuals thrown together from far-off places, glancing off other digital nomads without ever knowing or being known. (107)


"The Internet has a natural bias toward exhibitionism and thus the erosion of real intimacy."  There is an "illusion of intimacy," the illusion of closeness while remaining anonymous with little risk or demand. (113)  "It provides just enough connection to keep us from pursuing real intimacy."  (114)  Like cotton candy, spoiling the appetite. Face-to-face meetings build relationships in a way electronic contact cannot. 


"Using email to mediate conflict is like baking a cake without a mixing bowl or an oven." (118)


We are still a nation of readers and our culture is intensely individualistic.  The idea of community is appealing but it also feels constricting and invasive.  Group bonds (and marriages) dissolve easily, freeing us up to our individualism.  (124-25)


"As technologies cause information access to change, power structures change as well…particularly between parents and their children."  (133)  The electronic age dissolved the barriers of print.  Media freely communicates everything to everyone.  "Adults are disappearing, and children hold the power.  Teens are able to lock parents out.  This is the first time in history that parents have limited access to the world of teens and children.  (Parents can't read their text message codes!)  "Parents are reduced to the intellectual level of a young child who tries, mostly in vain, to decode the meaning of the squiggly shapes."  Digital space is a land without supervision, without boundaries or direction. (135-37)   And boundaries are extremely important for the development of young people. 


"…digital space is the most anemic form of social interaction available.  It is severely truncated, unsupervised, and easily addictive." (138-39)


"Printing put the left hemisphere of the brain on steroids [and] pumped up the muscles of critical reasoning, logic, order, and abstract thinking."  "These capacities require mentoring, discipline, and extensive repetition."  (143)  "The invention of the photograph changed all that.  Image culture eroded our dependence upon printing."  "The digital age has transformed the meaning of literacy."  (144)  We may read more but the way we read is radically different.  "Internet text presents a nonlinear web of interconnected pages and a vast mosaic of hyperlinks with no fundamental beginning, middle, or end.  We are immersed in a boundless, endless data space.  These are the conditions specially suited to the right-brain."  "The power of intuition, emotion, holistic perception, and pattern recognition are all gifts of the right-brain.  The right-brain is the hemisphere that allows us entry into spiritual practices like contemplation, centering prayer, and silence."  (145)


Good bye left brain.  Welcome right brain.  "We may be at risk for exchanging one tyranny for another."  (145)  "Our intellects are spread a mile wide and an inch deep.  "The Internet makes a flat stone of the mind and skips it across the surface of the world's information ocean." (146) 


"Our culture has a shrinking preference--and even aptitude--for reading books, especially complex ones.  If the Bible is anything, it is complex, so it should not surprise us to see a growing biblical illiteracy in the electronic age." (146)  "Large portions of the Bible are growing faint and becoming inaccessible to the lethargic left-brain." (147)


"Brain balance is born by restoring an intentional relationship to our technologies." (150)


Jesus said to put new wine into new wineskins.  The message and the methods are inseparable.  "Our methods and our message must both evolve." (153)


The image gospel is encouraging us "to follow Jesus in every aspect of life rather than merely with the mind.  The gospel is seen as a way of life that transforms the world here and now, not just in the next life." (155) 


God spoke to the prophets in various ways and each method (scrolls, poets, angels, pillars of cloud and fire, etc.) carried a different force and a slightly different message.  Then God communicated in Jesus.  "Jesus is God's perfect medium--and the medium is the message." (167)


The church is also God's medium and message. (175)


"By understanding the forces that shape us, no outcome is inevitable."  The point of the book is to make us aware.  Stay awake.  Look beneath the surface of things.  "Media and technology have far less power to shape us when they are brought into the light and we understand them." (183) 



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