When I was about 7 years old, I was enthralled with calculators. Even considering their relatively primitive state at that time, I was drawn to their glowing LED displays (they didn’t really have screens at that point). Having older sisters, I would “play” with their calculators frequently. I spent hours pouring over calculators in the Sears and JCPenny catalogs (the Amazon.com of their day). My mother however, brought my obsession with calculators to an abrupt halt. A veteran teacher, she had established a strict regimen of study at home to supplement what I was taught in school. My interest in calculators happened to coincide with introduction to multiplication tables. The fact I was at this critical point in my math education meant that calculators, in her mind, were verboten. My older siblings were told to keep their calculators out of my hands. My requests for my own calculator were denied. Confused, I asked my mother why I couldn’t even TOUCH a calculator any more, let alone play with one. Her response was clear and succinct:
“You need to learn your multiplication tables first. If you start using a calculator before you know them, you’ll become dependant on it. It will become a crutch.”
While that was a less than satisfying response at the time, I later became thankful for my Mom’s calculator ban. I also began to see how the wisdom of her words spanned well beyond the boundaries of elementary school mathematics. While the introduction of computing devices to the general public may have began with calculators, it later expanded to home computers, networking, and eventually the Internet. This growth has continued to the point where these technologies are involved in every aspect of our lives. This has largely been to our immediate benefit. We can get many formerly tedious tasks done quickly and efficiently. We have both access to more information, and the ability to retrieve it faster than ever before. While the expanse of these new technologies has touched many aspects our lives, there haven’t really been many boundaries placed on their usage. Simple tasks, like figuring how much is $5 in euros, or determining how many cups there are in 38 ounces, would have been a quick hand calculation in the past. Now that type of everyday math has been replaced by phone apps and websites. A person moving to a new city, in the past may have tried to learn a map of their new hometown. Now, that same person is more likely to rely on their smartphone or a GPS device to get around. Given that we’ve off-loaded much of our learned tasks and knowledge to these new technologies, have they become crutches? Are we missing out on unintended, yet still critical learning experiences?
The answer to this question is particularly important for the Christian Church.
Douglas Rushkoff, in his book “Present Shock” discusses the socio-cultural impact of the digital age on society. Among his observations, he asserts that the pervasive nature of technology has led to the collapse of the linear narrative (aka story-tellin) throughout society. The concept of things having a beginning, middle, and a resolution has been a fundamental part of how we view life for millennia. Beyond being the structure of every sitcom you’ve watched and every story you were told as a child, almost every system of belief, both secular and religious, is based on the linear narrative. The Bible, for example, begins with creation and ends with Christ’s return. Rushkoff asserts that these narratives only work when the listener is held captive by the storyteller. The system works when the listener has no alternative but to follow the story to its end. Technology however, provides so many other options and counter-narratives, it is impossible to get listeners to stick around for, or invest in a single story.
Time will tell if Rushkoff is right or not, but the critical nature of story, continuity, and context is a key element of correct interpretation and understanding of The Bible. Knowing that Isaiah came before Mark and the relationship between the two books is critical to grasping Christianity. Making the Bible indexable and searchable, as most Bible apps and web tools do, allows the user to quickly and efficiently get to any part of Scripture. It also has the unintended consequence of flattening the book’s content. The relationship between Genesis and Ephesians is obscured. The name of these books and the order in which they appear are reduced to tags, or elements of a database query. In contrast, a person flipping through a physical Bible looking for Matthew 25 would also gain additional, unintended insight. They would learn that the Bible is divided into an Old and New Testament. They would see that Genesis chronologically comes before Ephesians. They would see that Isaiah comes before Mark. These basic lessons are the critical first steps in learning the fundamentals of the faith. They are obscured when a person’s exposure to the Bible is limited to digital sources.
While these tools may be helpful in the hands of an experienced Sunday School Teacher, or a mature Christian, who keeps them out of the hands of young believers who still learning the fundamentals of the faith?
How does the Church make sure technology is an aide for its members and not a crutch?
Please share your thoughts in the comments…