The New Media Frontier
- John Mark Reynolds and Roger Overton Editors, Authors
- 2008 10 Oct
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an excerpt fromThe New Media Frontier: Blogging, Vlogging, and Podcasting by John Mark Reynolds and Roger Overton, eds. (Crossway).
The New Media: First Thoughts
John Mark Reynolds
What Is the New Media Revolution? Is it Just Hype?
The world of communication is changing quickly. Nobody disputes that. When I started graduate school in the late eighties, I was still using a Commodore 64 with 32K of usable memory. While my students point out that this simply means I am old, it also demonstrates that just twenty-five years ago education was very different from what it is today.
Not much e-mail existed back in the late eighties. By the early nineties e-mail had produced the friendship that would lead to my founding the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University.
Not much information was easily available online. I taught an early introduction to philosophy on Q-Link, which used the massive installed base of Commodore computers to form an early network. A good class might include as many as ten or eleven students. This network (but sadly not the class!) evolved into America Online (AOL). Online philosophy is now extensive, and the dialogue is vast.
Not much Greek text was available in my field of ancient philosophy outside of expensive books. Now I use Perseus to research text every week for free.
Of course, the changes due to new media are not limited to philosophy, a field hardly at the cutting edge of technology. Some of these changes are not earth-shattering but still make life more pleasant. My computer just informed me of the weather forecast for tomorrow through a pop-up window, and the days of waiting in agony for Packer scores is over.
There are two reactions to this kind of change. The first is to dismiss it as unimportant, and the second is to proclaim that it is the beginning of a new age. The dismissive attitude always sounds wiser, while the optimist sounds as if he is trying to sell something.
The problem for the new media pessimist is that he is probably complaining about the new media from his Internet-based journal or on a television show that will be aired on the Net within minutes of his appearance. If he is giving a lecture on the unimportance of the new media revolution, clips from his talk can (and often will) be posted while he is speaking.
Information is so easy to get that anyone under forty is frustrated when it takes more than a few minutes to discover even a relatively obscure fact. When my wife claimed Gwyneth Paltrow was less than forty years of age, I could confirm the claim after the movie using my cell phone and the Internet. That is trivial, but it was not so trivial when I could easily compare local banks’ home appraisals while talking to them on the phone.
This change in the availability of information and the ease of communication is real. In fact, it is so pervasive and has so quickly replaced the world that came before it that it is easy to forget how massive a change it is. The information and communication revolution is changing everything, from how one lives daily life to how one writes an airport novel.
Don’t believe me? Watch reruns of detective shows from before the eighties (pre-cellular phones), and notice how many plot points would be ruined if the detective or victim had access to a cell phone.
Imagine a world where a few reporters can kill a story that does not fit their definition of news and where it is relatively easy for “stars” and personalities to massage their image.
Now recall that Dan Rather could report a story in 2004 about President Bush, but citizens of the new media, many with expertise that CBS did not have, were able to expose the documents that were the basis of the Rather report as almost certain forgeries.
Get used to citizens with video cameras so cheap and small that opposition candidates can afford to shadow their opponents with devices to catch them in a career-ending gaffe like the infamous “macaca” incident that helped end George Allen’s political career.
Hugh Hewitt, professor, lawyer, and talk radio star, wrote a book in 2006 whose title sums up the case for the optimists: Blog: Understanding the Information Reformation That’s Changing Your World.
Hewitt focused on the web log (or blog for short), a kind of online journal that anyone can set up for free. He was right to do so since the rise of the blog meant that any person could set up his own opinion journal with theoretic access to millions. Of course, most blogs are not worth reading, but many provide up-to-the-second eyewitness testimony about the conduct of war, Christian apologetics, and informed pastoral reflections. In the 2008 presidential elections, both parties, but especially the Democrats, found themselves forced to deal with the power of the “net roots.”
Of course, the new media are not limited to printed text. Ask the music industry, which is still trying to come to terms with the digital revolution. In the Torrey class of 2008, few if any students had purchased any music anyplace other than from their computers.
My students spend more time on YouTube than with the dying “major” networks. Consumers can easily become producers in this environment. One of my former students, Josh Sikora, creates high-demand content for YouTube from his modest apartment that can compete online with George Lucas.
The revolution is here, and it is real, but what does it mean? What will the implications be for Christendom and for the church? Philosophers like to ask big questions. We also like to make sense of changes and suggest what these changes mean. At this stage of the development of new media, all thinking must be a sort of playful philosophizing because the change is so new and so little hard research has been done. But it is my belief that while technology changes, the essence of men does not. The past can be of some help in speculating about what the future may hold, and even speculation might help start the discussion that this topic needs within Christendom.
What Do We Mean by New Media?
You can know something without defining it. I know that my old vinyl Amy Grant album is not part of the new media revolution but that my Badly Drawn Boy download for my iPod is. My new Madden 2008 Wii game is new media, but the Sorry board game we just played is not.
Definitions can help us think about a thing with more precision. “The new media revolution” is a catchphrase, perhaps a dated one, but it is the best available. It covers a wide range of activities from my ten-year-old playing Runescape to my sixteen-year-old listening to Fred Sanders’s lecture on the Trinity online.
Let me propose a definition of new media that will capture video games, downloaded music, and TiVo.
New media: any material presented to a person in a digital format that can be cheaply and easily accessed, distributed, stored in a variety of ways, manipulated, and consumed by an average person.
New media are digital.
New media are cheap.
New media are easy to access.
New media are almost too easily distributed and are easy to store.
New media can be transformed by the “consumer.” In fact, the new media allow any consumer to quickly become a producer.
It will someday be possible for consumers to easily manipulate their favorite “shows.” Imagine the ability (if you dare) to create new episodes of long-dead TVLand staples such as Green Acres or Star Trek. There will be no reason for a virtual William Shatner to ever stop “playing” Captain Kirk as fans manipulate his image and voice to produce new episodes of Star Trek featuring his character.
These are trivial (and even somewhat frightening!) examples, but the same power will allow the creation of new drama, music, and art forms that cannot even be imagined today. Most of it will be of poor quality (of course, most of the old media was of poor quality too), but nearly universal opportunity to produce will lead to greater chances for greatness.
This much we know. The old media produced My Mother the Car and gave a variety show to Sonny and Cher. Broader access seems unlikely to do much worse in entertainment.
For the serious-minded the new media revolution is a paradise. Cut from the need to produce a mass audience, it is now possible to “publish” as much as one wants on Shakespeare or even Sheldon Vanauken. My piano-playing fifteen-year-old daughter downloads reams of sheet music every week that would have been unavailable to her before the new media revolution. The sounds coming from her analog piano are made richer by the digital revolution.
The ability to “transform” new media content has come with a radical lowering of costs in producing high-quality materials compared to the past.
When I went to high school, the school sent home dittos made on ancient mimeograph machines. These dittos were painstakingly produced by secretaries creating stencils on manual or primitive electric typewriters. The stencils were placed on drums of ink that whirled out copies that were often smudged and hard to read. But since the stencils were hard to make and the job was a daily one, a certain amount of errors were tolerated. This is no longer the case. The reports from my children’s school are stunningly professional compared to the old dittos.
New media are radically democratic, at least for now.
The Long Tension between Live and Preserved Performances
The new media are very important to Western culture because they promise to correct an imbalance between “live” and “preserved” performance. Early in human history almost all performance was live. A performance is live if you experience it while it is being produced, and in ancient times that was the way most people experienced music, storytelling, and education. If you wanted to hear music, you needed a musician. If you wanted to hear a good lecture on a topic, then you needed an expert present to give it.
The “old media” revolution changed this situation. With the rise of writing, painting, and other means of storing “performance” for later consumption, people were able (in some manner) to experience performances without being at the original performance. You did not need a rhapsode to recite the Iliad once Homer’s work was written down in order to hear the poem. If you could read, then Homer could travel with you everywhere, as one copy of The Iliad did with Alexander the Great.
I love theater, and I love film. One art form is live, and the second is (mostly) preserved. Of course, theater might use some “preserved performance” (if it uses pre-recorded sound effects), and film has a live audience interacting with what is happening on the screen. Still, it is safe to say that theater is mostly live and film is mostly preserved performance.
But the example of theater and film also demonstrates the obvious truth that for some time in the West live performance has been declining relative to preserved performance. The situation from ancient times is reversed. Most of us hear almost all our music in a preserved form while hearing very little live. Many of us get most of our information from books and programs that preserve the information distribution of others.
There are advantages to both live and preserved performances. If this is so, then a loss of either would be harmful to society. It is my contention that the new media will correct the favoring of the preserved performance at the expense of the live. Old media was about preservation. The new media favor something very much like incarnation.
It is easy to forget that there are disadvantages to preserved performance. Even old technology, like this very book, has downsides for a culture or an individual. A seminal attack on preserved performance was written by the philosopher Plato who worried that philosophy in books lost something when compared to philosophy learned live in the marketplace with a teacher such as his own beloved Socrates. Plato said:
“Take a man who thinks that a written discourse on any subject can only be a great amusement, that no discourse worth serious attention has ever been written in verse or prose, and that those that are recited in public without questioning and explanation, in the matter of the poets, are given only in order to produce conviction. He believes that at their very best these can only serve as reminders to those who already know.
And he also thinks that only what is said for the sake of understanding and learning, what is truly written in the soul concerning what is just, noble, and good can be clear, perfect, and worth serious attention: Such discourses he may have discovered already within himself and then its sons and brothers who may have grown naturally in other souls insofar as these are worthy; to the rest he turns his back. Such a man, Phaedrus, would be just what you and I both would pray to become.” 4
Plato’s Problem with Preserved Performance
What is Plato arguing in this passage? It is very odd that a literary genius writing one of the greatest books, Phaedrus, would attack books in his book.
There is a silly opinion about Plato among artists, poets, and communicators that he didn’t like art, poetry, and communication.5 Plato worried about preserved discourse but went ahead creating it. He warned about the abuse of texts while creating them. One way he guarded against the dangers of static discourse was to write in the dialogue format. By building his conversations around conversations, Plato intentionally invited the reader to challenge his opinions. He tried to invite the reader into an active conversation with himself by paradoxes and puzzles.
Something more subtle than a rejection of preserved text is at play in Phaedrus. Plato is attacking written communication to argue that something is being lost when you preserve a performance.
First, preserved performance is static. It cannot change to suit the needs of the audience.
As a member of the audience, my interaction with a theater performance can change the play. A “hot audience” makes a play better, and a “cold audience” can do the reverse. Different responses draw attention to different aspects of the play often unseen by cast and crew.
Any actor knows this is the case. I once performed in a play held during a blizzard. Almost nobody showed up, and all the energy was drained from the cast or at least from me. It was the hardest performance of my life since getting three people to laugh is basically impossible, and when they do, solitary laughter in a great space is hard to tell from mockery.
Community is formed between actor and audience in live theater, music, or any other artistic performance. The audience is part of the event.
On the other hand, if I go to a film, whatever my response, the film just keeps rolling. I might be able to impact the viewing pleasure of fellow audience members but not the performers. Recently my wife and I had the misfortune of seeing a film in a theater full of junior high students. They ruined our evening, but they did not change the film. The actors and the production were not impacted by them. This is an important difference between the community formed between actor and audience in theater and the more distant relationship between film actor and filmgoer.
The community of audience and performers in a live performance is something that should not be missed, but our culture is making it ever easier to miss it. Music, for example, is now rarely experienced live, and this cheats us out of a deep musical experience that cannot be duplicated with even a perfect sound system.
When I married my classically trained musician wife, I thought the invention of the compact disc utterly exciting. With proper investment in a sound system, we could experience a performance of any composer—say, Bach—better than that heard in all but the finest concert halls. In my ignorance, musical paradise would dawn: the disc would never wear out, and we could purchase a “perfect” performance and repeat it whenever we wanted. Someday computers would execute the score perfectly, obviating the need for human musicians entirely.
It did not take long for my wife to demonstrate my folly. There is no such thing as a perfect performance of Bach. A score is not like a set of program instructions to be executed by the mechanical musician but a guide to be interpreted by the artist. One does not have to fall into postmodernism to say that authorial intent is not all there is inside a performance.
Most importantly, any canned music misses the interaction of the audience and performers. The response of the audience is not a distraction from hearing the music but is part of the concert. While a rude audience may ruin a concert by coughing or a ringing cell phone, a lively and well-informed audience helps create a unique experience for everyone in attendance.
Plato could point to a more serious problem: the fixity of the music is unfair to the musician. The musician cannot change the tone or color of the music to make it appropriate to her audience. The musician might wish to make her music fit my mood, but she cannot if it is recorded. Her interpretation of a piece might be cheerful when my mood is morose, but the musician cannot minister to my needs because she is caught in one musical mood eternally.
Even more potentially deadly to society is the fact that once fixed it is difficult for the author or artist to monitor the distribution of a performance (including books). This problem must be separated from any issues of government censorship. Whatever the means used to prevent it, most people understand that it is bad news when some people can access certain information.
A preserved performance is passive and waiting to be misused. The author can do little to prevent such a misuse.
Live discourse can be modified for the audience. An adult can change the topic when he sees a child walking into the room. A teacher can leave out key material in a lecture if she suspects that it might be misused by a student in the class. Meanwhile, the manual sits waiting for the terrorist to find information on weapons of mass destruction, and inappropriate entertainment waits for children to find it. There is no way for a book to monitor who picks it up.
A preserved text or performance simply cannot defend itself from misinterpretation or from vandalism. A lunatic attacked Michelangelo’s stunning statue, David, in 1991 and chipped off part of a toe on the left foot. Michelangelo preserved his beautiful vision in a statue and placed it in public. With the glorious good came the opportunity for a great crime against art to be perpetrated by a madman.
Public displays of beauty allow for public profanation. The simple lunatic can become a blasphemer against art and beauty. Even worse is the simpleton who misunderstands the message of the preserved art, so powerful that it commands his attention. In this way, the beauty of the Bible can motivate horrific behavior when the simple-minded misunderstand its message. The powerful work of the artist goes out so that those who have ears to hear can blaspheme the message ignorantly and inappropriately.
Books Can Be Good: The Benefits of Preserved Discourse
I am writing a book chapter about the dangers of writing a book chapter. Obviously I think the risk is worthwhile. The vast benefits of preserved discourse to society far outweigh the liabilities. This is why, despite the problems, nobody is going to quit painting, writing poetry, publishing scientific articles, or sculpting.
The very permanence of preserved discourse allows an argument or community to build knowledge over time. Science would be impossible without preserved speech. Each generation can build on the discoveries of the last. This is also true in theology and art. Old heresies need not be fought in every generation if one attends to the old, preserved arguments. Beauty from one generation can grace the lives of succeeding generations.
Preservation allows original arguments to be extended. There is no need to begin each conversation at the very beginning, though one can if it is helpful. Preservation allows the teacher or student to begin where he or she wishes to begin.
The ability to preserve ideas and art allows a community to create amazing works that are greater (potentially) than the sum of their parts. A film is not just one preserved act of creation but the accumulated contributions of many people. Any Hollywood movie must accumulate small preserved actions in order to create the greater whole. A newspaper is another example of preserved work composed of many smaller parts. The whole paper can be greater than the sum of its parts.
In fact, in the light of these terrific benefits, it is easy to forget the limitations of reserved media. Preserved discourse tempts humankind to avoid community and become isolated from other living humans. The pasty pale academic with no social skills is an obvious example of this problem. Many of my students shun concerts and live in a world defined by the space between their iPod ear buds.
The Printing Press Tipped the Scale: The Implications of the Triumph of Preserved Media
For most of Western history, there was a place for both preserved and live encounters with ideas. Most music was heard live, and a lecture was a cheaper way to mass distribute ideas than costly hand-copied books. Isolation necessitated cultural ignorance.
Gutenberg changed all of that. The ability to produce books cheaply tipped the scale in favor of preserved media. Each technological advance, up to the creation of the personal computer, seemed to exacerbate this imbalance.
While the “new” technology allowed for cheaper end products (books and eventually records), producing and especially distributing them were still fairly expensive. Production and distribution came to be concentrated in the hands of a relatively small number of people. Access to certain ideas was much easier (a good thing), but the decision of which ideas or works of art would be preserved or distributed was in the hands of a few.
When books were hand-copied, anybody could produce a book if they had the time. There were fewer books, but there was bias toward copying only the best works. The slow distribution of books allowed for regional cultures to survive and even thrive. Folk ideas could survive in such a society. A local monastery with one copy of a regional book was not flooded by “imported” books.
When books were reproduced on expensive printing presses, there was a tendency toward uniformity. People could own more books, but they tended to be the same books as everyone else in their language group. Ancient libraries would often contain eccentric tomes (even the sole copies of an entire work), but the modern educated person’s collection soon became much like his neighbor’s.
There was a slow rise in power of the national over the local. This had many positive benefits, as anyone who has ever grown up in an inbred community knows, but something was lost as well. The regional or local can often serve as a breeding ground for new ideas. It can also serve as a conservative redoubt against a national madness such as fascism. Only a Germany where strong regional and local ties had been severely compromised could fall prey to a lunatic idea such as National Socialism.
In Christendom the authority of the university or seminary became dominant over the experiences of the local teacher or parish priest. The Grimm brothers gathered folk tales and preserved them for the future, but the very publication of their work tended to standardize the tales. In the age of Disney, there is no use asking what the children’s tales of West Virginia are because they are the same as those of Los Angeles or New York City.
Slowly there developed an aristocracy of information and performance that began to stamp out competition. The local community theater could not compete with Hollywood. Even national filmmaking could not compete with the massive power of talent concentrated in Los Angeles making expensive films. The local paper could not easily compete with the national news service. Small regional colleges struggled to compete with giant state universities.
Homogeneity in speech and acceptable opinions resulted. Even regional accents could not survive the advent of television and movies, which tended to standardize speech patterns. Powerful media figures could marginalize or promote figures. Billy Graham could be puffed by William Hearst, developing an international ministry partially at the expense of regional ministries.
The dominance of preserved discourse eventually led to mass “orthodoxies.” It was hard for small movements to compete with the power of those who had means to dominate a region with their preferred preserved discourse. Since power tended to be concentrated at national levels, bizarre and dangerous ideologies (such as Stalinism) could thrive by monopolizing the means of distribution of preserved discourse. A region could be neighbors with utterly different ideologies with little fear of “contamination” from the other ideas.
Even in Western nations that valued liberty and multiple opinions, expense in the production and distribution of preserved dialogue limited discourse. Options were criminally few in Stalin’s Russia but, while crucially better, were still not broad by new media standards in Franklin Roosevelt’s America. Fortunately, both World War II and the Cold War marked the triumph of more liberal societies over the possibility of an entire Western World held in thrall to one cruel ideology, whether fascism or communism.
Where there was a consensus about knowledge, stunning good and little harm was done by this situation. In engineering and the sciences, the vast wealth of the twentieth century was unlocked through the standardization and regularization of scientific methods and language.
It was also easy to develop a canon of “greats” in the arts and literature that did much to raise the tone of society. Shakespeare, the Book of Common Prayer, and the King James Bible could be read universally in the English-speaking world. This helped create a common cultural and linguistic framework that unified people groups in the Anglo-sphere.
There was remarkable growth in those areas best served by “preserved discourse” (science, “high” arts), but at a cost to those areas that need some “live” discourse such as the humanities. Folk art finds it difficult to flourish when it is forced into immediate competition with the establishment.
Christians Need Live and Preserved Performance
Christians do not choose between live and preserved discourse. One is not good and the other bad. Folk religions might denigrate the religion of books, but Christians do not. Some modern hedonists might want to cocoon away from the culture, but no Christians can and be true to the Faith.
Christians are inherently part of a community of believers, the gathering of his visible body on earth. This living body of Christ cannot be preserved in stone or writing but must be experienced in his church. If some Christians are called to a hermitage, they are the exception to emphasize the rule. As Hebrews 10:24–25 commands: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
The importance of living experience does not mean that Christians are hostile to preserved discourse. After all, Christians are also people of the Book, the Creeds, and centuries of literature, art, and music. Christians live together in a community informed by the preserved goodness, truth, and beauty of the past or other communities.
Because of this balance, Christian orthodoxy cannot survive without both the life of the Spirit and the Word. An overemphasis on texts and dogmas made possible by the rise of “old media” allowed the easy spread of “orthodox” teachings (at first a seeming advantage) but also made difficult any authentic community life within those teachings.
By and large, those parts of the church based on personal experience began to suffer while “preserved” things prospered.
Even the so-called individualism of the modern church is not. Tales of conversion are published and religious experiences compared. This tempts churches and individuals to aspire to a standardized “personal” relationship with Jesus Christ. The advent of mass-marketed Christian books and other preserved media limited diversity.
Christian commitments to both “live” and “preserved” culture made it hard for the church to thrive in a culture that came to be overwhelmingly centered in “preserved” discourse. People spent far more time in front of their televisions or other forms of preserved discourse than in interacting with other humans. They did not just forsake the assembling of the brethren but nearly every other assembly.
Implications as Live, or Almost Live, Discourse Is Revived
New media will rectify this old imbalance. They will empower live, or almost live, discourse. Why? New media put a premium on the reaction and creation of content and not just consumption. Due to the ease of production, they allow and even encourage conversations and not just presentations. This might seem counterintuitive since much of the media appear on screens, like much of the old media, but the ease of creating one’s own content allows for immediate reaction to anything printed on the Internet.
As a result, new media encourage “conversations,” whether on blogs or Facebook pages. If I like your web page, game, or blog, then I can recommend it quickly on my web page or blog. If I disagree with what you say, write, or produce, then I can review it quickly. After attending a local play, I am able to write a review that night that will be read by hundreds the following week. Someone who disagrees with my criticism of the play could respond just as easily. The comment sections of many blogs allow this to be done right on the original site.
These virtual conversations can lead to real conversations. People have bodies, and their physicality is an important part of who they are. As a result, the best and truest conversations will always be face-to-face. This book (an old media presentation on new media!) is the result of a group of new media writers (bloggers) who started meeting at a Godblog Convention for the past three years. These “live” meetings were invaluable, and we decided to preserve some of our conversations.
The reason for not merely preserving our thoughts in the new media (our blogs, podcasts, videos) points to the difference between old and new media. New media are vast and tend to be ephemeral. It is easy to create content, but the very ease weakens the demand for high quality, at least at this stage of the development of new media.
Books are, for the moment, more “serious” ventures. More time is spent on them since (unlike most new media) consumers will pay for the contents. As a result, there was still a role for “old media” in discussing the impact and future of “new media.”
This book has probably already stimulated questions and disagreements in the minds of the reader. He may have underlined or written passionate marginalia disagreeing or agreeing with some points we are making. This marks a limitation to old media. If this book were online, the marginalia could be read by everyone who reads the main content. The reader could immediately ask the authors questions.
Unlike old media which were passive and required great effort to start a conversation, new media are preserved discourse that invite further conversation. In this way they are “preserved” discourse more like a Platonic dialogue than an Aristotelian thesis. Plato wrote in dialogues to provoke further dialogue. Aristotle wrote in arguments to transmit what he thought was knowledge to students. Since every web browser contains the ability to blog about any item viewed on the Web, Internet-based digital media in particular carry a Platonic invitation to challenge on every screen.
It is so easy to respond to the new media, to create, to modify, and to transform, that passivity is discouraged.
A good example is the web log or blog. Blogging is permanent but only to a point. The best blogs are sometimes worth keeping, but only if one kept the best of all the other blogs to which they respond. A blog is a living book.
New technology soon will allow for living film, art, and music. If a viewer does not like the ending of a new media “movie,” he will be able to change it and post his new edit as a competitor. This discourse was impossible in the old theater system.
Particularly in the humanities and the arts, the new media will revolutionize those disciplines. They will be able to escape their science envy, the endless production of useless journal articles, in order to create human things.
Other areas that have flourished through the old media will not be harmed by the changes. They will continue to utilize the more hierarchical structures of old media appropriate to them. This includes fields such as the hard sciences and formal theology. These disciplines will be improved by new media by being exposed to lay criticism that can prevent “group think” from developing.
We can anticipate a decrease in respect for arguments based solely on positions of cultural authority but a simultaneous premium on trustworthy information sources. A professor can be criticized by a learned amateur and cannot escape that scrutiny by hiding behind his credentials in the new media world. People are going to be able to evaluate arguments by direct comparison. On the other hand, if the professor knows her stuff, she will soon be able to demonstrate it and has nothing to fear from comparison. Once she becomes a trusted information source, she will be a powerful player in the new media revolution.
Individuals will be their own brand instead of merely living off the reputations of the institutions that may pay their salaries.
The New Media Represent a Neo-Platonic Revolution
What will be the result of this revolution on education? We can anticipate educators shifting even more quickly from providing information (now easily available to anyone who wants it) to facilitating human development.
The kind of education that Plato encourages in his dialogues will flourish in this environment. Asking good questions will be paramount in the age of ever more sophisticated search engines. Learning to flourish as a human being will still require a teacher meeting with students. Humans have skin on and so will always learn how to be good humans best from other humans “live.”
While there will always be an elite (at the very least based on intelligence), the new media do present opportunities for the rest of us to share some of their power. At least for the immediate future, many more people have access to means of global communication than ever before in history. As long as liberty prevails, a chance for more entrepreneurial activity in information distribution will exist.
The changing technology will also create new elites. This is true because some old institutions (such as universities) will not adapt quickly enough to the new way of doing things. Any institution that depends on a monopoly of information is doomed.
The new media will give power to people who lead with their whole souls within a community context. There will be no way to assert authority that is not historic or earned by excellence. The leader will have to be a servant of the servants of God. Churches and other institutions with power will not be able to bury or hide problems.
These are changing times, and it is sometimes fearful to live in such times. Fortunately, the church and Christendom survived many changes in the past. We have plenty of role models for courageously dealing with massive culture shifts.
The great Florentine poet Dante lived in times of even greater cultural change. Italy, the Empire, and the church were changing rapidly due to new ideas. Dante is a worthy guide to adapting the ancient message of the gospel to new times without trivializing it. He was part of a communication shift greater than that from old media to new as Dante wrote in Italian instead of the traditional Latin of the educated class. His use of vulgar language was never vulgar but united the vulgar and the aristocrat in admiration for his Comedy.
Dante demonstrated the power of Christendom to integrate ideas. His masterwork explored science, theology, philosophy, and poetry and was great art. He put it all together for his readers, bewildered by changing times.
Christianity retains the ability to unite the disparate elements of human culture. In a world where information overload may threaten to drown coherence in a sea of detail, the continued ability to integrate all parts of life into a worthy vessel will attract many to Christendom.
The good news is that for any group, propaganda will be harder to foist off on readers or viewers. Most people will have easy access to information from all points of view. Ideologies that depend on narrow outlooks and protection from dissent will wither. There will be an opportunity for open systems that can integrate without tyrannizing over the human mind.
Traditional Christianity is well suited for such a climate.
In the new media future it will be far harder to box off religion (or irreligion!) from the rest of life. Critics will be impossible to ignore, and any topic will be fair game. This can only strengthen the church. Basic understanding of apologetics will no longer be for a few but necessary for all Christians. If a group is willing to be modest about its claims and can defend the claims it makes, this will be a great environment for it.
More fringe groups like the Mormons will be able to survive only if they adopt defensible doctrinal positions. While new media make it possible for ideologically plausible groups to survive, even as tiny minorities, they make it harder for ideologically sketchy groups to flourish. Small religious groups will be able to publish but not to hide from scorching criticism.
The new technology also will revive the lure of the small town so loved by Burke and Tolkien.6 The new media will allow small communities to be as in touch with the “great cultural conversation” as big cities. They will be able to compete more easily with those great centers as the cost of the creation and distribution of ideas continues to plummet.
Because traditional Christians must by nature embrace living and orthodox faith, they are uniquely placed to benefit from both live and preserved performances.
What Should Be Done?
It might seem obvious, but the religion of the Incarnation cannot stop at blogging. God is not our “Facebook” friend. He is a person, and he has chosen in his sovereignty to reach out to humankind. For all the benefits of new media, we are not yet in paradise. With great good will come great evil. Old institutions will be shaken, and much that has been taken for granted for hundreds of years will change. How should the Christian react?
“Be not afraid!” John Paul the Great would say.
Too much Christian discussion about the new media concentrates on what is wrong with them. It is true that new media have allowed bad ideas to find an audience and easier access to terrible things. Such a concentration on evil runs the risk of missing what the Holy Spirit is doing in new media. Charles Williams warns that fixating on the Devil’s work often leads to acting like devils. Liberty is truth’s best friend, while attempting to protect the truth out of fear often does more harm than good.
Christians should err on the side of liberty and embrace dialogue. Closed communities, such as Christian universities with strong statements of faith, allow for a home base where ideas can be safely generated, but Christians must move outside of those groups to broader communities. The new media provide an excellent opportunity to do so. I have been able to watch the reaction to my apologetic arguments on hostile web sites and tune them to make them more effective. I have had errors corrected and have learned from loving my ideological enemies enough to listen to them.
Christendom needs preserved discourse within a living community.
For the Christian, our motive must always be based in love. Love can be hinted at in books and art but can only be experienced between living beings. The best of Christian new media, like the best of old media, will move men to their own quest for God, powered by a love that drives us beyond words to a Word so true, beautiful, and good that it can only be lived and not spoken.
High phantasy lost power and here broke off
Yet, as a wheel moves smoothly, free from jars,
My will and my desire were turned by love,
The love that moves the sun and the other stars. - Paradise, XXXIII, 42.