How’s this for fitting? I read Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith by Shane Hipps on a plane to Ethiopia when I’d be all but disconnected from the technology I love so much for 10 days.
The main premise of Flickering Pixels is that technology has a profound impact on how we think, feel, react and, well, everything. The take away isn’t so much that technology is bad, but that we need to be aware of how it shapes us.
In some ways Flickering Pixels reads like a love letter to Marshall McLuhan. If you’re not familiar with McLuhan, he coined the phrase “The medium is the message,” and pushed other ideas about the importance of the medium in communication. That’s the primary purpose here, as Hipps translates McLuhan’s ideas to our deeply connected technological age.
Some of us have refuted the ‘medium is the message’ idea before, but I think Shane Hipps puts it in an interesting context. He counters our notion that the tools are always neutral. Hipps argues that the tools can have a profound impact on the message.
I think Hipps (and McLuhan) take it too far in saying the medium is the message, but they do have a strong point that the medium says a lot more than we normally give it credit for.
The argument gets convincing when Hipps looks at the technological innovations of humanity. Consider how much a written culture has changed us. We have volumes and volumes of knowledge safely stored in books, but our capacity to remember anything has greatly diminished (now that my cell phone remembers phone numbers, I don’t have to–so I don’t). The printed word paired with the efficiency of the English language has put a premium on reason and logic that left a profound mark on Western Culture (like reducing the gospel to “The Four Spiritual Laws”). Sometimes Hipps takes his argument too far, like claiming the linear arrangement of church pews has a connection to the linear arrangement of text on a page, but in general he has a point. Our mediums–be it pictures, the written word or Twitter–do have an impact on our message.
If you still don’t buy it, consider this: Have you ever had an argument with someone over e-mail? The medium of e-mail deprives the conversation of all contextual hints like tone, inflection and facial expression, to the point that our cute little textual smiley faces can’t make up for it. The result is often a disaster. What you meant rarely comes across the way you intended it.
Flickering Pixels can shatter your world. It will help you see just how shaped we are by the various mediums around us. But there is hope. Simply being aware of how these different media affect us is powerful. We can begin to counteract some of those changes.
I think the real lesson is awareness of the drawbacks to various mediums. We need to understand the limitations of books and the drawbacks of video and the failures of the web. None of those things mean we can’t use those mediums, or that those mediums completely overwhelm the message (as McLuhan seems to claim), it just means we need to better understand the tools we use. Every tool has drawbacks and sometimes it’s easy to forget those in the face of the many benefits.
But I come away with a further insight and encouragement: God is all about communication. He understands the complications of it all and still wants to communicate with us (isn’t it interesting that he uses the medium of four different accounts of the life of Jesus?). And Hipps takes it a step further, claiming that the church is both God’s medium and message.
Flickering Pixels is a challenging book (but a quick read) that’s important as we think about and engage the church in communication.