Friday, July 01, 2011

Book Review: The Next Story: Life and Faith After the Digital Explosion by Tim Challies

With the pervasiveness and ever-expanding nature of digital technology, it’s hard to know what to DO with it all. Even just at a basic level, there is just SO MUCH out there, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the tide of new phones, apps, blogs, “time-saving” devices, extra features, and gadgets. And it’s even trickier to figure out how to view it all through the lens of Christianity. Challies attempts to evaluate technology and its impact on our lives, sort through the good and bad aspects of it, and offer guidance regarding how to use it wisely. And he tries to do so from a biblical worldview.

In some ways I appreciated this book, and in other ways it annoyed me. I appreciated his chapter on distraction and how our digital technologies tend to constantly be pulling our attention from one thing to the next. He argues (and my personal experience and that of friends would agree) that because we have now trained our brains to be constantly moving from thing to thing to thing, it actually makes us less able to focus on ONE thing at a time, leaving us in a constant state of hyperactivity. We think we’re “multi-tasking,” but we’re not, we’re just doing a many things half-heartedly and disjointedly. Phones beeping, Skype calling, music playing, Facebook open, Email coming in, and writing a paper. We try to do it all at once, and we just fail to do much of it well. And when we try to do just one thing, our brains are whirling thinking about the other 7 things we have intentionally stopped doing in order to focus on one activity. I appreciated this, as well as his suggestions about how to “un”learn these habits.    
I also appreciated the chapter on how digital technology has provided an excess of information that is simply available and “out there”. In some ways this is great and helpful and useful, but he argues that this also has tended to make people value mere information instead of application/understanding/wisdom. We don’t actually need to truly use our brains and memories, because with a simple Google search we can find anything we want to “know.” We have come to think that simply knowing lots and lots of little tidbits is valuable in and of itself, and we are increasingly becoming mile-wide and inch-deep thinkers. It is definitely a challenge to think critically, have your own opinion, and think deeply about a subject when you feel like you need to be keeping up with 20 blogs, 4 news sites, and are skimming while moving from item to item.

However, I didn’t think he did a good job of giving a Biblical explanation for what he was saying, both overall and in specific chapters, and the theological points he used to underlie his arguments didn’t really make sense. And while he stated that he wanted to give a balanced view, it often came across as wholly negative towards technology, not least of all because he started the book with the illustration of a nuclear bomb and used that as his parallel to how digital technology has exploded into our world. Not really so much thinking that a nuclear bomb illustration offers a positive side.

My other issue was that because I was listening to an audiobook, I didn’t know whether he was citing anything or just stating conclusions he thought up. For instance, he said that as we grow up looking at screens more and more instead of print/books, our brains actually change physiologically. And maybe he cited something, but I just can’t imagine how that has been proven at this point in time. These kinds of statements made me wonder from where they were coming, of if he was just making them up (but again, I didn't have the actual book to see whether and what he was citing).

I also didn’t care for his chapter on “mediation”, which he defines as anything that stand between. For example, a screen is between a creator and receiver of information/images/sounds, a phone is between two callers, etc. While I agree that it is generally better to be face-to-face for communication, and I see that in many ways we are increasingly using less personal means of communicating (I mean, come on, people break up with one another via text message!), I just thought he took the argument too far, and his rationale didn’t make sense. Mediation isn’t all bad. Yes in some ways it hinders our communication, but it also ENABLES a lot of communication that we previously would have been unable to have, and this is a good thing. As a missionary, I can tell you I am VERY thankful for Skype and email. He didn’t balance out his argument with the good stuff, he just made it seem as if all “mediation” is bad. So it goes.

On the whole I thought the book was ok. After I sorted through the parts that bothered me, I was able to take away a number of helpful points and applications. And certainly there aren’t a bajillion books out there on the topic, so it was useful to think in a focused way about digital technology from a Biblical worldview. So, I would say it’s worth reading, but (as with anything) don’t swallow it whole and thoughtlessly. 

1 comment:

MemeGRL said...

I can't give you a citation either but I know the program coordinator for the Digital Media Design program was telling me the same thing--research showed that "screen time" actually does change the brain and that "kids" in their 20s actually have different visual perception than those, say, over 40--and this was 8 years ago. So I'm not much help but I know it was a...not problem, but aspect of DMD that the program was considering.