Thursday, 21 October 2010

Why new media matter in Church

People who don’t get it about new media often assume that the revolution in communications through which we are living is driven by desire to play with kit.
Thus the anxious, especially those who do not want to appear anxious, can stay safe from any requirement that they change, by treating the use of contemporary media as a hobby.
“Phew! real change is happening, but belongs in the world of electronic hobbyists, so it can be business as usual for us.”

In fact, communications revolutions are always driven by the ways they change people. The invention of the printing press did have interesting implications for industrial design technology, but greater far was its impact on people’s attitudes to authority including the Church and the government. Once people could read and write, especially en masse, the old assumptions were subject to constant critical scrutiny. And, as the dear old CIA used to say, you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.

The true implication of the printing press only took hold in the twentieh century, as costs came down sufficiently to allow information that had previously been privileged to flow all over the place. Information revolutions never go backwards, mostly because people have an insatiable thirst for information, and you can’t uninvent the technologies that provide it. One World War I song title expressed the rulers’ dilemma in the face of 20th century mass media technology perfectly — “How do you get them back on the farm, now that they’ve seen Paree?” But at least, then, they could try to control the media.

20th Century press was entirely free, as long as you owned a press. Now we all own a press, and we remain voracious information producers and consumers. We want to know the gossip, we want to know what’s going on, we want to be entertained.

Let me illustrate. Back at school governors in the 90’s we had controversy about making seat belts compulsory on school trips. We wrote to a local MP who assured us he was very much in favour, but the European Union, the square banana lot, wouldn’t allow progress on the issue. One governor had a dial-up connection and downloaded minutes from Brussels, where the UK had singlehandedly opposed compulsory seat belts on school buses, as a restriction of free trade. Same politician. Touché! Our dear leader was instantly outed for a bit of hypocrisy that would have been almost undetectable before.

What is called from all leaders in our new context is not necessarily technical skill, though the old pride that “Sunshine Deserts” British managers used to take in not being able or willing to type, an assertion of their superiority, is obsolete. It’s about radical transparency and mutual accountability. We shouldn’t have too much to fear, for our Scriptures teach mutual submission, redemption, and a call to consistency of life (Holiness). These are not things for which clergy should be too busy (or not). I wonder if our feared deficits in these weightier departments cause as much gut-churning fear of, and resistance to, new media as technical competence or busyness. I hope not.

9 comments:

Erika Baker said...

One of the problems you have when you no longer have professionals filtering the information you receive is that, suddenly, everyone is an expert on everything and it becomes much harder to assess the trustworthiness of the individual sources. That's if you can be bothered or have the time, because there is just so much information out there that it becomes almost impossible to pick out the valuable pieces and remain well rounded and informed about what is happening in the world, in science, in politics....

I worry that one of the risks is that although we can obtain more we end up knowing less and yet feel supremely competent about our opinions.

And behind the scenes the clever manipulators still get their own way, just as the press owning bosses of old.

How can society learn to streamline information and to know what is real and what is maniuplation or infotainment?

drbexl said...

We need to educate people in communications/digital literacy (hence the importance of subjects such as Media Studies). There is more opportunity to assess the information and cross-reference, rather than allowing those who have the power (the newspapers) to dictate what the true story is!

We're looking with http://bigbible.org.uk to help Christians engage more fully with both the Bible and the modern means of communicating it.

Lesley said...

An excellent post. You are right - the problem with it is the fear of transparency. We all compromised in various ways - we want to be green but not enough to stop drinking coke from bottles, we want to be inclusive, but when faced with someone who makes us uncomfortable we retreat. We know we will get exposed in this new world.

Gurdur said...

The problem or solution is not just radical transparency. Technical revolutions can have big unexpected consequences -- see for example Neil Postman, "The Death Of Childhood", on how the printing press helped bring in a new age of protection of children, and how TV started destroying that. There's also the problem of how to protect against mediocritizing effects -- for example, Jaron Lanier's warnings about it all.

Ann said...

This toothpaste won't ever go back in the tube-- so lamenting the past is good but also looking to how this new tool or tools can be used in this new time. The world is moving away from a few knowing and controlling others - it is becoming more like a wiki and is network centric

Richard Littledale said...

I believe there is a great deal of fear in he church of new media because it is harder to control. For this reason much Christian presence on the Web fails to embrace the truly collaborative properties of Web 2.0. Why? Because any-old-body might collaborate, that's why! When I posted recently on content .vs. presentation under the title "hoist with the digital petard" (http://bit.ly/bG2zbK) there were people inside and outside the church who commented. New media gives us more possibilities to have these kind of open (and therefore unpredictable) conversations than ever before. Bring it on!

Ann said...

Sorry to hear you did not get elected to General Synod -- a loss for them.

Ed. said...

I agree with Lesley - excellent post. The biggest problem the climate change lot are having in creating their strange new apocalyptic religion is that we are instantly able to both review the facts and, crucially, view comment on their claims by scientists who, in the era of the printing press, would have been at best censored.

liturgy said...

Thanks for this, Bishop, I have added a link to this post in a comment on my reflection on internet church http://www.liturgy.co.nz/blog/internet-church/4342

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