What is progress today?

Posted Nov 28, 2011 | New Media Project

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By Jason Byassee


Working now at a church in a college town, I’m struck by how quickly the best way to communicate with students changes. When I was in college it was email. Still is for lots of people my age. Then cell phones and text messaging took over. Then Facebook and its messaging. As for phone calls, no one takes them, and fewer people check their voicemails.

Of course I could be behind again (what’s this iMessage thing I hear about?). I was driving home a point in conversation with a senior at Appalachian State University with a reference to the Lord of the Rings movies. Surely going with a hip pop culture reference would make my point better than an argument or a scripture reference.

“Yeah, I sort of remember those movies,” he said. “But I was pretty young when they came out.” Doing the math, sure enough, he was all of 12 years old when the first film appeared. Seemed recent to me.

I’m struck by how communication is portrayed in those films. Characters speak not only in English, but also in Elvish, a sort of cultured, magical tongue for the cognoscenti. Some far-distant villages communicate by lighting signal fires. And Gandalf the wizard burrows into archives when he learns about the ring of power. He’s surrounded by piled up, barely legible manuscripts, drinking from the Middle Earth equivalent of a Starbucks mug. What can the ring do? How can it be destroyed? He sputters in his coffee when he learns what’s ahead. In one way the trappings are romantic—there’s still something magical about the wizard in the archives, the savant buried deep in ancient tomes written in barely accessible languages, digging out something the rest of us couldn’t hope to decipher, a garland of wisdom that may save the world. That said, it’s partly magical because it’s so dated. We take down notes on iPad screens now. The machines can instantly translate other languages. They’ll store the data forever. No one will have to rustle through crumbling folios. No one will forget how to save the world. We can Google it. Less magical, to be sure, but way more convenient.

The hit series “Mad Men” had a particular brilliance for remembering the past in all its gory detail. Contrary to much of our church mythology, things weren’t all better in the 1950s, even if some pews may have been more full. The casual racism and sexism in our culture were beyond obnoxious, they were deadly, and they linger. In one early episode a new secretary at the ad agency is shown her desk—a typewriter, telephone, and intercom. “Don’t worry,” her trainer says, “you’ll get used to it all. They made the equipment so easy even a woman could use it.” The humor is precisely in the juxtaposition between the grandmother’s era tech and social attitudes, and the ever-new and comforting reassurance that the machines can be mastered.

It’s not entirely clear what progress is these days. How do we know what has “us” going “forward” and not “backwards,” or in circles? Nor is it clear what’s genuinely traditional, or even out-of-date. There was something to a text being precious enough that it required killing a sheep to write another page. Our oceans of “knowledge” online may include gems on par with Codex Sinaiticus, but I doubt it, more than a little. Even if so, what’s the equivalent of Gandalf unearthing them with more patience than a search engine?

T.S. Eliot’s most famous words might be these:
"Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"
Retrograde pining for a lost time that never was? Maybe. Eliot goes on to say,
"The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from GOD and nearer to the Dust." (Choruses from the Rock, 1934)

Theologically speaking we’re always farther from God than we think, closer to death than we’d like, less likely to produce something lasting than we imagine. That’s true whether we’re texting or putting quill to parchment.

Jason Byassee, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is Senior Pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in Boone, NC and a Fellow in Theology and Leadership at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School.

The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact newmediaproject@cts.edu.

1 Comment

  1. 1 Nicholas DS 31 Jan
    Earlier this year, CT guest blogger John Dyer had a post (about posting culture) questioning the imbibed "wisdom" of putting our wordy thoughts and opinions out in the cloud so rapidly, even frivolously:

    "Facebook and Twitter do not encourage...self-restraint. In fact, they encourage an opposing value system. Social media relentlessly asks us to publish our personal opinions on anything and everything that happens. There is no time for reflection in prayer, no place for discussion with other flesh and blood image bearers, and no incentive to remain silent. You must declare your position, and you must declare it now...

    [W]e begin to worship the false gods of immediacy, distraction, and celebrity in the Temple of Lord Zuckerberg.
    "

    In a hyper-wordy (texty), instantaneous world, it is certainly a necessary spiritual discipline to pursue various degrees of electronic fasting. Or at least sitting with a blog post for a day (or even a few hours) in prayer before hitting the publish button. Or maybe each week our discipline could be to communicate a few things in slow, costly ways akin to the whole sheep needed for another page of parchment (e.g. hand-write and pay for postage on a letter, create a piece of transformance art, learn and communicate in sign language with a non-vocal/non-aural friend).

    Your closing is, of course, the dramatic shifter of perspective: Now matter how we communicate, the chances of it being something of lasting import, something close to God are low. (True on one hand, and yet we need not assume "lasting import" [defined by profundity, beauty?] as the ultimate criterion for faithful communication.)

    I would guess that to answer the title question, "What is progress [in communication] today?" we first need some theological clarity on the deeper purpose for our communications. (And that is going farther than I wish to go tonight!)

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