Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Worship, Technology, and the Church: A Failure of Language

The reason for this post is that I'm concerned with, to borrow Lanier's term, trying to make humans into gadgets, especially in language. The official term for this being technological determinism. Technological determinism is dangerous wherever it shows up but when its adherents pop up in evangelical journals in the discussion of worship, church and technology, I get especially nervous.
    Multnomah Seminary publishes a journal called Cultural Encounters. The current issue deals in part with questions of the impact of interactions with technology. To that end this issue features an interview with the editor of the journal, Robb Redman, Quentin Schultze, professor of Communications/Arts at Calvin College and DJ Chuang who works for Worship Leader magazine entitled Worship, Technology, and the Church. The discussion/roundtable interview revolves around the use of technology in worship and the possible uses and implications for worship practices and church communication. There are some interesting points raised in the discussion as the three discuss philosophical shifts, changes and implications in worship and congregational interaction as churches try out  various technologies. What caught my eye are several dicey statement which bear some closer examination.
On page 97, in discussing the impact of streaming a worship service, Quentin Schultze states that "We're technological beings, and even the use of the voice and ears constitute forms of technology." There's a couple of problems with this statement. First, this statement is a type of technological determinism manifesting itself in Schultze's reading of technology back onto the human body. To say everything about the human body is technological reduces, I think, our status as created beings and thus our humanity. If we are technological beings then we as humans are easily replaceable, able to be swapped out like a hard drive or power supply. Additionally if everything is technology why make the differentiation at all? What good is the term if it can be applied to anything.
Later on in the article, DJ Chuang claims that " is awakening another aspect of our humantiy and desire to connect, both virtually and in person shops or "third places" are a place to do othat..." (p. 102) But he does not go on to say what this aspect is. I would guess that this other aspect is in some ways related to the cultural shift towards postmodernism, which is the subject for another post. What's implicit about Chuang's statement here is that technology can awaken which implies that technology has certain powers and/or that those technological powers effect or cause cultural change. Johnathan Sterne in his book The Audible Past suggests that "Technological change follows cultural change". To state or imply the reverse, as Chuang does, implies that technology drives culture giving the arena of technology a much greater amount of control then it really has. Finding the line between whether culture or technology can be rather difficult. In reflecting on Sterne's statement the emphasis is not as much on causation as the overall philosophical approach. To say we are technological or that technology is awakening us states that we are now in service to or subjected to technology. Rather I would suggest that technological development is driven, for better or worse, by our cultural decisions, supposed needs and consumerist desires.
Shortly after Chuang's quote above Schultze states "Technology involves human action-it's always a thing embedded in action-and we can't completely separate the thing from our action...all that we do as human beings is like technology. The most central technology to the human begin coming from the body is actually speech. Techne, the origin for the word technology, actually comes from "speech," and in the Hebrew and Christian tradition, we say God spoke the world into existence, and tthen of course from the Gosple of John, "In the beginning was the Word." So you get this idea that the primary technology is word, and word shapes culture and ways of life and it never does so neutrally." (p. 103)
First, Schultze dramatically misuses language here. while techne may come from speech it does not serve as the root for technology-please see the OED listing. This is an unwarranted linguistic leap. Secondly, I believe that Schultze digs himself a bit of a hole with this statement. If speech is technology and God spoke the world into existence, is God then a technology or composed of (a) technology? Should John 1 read "In the beginning was technology?" This seems absurd and I doubt this was the point Schultze was trying to make but that seems to be a logical implication of Schultze's thinking in this interview. Lastly,  if speech was a technology then it should have been able to be easily reproduced, which is not the case historically. (See Sterne's The Audible Past)
  Technology is most certainly a tool and instead of  having moral value, as a tool, it possesses both good and evil qualities in that it is up to the user how the tool is used.To suggest that realm of technology can be good or evil misses the point of its existence as a medium through which good or evil can be accomplished.
In closing, my point is not that these are bad people or that is a bad interview. Rather my concern is that this type of thinking creeps in around and through legitmate and truthful conversation. Humans are not gadgets and we cannot succumb to language that attempts to elevate technological processes to human levels especially in the context of discussions of worship and church. We need to be able to recognize the errors and failures in this thinking and call it out when necessary so that we can adjust our thinking, our speech/language and our practices accordingly.

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