A Review of “Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology”

Screenshot of the cover of Digitzed: Spiritual Implications of TechnologyThis book intrigued me because I’m always fascinated by interdisciplinary explorations, especially when the thoughts surround theological implications of how we live our daily lives. As I’ve always been a bit of geek, and now make my living in technology, thinking theologically about that technology and how it impacts not only what I do, but how I live, is an exercise that I do regularly in any case. Hearing someone else’s thoughts on this is always welcome to me.

So, Bernard Bull’s Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology popped out to me as a must-read. I’ve never heard of Bull prior to this book, or read any of his other work, though he is published elsewhere. What I expected was a theological treatment of technology and daily life. What I got, to my disappointment, was a more religious recommendation of how to utilize technology in practice.

Bull’s examinations are of a very surface level. Spread widely through his book are definitions of basic concepts, such as social media and blogs. While establishing definitions early is important in any scholarly work, Bull dwells on these definitions at length, targeting readers who are not technically savvy at the expense of those who are. As a result, he manages to alienate readers such as myself (who are drawn to what the book appears to be about) in his earliest chapters. His recommendations at orthopraxy are low-level, extremely basic, and backed by views that smack of the very legalism that Bull insists he is trying to avoid.

That said, the book is not entirely without value. Bull spends time discussing the spiritual perils of a cultural obsession with efficiency, emphasizing that a Christian theological worldview insists that people are created in God’s image, and thus are more than the numbers to which the business world attempts to reduce us. He also includes thought-provoking discussion on the concept of identity and how this is effected by our digital presentations of ourselves, the implications of which are a relative concept of our true selves and how that relatively is, by definition, untrue.

Continuing on this concept of relativity, Bull speaks a timely truth in regards to how digital expression impacts our perceptual filters of the world in which we live:

“We are inclined to believe that which is presented in the most persuasive manner rather than that which is true. We celebrate social and political commentary that appears in 140 characters…We grow disinterested in lengthier explanations. We turn to ad hominem attacks on those with whom we disagree instead of respectfully debating the issues. We value news as much for its entertainment value as for its accuracy and information. If we are not careful, such practices breed skepticism about truth.”

Bernard Bull, “Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology”, p. 152

While Bull attempts to give us practical applications at the conclusion of his book (most of which I forced myself through as they appeared to be targeting those of an unrealistic level of technological illiteracy), his best practical take-away, perhaps ironically, comes from someone else. He borrows from Neil Postman and his contribution to the field of media ecology. Bull encourages the reader to answer the following questions when adopting any new technology (taken from pp. 130ff):

  1. What is the problem to which this technology is a solution?
  2. Whose problem is it, actually?
  3. If there is a legitimate problem that is solved by this technology, what other problems will be caused by using this technology?
  4. Am I using this technology, or is it using me?

Personally, the answers with which I found myself after asking the final of these four questions were…troubling….in regard to some pieces of technology that have a place in my life. Despite the large percentage of the book that was disappointing to me, there was much value in this application, though I question whether it is more Postman’s application than Bull’s.

Altogether, this book is worth reading for the 10% that is thought-provoking, assuming the reader is willing to either skip the rest or force themselves through it. Digitized is far from what I expected, but not completely without value.

Travel Log: Seattle

The strange thing about visiting Seattle for the first time is that I had dreamed that I already had. I dreamed that I visited an office there for my day job, and had been surprised by how sparse the surrounding neighborhood had appeared. In my dream, it was essentially a suburb of L.A. Obviously, that couldn’t have been more wrong.

I arrived in the wee hours of the morning after a grueling 13-hour travel day that was the result of my airline “accommodating” me for a cancelled flight. There, at 1:00 a.m. local time in SeaTac airport (while my body was convinced that it was actually 4:00 a.m.), came my first experience with Seattle’s peculiarities with Lyft: the drivers always call or text to confirm your location (they also never seem to arrive on the same side of the street as you).

Welcome to Seattle sign at SeaTac Airport

I was in Seattle for 4 days, and experienced about 5 hours of sunlight during my stay. The stereotype of the city being all rain all the time certainly seemed to hold true for my visit. I was also surprised by the fog. I awoke on two mornings (always insanely early as my body remained stubbornly on East coast time) to find myself barely able to see neighboring buildings to my downtown hotel’s window for the fog.

When there is sun, though, the waterfront and Pike Place market are busy and fun. I also saw Seattle Pacific University, which I knew from listening to the Kindlings Muse in its prime, and had always wanted to see in person.

During my explorations, I found a fantastic allergy-friendly restaurant for lunch. If you’re gluten-free or dairy free, I very much recommend that you stop by Niche Cafe and Bakery if you’re in the city. I found no need to pack my own coffee and travel press as I usually do on trips, because, being Seattle, you’re never far from a good cup of coffee. This doesn’t just include Starbucks, of course. VoxxCoffee was only a block from my hotel, and a perfect stop before my daily excursions.

Seattle seems to be in a perpetual state of construction, and cranes dot the skyline like dinosaurs stretching their long necks above the treetops. I’ve read that the construction is because of a tech boom in the city. It certainly causes its share of pedestrian headaches.

Construction in downtown Seattle
Construction in Seattle effects the skyline, and the sidewalks below

Of course, whenever I’m in a city with a Hard Rock Cafe, I have to visit. I suppose that I had high expectations for this Hard Rock, given that Seattle is the birthplace of grunge, but I was disappointed. This was one of the least interesting Hard Rocks that I’ve seen.

Hard Rock Cafe, Seattle
Hard Rock Cafe, Seattle

I often don’t go see big tourist attractions because I’d rather see the city (I’ve been to New York City and never seen the Statue of Liberty). True to form, I suppose, I skipped the Space Needle. I did visit the Seattle Public Library on a recommendation though — it’s a stunning architectural achievement in its own right.

Seattle was backward to me. The water felt as though I was facing East (I’ve heard that confusion is normal), and seductive: it’s a downhill walk to reach the water, but you’ll get a good workout on the uphill walk back to the hotel. Seattle struck me as a dirty city, which surprised me. I felt as though I needed the rain for cleansing after I had walked a few blocks. As is often the case, Seattle was very different than I had imagined (or dreamed). I had always entertained the idea that I might like to live there, given its reputation for intellectualism. While I definitely enjoyed my visit, I’ve also crossed that thought off of my list. Seattle was fun, but I just simply need more sunlight in my life.

Syncopation

Image of snare drum with sticks. Used under creative commons.

A week ago from the time that I write this, I was driving home after dropping Karen and our girls off for a week-long trip to see some family. I was in the sort of contemplative mindset that I often find just out of reach lately. I drove past a house with a truck parked in the driveway. The logo on the side of the truck indicated that it belonged to a fire safety business. Because of where the truck was parked, and the time – it was a Sunday night – my mind, crafting stories as always, began to fill in the details.

The person who owned the truck worked for, or perhaps owned, that business, according to this story. This was a local business, and he would go to work the next morning, driving to jobs around the area, into adjacent towns. He likely knows the area extremely well, and is accustomed to the rhythm and schedule. This person would get up and go to work the next morning after the alarm went off at the same time as always, beginning a new day and a new week.

I grew up around that type of work. I understand – if only by close proximity instead of by doing – that rhythm. That rhythm is such a counterpoint to my life now.

A few weeks ago, I sat in a small local restaurant in Seattle and, over lunch, coordinated a complex technical event that was happening in Boston from my phone. That sort of flexibility and capability is exciting, and fun. I still don’t grasp the rhythm of this work, though, perhaps because there isn’t any. Time bends in on itself, loses its meaning. Everything happens with immediacy. I long for a rhythm, for some local work.

A colleague joked a few years ago that she wanted to stop doing our profession and be a barista for a living. I laughed at this, and I also recalled a friend from my undergrad days. He said that, when he finished school, he didn’t care if he worked at a gas station all night for a living. He just wanted to write. I remember laughing at that too, but, honestly, sometimes I wish that I could just serve coffee during the day, read, and finish that novel, the draft of which has been collecting dust since our first daughter was born. I think that, when I want that, I want it not only because it would be simpler, but because the rhythm would be more….defined.

The rhythm of the life that I have now, filled with fast-paced technology and the controlled chaos of two children, is syncopated, wildly unpredictable. There’s a sense that it’s always delicately balanced, just on the edge of being out of control. There’s no real option but to embrace that syncopation at the moment. Like in jazz, those rhythms can have a purpose, even be playful at times. I long for the quiet, though, the purpose of knowing that your work is just your work, and that it is done when it is done.

Perhaps that is a thing of the past.

Image attribution: Vladimir Morozov under Creative Commons.

Information Shelf Life

Glasses laying on an open textbookWhen I was a student, I developed certain habits and ways of thinking. Most students do, and I imagine that these habits are remarkably similar from one to another. When Karen and I encounter a new and unfamiliar problem, for example, we find a book (or several) on the topic. We know which books to pull from our shelves should we need to reference them for some obscure detail.

Because of our academic careers, we instinctively know an important tenant of research: the oldest source is almost always the most valid. Newer research is, by nature, regarded with some scholarly skepticism because it hasn’t yet been subjected to rigorous debate by the academy. In fact, depending on the discipline, the date of the research can be the most important factor when citing it in other works.

Fast forward to today. Now I make my living on the web, and I am forced to change this habitual way of thinking. Research and relevant information in my field comes from blogs more than books, because books become out-dated too quickly. I can bookmark these posts that contain essential information, but these bookmarks are fleeting, just like the content to which they point. Research that is older is treated with disdain – newer is always seen as more relevant, because the technology moves so fast. A year old is often seen as worthless.

This has been a difficult mindset to which to adapt, because it seems to eschew the wisdom of what came before. Youthful enthusiasm and “disruption” is prized above experience in a way that academics…or many other professional disciplines…would not tolerate. I see the negative impact of this on my profession, as well: burnout, insane amounts of over-complication, pressure to learn and then leave behind. It’s interesting how we place so much emphasis, so much salvific hope, in our technology, while the exponential pace at which that very technology rushes ahead betrays us, leaves us behind, our perceptions now scattered…damaged goods, as it were.

New research is not a bad thing. We progress because of it. I would go so far as to say that we need it to thrive as a civilization. Forgetting its place, though…allowing it to push aside all that has come before it in the name of progress…counters all of the good that it might do. Critical thinking is important, and forgetting that when we’re caught up in the moment of what seems to be a revolutionary new perspective, is imprudent.

And we are the worse for it.

On Shopping and the Value of the Mundane

An image of winter gloves, used under Creative Commons.I’ve been shopping for a new pair of gloves.  This is a deceptively difficult thing to get right. When you live in New England, you don’t own just one pair of gloves, because the mid-weight gloves that you wear in December are useless in January and February. Having the right gloves at the right time of year is very important.

After Karen and I had been married for a couple of years, I joked that I was a master of the suburban jungle. We fell into a rhythm of grocery shopping every Sunday afternoon. This sounds mundane, but was something that I enjoyed. Our rhythm is no longer the same with two children, and this is true not only of grocery shopping, but of many other aspects of life.

Even within these interruptions, however, one adapts. We used to have these little outings as a family. Again, nothing huge, and often mundane….trips to a local store to pick up some items that we needed, then eating out. I love those excursions, even when they are something as trivial as shopping, perhaps for the right pair of gloves.


When our oldest daughter was younger, I took her for “cookies and milk” every weekend. This was an inviolable routine. Even when traveling, we made time. Even if it was as simple as grabbing 15 minutes at a coffee shop (which it frequently was), I made the time. As life progressed, this, too, began to happen less and less frequently, a fact that she has lamented to me recently. Now I find myself digging for ways to accomplish this simple act amidst all of the work that I have to accomplish, all of the daily life commitments that come with family…almost none of which, it occurs to me, involve leaving home.

This was a utopia long-predicted and, now that we have it…for all of its telecommuting benefits…I can’t help but wonder what we’ve relinquished. Years ago, when I was in grad school, I recall sitting upstairs in my favorite coffee shop, when a classmate walked in downstairs. I began to IM him (remember AOL?), and realized the absurdity of such an action. I walked downstairs and said hello. That was a precursor to today, as the absurdity of that moment becomes commonplace when we use Slack to talk to a co-worker who is only a few feet away.

Of all the face-to-face interactions that we abdicate, it is the interactions with my children and family that are most painful. As crazy as it sounds, those random weekend shopping excursions held something that just doesn’t spark when we have those same items delivered by Amazon. The convenience of having such a plethora of options for a new pair of gloves is somehow not worthwhile, because the substance of doing the activity together, even when it’s only shopping, is more important than the outcome of the activity.

That idea, though, is counter-cultural in an age of scientific pragmatism. We are, after all, only data, right? And thus intrudes a cognitive dissonance into my life. I love shiny new toys. I love that I can have groceries delivered to us on Sundays if we are overwhelmed with daily family responsibilities. I miss the act of intentionally doing those mundane things together, though. I miss it deeply, because it now happens so rarely. And thus, so do our connections with each other.

Except virtual connections. Those will never go away.

For whatever they’re worth.

Image attribution: Keith Williamson under Creative Commons.