Technology is changing our lives at breakneck speed and in unpredictable ways. In just one decade, for example, the mobile phone has transformed the daily life of virtually every church leader in the world. Technology also changes the way the gospel gets communicated, whether through PowerPoint slides, websites, or screens at multi-site churches. We sought out a man who has decades of practical experience with technology in business—as well as wide and deep thinking about its significance.
Al Erisman spent 32 years at Boeing, and for the last 11 of those years was director of research and development for technology. He now teaches in the business school at Seattle Pacific University and is co-founder and editor of Ethix magazine (Ethix.org). He also consults and lectures on faith and economic development, most recently in the Central African Republic and Nepal. He recently spoke with Global Conversation editor and CT senior writer Tim Stafford.
What does technology have to do with the gospel?
A lot. Narrowing our scope just to information technology, we recognize it is all about information and communications, a fundamental element of proclaiming the gospel. It is also about what kind of people we become, and how we communicate to people who are part of the digital generation. We could also look at the broader impact of other technology, such as automobiles, nuclear power, or biotechnology—anything that comes from a step-by-step process or the use of tools. But we have our hands full talking about information technology.
I think of information technology in five layers. The bottom layer is the basic technology—the microchip, for example. Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, predicted what is now called Moore's Law: The microchip will halve in size every 18 months. This translates into the chip's performance getting both faster and cheaper at an astonishing rate—a factor of 10 in price and performance improvement every five years. That enables a fundamental, unending churn.
The second layer is the products the basic technology makes possible. Here we are more directly influenced. In the case of the microchip, our computers regularly become both faster and cheaper. This part is fairly predictable, but we also see the unpredictable emergence of new products and capabilities. We have the Internet, Google, social networks, Twitter, digital cameras, the iPhone, and so on. Sometimes we use these devices simply to do what we did before, only faster. But sometimes new products introduce a whole new way of thinking and working.
The third level is where products are put together, made to work, made secure, and all of the things that go into infrastructure. About this layer, users usually only need to know that there are talented people who keep everything working.
The fourth layer is where the lives of church leaders could be changed—where the technology enables fundamental redesign of what we do. For example, a pastor can readily access many more sources and incorporate video into a presentation. He or she can put sermons online and thus reach many more people. Discussion groups can reach across a community, even across the world. More than one author has suggested that this is "the death of distance." If you have just returned from another part of the world, you can maintain communication with people there in a remarkable way.
Aren't there risks as well?
Certainly. Every technology has a "bite back" effect. It allows us to do something new and good, but that something is different.
In Acts 2, the disciples were proclaiming "the wonders of God" when some accused them of being drunk. Peter immediately addressed the point, taking his presentation in another direction. How does this happen when someone is viewing a video or downloading a sermon from the Internet?
In the 1980s, critics panned televangelists' sermons because isolated listeners could not experience congregational life. They also complained that the medium required a flashiness that competed with the gospel. Today video is used to extend a preacher's reach to multiple congregations. Does real preaching require real presence?
Television [cannot provide] the worship atmosphere that being physically present does. But if we think of previous technology advancements, the written text of a sermon also lacked this key ingredient. Yet we have seen God bless gospel tracts. I recently talked with a pastor in Nepal who had come to Christ through a tract he found in the street. What is gained by the text (compared with both live preaching and television) is the ability to go back over it and study it. What is gained by the television (compared with print) is some nuance (a frown, a smile, a pause). As we move to e-mail or WebEx conferencing, we see similar pluses and minuses. So it will be when we start using holographic images to present the illusion that we are in the same room with a person.
We shouldn't think of these technologies as replacing each other. We should think of them as layering to form an effective pattern of communication. Television, Web conferencing, and e-mail should not replace face-to-face communication but rather complement it. A live small group is wonderful and was our Lord's primary method of discipleship. But he also spoke to large groups. If he had come in the 21st century, I believe he would also have used these new tools, but not to replace the intimate or even large group discussions.
That brings us to the fifth layer, where we consider what technology has done to people. We all see that people have shorter attention spans, read less, and try to do two things at once and get distracted. Churches see both the positive and negative aspects of technology every week. It is great to deal with people who can instantly respond to needs since they are always connected. It is challenging to deal with a congregation that is text messaging in church or gets distracted when the sermon goes longer than 20 minutes.
We need to think about the communications challenge similar to a cross-cultural challenge. A missionary would not go to the Philippines without trying to understand the language and culture of the people there. So is it important for both church leaders and missionaries to understand the culture of the digital generation.
By dissolving distance, will communications technology undermine congregational fellowship? What aspects of Christian life together can technology extend? What can it undermine?
Someone suggested that they could program their computer to work through a prayer list every morning so that they could sleep in. "Does that count?" they asked. I think not. But if you put your best into an article and people read it at another time, does that count as communication? We know it does, though it's a different kind of communication than having a conversation.
Former Intel vice president Pat Gelsinger said, "If I go back and forth with someone in e-mail more than four or five times on the same topic, I stop. We get on the phone or we get together face to face." You can do some things with a conversation face to face (build trust, get to know each other as people, establish context for remarks, clarify) that would be very difficult to do with back-and-forth e-mails. Still, when I return from a visit to Singapore, I can carry on a relationship through e-mail that makes a very valuable contribution to building community.
In business, where we work globally with virtual teams, we have found that when a team begins its work, it has to define its objectives and make sure team members understand them. Plus, they need to learn how to trust each other. This can best be done face to face. Personal contact is vital.
When you start defining the work and parceling it out, that can be done synchronously over the telephone or through a videoconference. And at the stage of implementation and evaluation, you don't have to be together in real time. You can use e-mail to update each other. Different forms of communication are best in different contexts.
This interview is part of a Global Conversation—a virtual dialogue via the Internet with leaders from around the world. Contrast that with the enormously more expensive conversation set for October in Cape Town.
The virtual forum is wonderful, but we make a mistake if we think that the new technology replaces the old. The value of being present with another person happens over coffee or dinner and through side conversations with people we meet unexpectedly. We haven't found a way to make that happen in the virtual world.
Information overload threatens to cut off communication. Many of us delete messages without reading them. How can congregations make sure their attempts to connect do not become part of the background noise?
When we live in a large city, we have the same tendency to cut off communication with our neighbors because there are so many of them. Technology simply ramps up the number of those connections. Our Lord dealt with this by leaving the crowds and going off with a small group for weekends at a time. We are no more able than he was to carry on in-depth relationships with everyone. "A servant is not greater than his master."
How can church leaders learn about new possibilities and challenges of technology?
Though I read and consult widely on these matters, I have not seen a systematic look at these things in the context of the gospel—only pieces of the whole. A lot has been written in the secular press related to business and society. Some of this could be carefully adapted to the needs of the church. Reading discriminately (for example, Don Tapscott's Grown Up Digital or Robert Reich's The Future of Success) is a good start. Creating Christian study groups around this material is even better.
Technological innovation is part of God's world, built up by creative people made in his image. But some see only the Tower of Babel.
In Genesis 1 and 2, we see Adam and Eve carrying on God's work in the world. In the first two chapters, that is done under the authority of God. The problem came when people thought they could do this autonomously. Now we have a world in which some people use their creativity under the authority of God, and others use theirs autonomously.
Is technology like the Tower of Babel? Yes. Is it also like Eden under God's authority? Absolutely. But by God's grace, even people who are not Christians develop wonderful technology because they are made in his image.
Why do so many people, Christians or not, see technology pessimistically?
These technologies used to affect just our businesses. Now they affect us personally. They hit the ways we communicate with our neighbors and spouses. We have come to depend on the devices we have to carry, and others depend on us depending on them. If you don't answer your mobile phone, people say, "What's wrong with you?" Technology has intruded in a very personal way. This has caused many to look at it pessimistically.
Also, people understand that technology is the reason they lost their jobs through outsourcing. The 19th-century cotton mill eliminated jobs for people who were weaving at home. But information technology affects everyone—in their personal life as well as in their business life. It's disruptive and persistent.
Some digital people feel alienated and alone with their technology. There are well-documented reports on the increase in suicide among young Japanese who are spending long periods of time using technology and are isolated from others. They have lost elements of what it is to be human. I suppose this is like other addictions and must be recognized as such. Just as Paul spoke to those on Mars Hill about the idols in their culture, we can offer something to those trapped by the idols of the digital culture.
In a recent article for Ethix, former software designer Rosie Perera noted, "German philosopher Martin Heidegger writes that humans are so immersed in technology that we are rarely even aware that we have a relationship to it that affects us …. Taking time away from technology on a regular basis can help transform the way we relate to it and can bring life back into focus."
We don't expect these changes to slow down soon. Our challenge will be to continue to unpack the changing culture, communicating effectively with the tools we are given and to the generation we encounter. Years ago Francis Schaeffer warned us not to flee our emerging culture but to embrace it and think it through. We shouldn't be afraid.
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