The average American spends unprecedented amounts of time in front of digital screens each day. The Guardian recently reported that in 2014 one trillion photos were taken across the globe, including an estimated 30 billion selfies. Over the last century, we have developed a comprehension, comfort, and familiarity with the use of technology in everyday life, but the inevitable advance of technology has caused most Americans to simply and uncritically adopt each further invention, neglecting to consider whether all of its consequences are good. This is no Luddite post, but it is a note that we must stop to ask the question how do changes in technology affect one’s personal life for the good and for the bad? What kinds of patterns of behavior result from such heightened degrees of technology use? As Christians, what is the proper attitude and posture toward communication technology?
This is true in all areas of life, but I have a particular interest in communication technology. A text to say “I love you” means something — potentially quite a lot, in fact — but does it mean something in the same way as saying it while looking eye to eye? What changes does communication technology create, for both the good and the bad? Furthermore, if the church is using technology in many ways, how does the technology influence the nature of church communication?
When technology is used to disseminate information, it is referred to as a medium of communication — that which mediates reality for the receiver. The common assumption is that technology is a neutral tool to be employed as a medium for whatever kind of purpose one has for it. It is sometimes thought that a particular message can be “packaged” in new forms of media without any loss of meaning or influence on those involved in the communication exchange. This perspective constitutes a transmission model of communication, wherein technology is seen as just another instrument that serves a utilitarian function for sharing information.
However, when technology is used as a medium of communication, it exhibits “biases,” which influence the communication environment. These are seen more clearly in a cultural view of communication, which recognizes more contributing factors for the study of communication. These biases sometimes pose risks when one naively uses technology without understanding the power of the medium to influence communication. So even if technology can be employed for certain communication purposes, should it be?
A particular “bias” refers to the non-objective way that the medium carries the content for the receiver. Each medium has a unique way of encoding and decoding reality for its users. In order to highlight the medium’s influence in communication, Marshall McLuhan said that “the medium is the message.” The particular ways a medium handles space and time has an impact for the “message” that an individual receives. (After all, reading this as a blog post is MUCH different than if I were speaking about the question with you face to face, or even over the telephone!) The medium itself makes certain demands, and it has specific requirements of the content that it mediates to the receiver. These biases affect and shape all of the many parts of the communication exchange: user, content and its symbols, receiver, receiver’s perception or interpretation. This is to say that communication is much more complex than how it is traditionally conceived in a transmission model.
McLuhan referred to a medium as an “extension of man” because each one is a kind of supplement to one’s five natural senses. In this way, the medium has the power to extend one’s senses beyond that of natural capacities. This sometimes results in a disruption of the equilibrium among one’s senses, going to show how the medium not only influences the content of communication but also the user, too, i.e. the structure of a medium engenders specific patterns of behavior for the user. We make our tools and our tools make ourselves. An individual is unable to employ a tool without the tool acting back on the individual — in some way, on some level.
Scripture provides the foundation for our understanding of a medium’s influence in communication. It gives us a model for communication, and it sets the standard for communication. It demonstrates that the forms of communication, namely media, play a critical role in shaping our communication, and it (at times) gives specific prescriptions for us to follow. These include the direction to choose media that are most appropriate and effective for communicating certain kinds of messages. Scripture shows us that media are sometimes unfit for successfully delivering specific pieces of content. In short, content warrants form (and not necessarily the other way around). Is it legitimate for one to expect to communicate orthodox content in unorthodox ways? Or are we to expect to have a biblical standard to follow?
Considering this connection between content and form — or message and medium — the question is not always what communication technology can do for us, but rather, what should we allow it to do for us? As Christians, we ought to recognize the specific biases that can sometimes be at odds with our faith. We need to become media literate in order to be wise and godly stewards of communication media, with the goal to bring glory to God (1 Cor 10:31).
Lee Marcum is a Senior Graphic Designer at a Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) congregation in the Northeast.
Thumbnail from freeimages.com/Bill Davenport.