As you read this post the summer issue of Leadership is arriving in mailboxes. The issue tackles the impact of living, and ministering, in an increasingly visual culture. Many churches are eager to employ video and other new digital tools, but is this tread helpful, harmful, or completely neutral to our mission? To preview the theme of the summer issue here is an interview with Shane Hipps on the hidden power of visual media from our partners at Faith Visuals.
How can we be better about perceiving the power of media in both our churches and our lives?
Probably the best orientation that I've discovered to help me understand the real power of media was when I read a quote by Marshall McLuhan where he says, "The content of any medium is the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind." What he's saying is that the medium itself has a power, a bias, and a meaning regardless of what message you put through it. He's challenging the metaphor that we often assume: Media are simply pipelines, a neutral conduit through which information can be put through. I think it's crucial for Christians to begin to perceive the media forms themselves, rather than just looking at - and understanding - the content. We're too easily distracted by the content, and we miss the power of the medium.
You mentioned Marshall McLuhan. In your book, The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture, you talk about McLuhan's four laws of media a lot. Could you explain those a little bit, and how they are useful for thinking about the media we use?
Sure. The only difficulty with the four laws is that it feels a little unnatural at times. It can be hard to answer some of those questions. The point is not to get the right answers; the point is to ask the right questions. McLuhan offered four questions he believed were crucial to understanding media.
First: What does the medium enhance and extend? For instance: The wheel is an extension of the foot.
Second: What does the medium obsolesce? And "obsolesce" doesn't mean get rid of. It means change the function of. So, for example, the automobile extends our speed of transportation, but it obsolesces the horse-drawn carriage. The horse-drawn carriage doesn't disappear; it simply changes its function. It's now used for romance and entertainment, but it is still used.
Third: What does the medium retrieve from the past? This is the conviction that nothing is new under the sun. And so every new medium retrieves some older medium. For example, security cameras retrieve the medieval city wall which simultaneously protects and imprisons its citizens.
Fourth: What does the medium reverse into? This means that every medium will always reverse into some form of its opposite when it is overused. So for example, when the automobile, which is designed to increase speed, is overextended or overused, it actually reverses into traffic jams and even fatalities.
There is no single answer to these questions; they can be asked of any medium almost endlessly to deepen our understanding. So that's one way of understanding the complexity of how media shape us.
So what do you think are some changes that would happen if people started to look at how we present our message? Like if we use McLuhan's four laws to think more about how we're presenting a message.
I think people will begin to use our media rather than be used by them unconsciously. The power of our media become less powerful when we actually understand and become aware of them. Right now, most people are distracted by the content of our media, while we miss the power of the form. Thus we encounter our media with the proverbial slip on the banana peel. We end up being used by the media we think we're using. My hope isn't that people will stop using technology in a church but rather, that they'll begin to understand so they can make more discerning decisions about how to use media.