For over a decade I have taught an introductory course on Media Ecology at Grove City College, and I have written two little books about worship that are profoundly informed by Media Ecology. To write on this topic interests me in a number of ways, not the least of which is the interesting lexical issue: that at the root of the word “ecology” is the Greek word oikos, ordinarily translated “house” or “household.” As someone who also teaches Greek, what could be more fun than to discuss, as it were, “media household-understanding for the household”? I will attempt, after a few introductory comments about the discipline called Media Ecology, to describe the most significant characteristics of electronic and digital technologies that would rightly concern the Christian community, and then suggest a few family practices that might appropriately address those concerns.
As a discipline, Media Ecology is neither prescriptive (“You shall…”) nor proscriptive (“You shall not…”), but rather descriptive. In its modern expression, the discipline was virtually founded by Marshall McLuhan, whose most significant work was even titled Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. (1) Media ecologists attempt to understand how media shape individuals and cultures, as McLuhan himself said:
Today, in the electronic age of instant communication, I believe that our survival, and at the very least our comfort and happiness, is predicated on understanding the nature of our new environment, because unlike previous environmental changes, the electric media constitute a total and near-instantaneous transformation of culture, values, and attitudes. (2)
Note that McLuhan is referring here to the electronic, pre-digital world of radio, movies, television, and telephone'”our new environment.” This is why Media Ecology is called Media Ecology. We attempt to understand how shifts in media alter the human environment, as Neil Postman said:
In any case…a change in an environment is rarely only additive or linear. You seldom, if ever, have an old environment plus a new element, such as a printing press or an electric plug. What you have is a totally new environment requiring a whole new repertoire of survival strategies. In no case is this more certain than when the new elements are technological. (3)
I emphasize this descriptive and environmental nature of Media Ecology, because it permits me to disappoint the reader while explaining why I do so. Our discipline is not prescriptive or proscriptive; it does not consist of a moral evaluation of human media (e.g., speaking orally is good; writing a handwritten letter is evil). We evaluate human media environmentally, by understanding how different media alter individual consciousness and neurology, and how they alter cultural patterns and structures. Parents, especially, want us to give them the equivalent of the Ten Commandments of Media (e.g., “You shall not watch television…You shall honor your iPad and your iPhone”), and parents are frustrated when we do not do this (though I will attempt a little counsel later).
It is evident that our various electronic and digital media have helped and do help us in many ways. I work with a digital Greek New Testament nearly every day of the year, and it permits me to conduct remarkable grammatical and lexical searches. But since the relevant industries bombard us with commercial messages touting their benefits, I will not bore the readers by enumerating them all here, for the sake of alleged fairness. Rather, I would like to summarize, as briefly as possible, three of the areas where media ecologists have registered concern, especially pertaining to young people: dis-incarnation, distraction, and the “adolescent ghetto.”
Electronic technologies, such as the telephone, began a process of “dis-incarnate” communication that the digital technologies have only exacerbated. In oral cultures, for instance, every communicative act has a human who is visibly present; all communication is face-to-face. Writing cultures move a step away from this, but only partly. A handwritten letter still has some “personality’ in it, in the sense that some individuals can at least recognize the handwriting of others. Note, however, that the handwritten letter makes no noise; the author of the handwritten letter is obviously absent. But with a phone call, what the recipient encounters is not the entire person but an aspect of the person’the person’s voice (though with some signal-to-noise ratio issues). So, is the individual who phones another “present” or “absent,” and how do these technologies redefine what “presence” and “absence” mean? When we Skype, we see a video of the person and hear the person’s voice (each, again, with some distortion), but are we really “present” with the individual? Note the interesting dynamic with committee conference calls, as the moderator asks at some point if everyone is “present.” No one really knows what to say, because, by one definition, nobody is present; but, by another definition, everyone in the group is present.
Ken Myers, host and producer of the Mars Hill Audio series, has frequently cautioned Christians about breezily dismissing incarnation as though it were nothing, suggesting that to diminish our own incarnation (our own presence in the flesh) necessarily leads to diminishing Christ’s incarnation. What if, for instance, in God’s economy, the Father could have done for Christ what Abraham did for Isaac? What if the Father’seeing his eternal Son’s willingness to incarnate, suffer, and die’counted that as good enough, willing to forgive sinners on that score; and what if he then sent some angel (or Balaam’s ass) to tell us that our sins were forgiven? Would this be the same religion, or even close to it? No bloody tears in Gethsemane? No crown of thorns? No “rich wounds, yet visible above, in beauty glorified”?
Recognizing the physical presence of another is to join God, who made us as material beings, in seeing that it was “very good” to have done so. In other words, those acts of courtesy by which we acknowledge the physical presence of another human are also acts of piety, whereby we acknowledge God’s wisdom in making us this way. My elderly grandfather always stood when a woman entered the room, even if he had to lean on his cane to get up. His rising to his feet, albeit shakily, was his way of saying: “Why look here; it’s the image of God, and in this case, Adam’s great complement, without whom creation was ‘not good.'” Digital technologies can so distract us that we do not even notice the bodily presence of others, because our attention is diverted to those who are absent.
Digital technologies appear to be similar to the electronic technologies that preceded them. After all, is a cell phone really very different from a telephone? Are YouTube videos on a smartphone or iPad really different from television? Well, yes; they are different in some ways, especially because of their portability. Many, if not most, of the digital devices have alarms and alert messages, notifying the user of incoming texts, e-mails, voicemails, tweets, and so on.
Neurologists and media ecologists, however, are wondering about the result of frequent distraction. (4) Neurologists are aware of what some call “neurogenesis” or “neuroplasticity,” the brain’s tendency to rewire itself. As the brain handles the many stimuli brought to it by the senses, new synaptic pathways develop in the effort to process the information. Because of this, an fMRI (functional MRI) of one’s brain would not be identical from one year to the next (or, actually, sooner).
Neurologists also observe that humans are capable of “executive attention,” which is different from “alarming/alerting” attention. This executive attention is what enables us to ask and answer difficult or complex questions. A brain that is frequently distracted gets better at being alarmed and worse at concentrating; frequent distraction erodes executive attention. And since attention is important to intellectual and social development, parents should be rightly concerned about their children’s attention patterns (and their own). Their concern should not be merely for the content of what their children attend (violence or profanity), but how frequently their minds flit from one thing to another, even if it’s a Christian video or another believer tweeting or e-mailing Christian encouragement. Television programming interrupts itself every five minutes for several commercial messages; this also contributes to the decline of attentiveness (and eighteen minutes of every hour of commercial television consists of the commercials).
As the Internet pertains to young people, I refer to it as “The World Narrow Web.” Not only are Google’s algorithms tailored to each individual user, various social software have created a universe for adolescents that is, effectively, adult free. Children rarely overhear an adult conversation, because they are so frequently podded up or lost in their iPad or smartphone’devices that connect them to one another while distancing them from adults (whom they will one day be). Emory University’s Mark Bauerlein puts it this way:
A different social life and a different mental life have formed among them. Technology has bred it….Instead of opening young American minds to the stores of civilization and science and politics, technology has contracted their horizon to themselves, to the social scene around them. Young people have never been so intensely mindful of and present to one another, so enabled in adolescent contact. Teen images and songs, hot gossip and games, and youth-to-youth communications no longer limited by time or space wrap them up in a generational cocoon. (5)
Professor Bauerlein is not alone. Dr. Christian Smith, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at Notre Dame, has observed the same disturbing pattern:
Most emerging adults live this crucial decade of their life surrounded mostly by their peers’people who have no more experience, insight, wisdom, perspective, or balance than they do. It is sociologically a very odd way to help young people come of age, to learn how to be responsible, capable, mature adults. (6)
While it has always been important that parents devote time to their children, it is even more important now than ever, because the digital technologies tend to connect young people to other young people and not to adults. Parents would be well advised to begin positive, intentional family activities at an early age as a way of establishing habits and patterns that will remain beneficial to their children as they get older.
In addition to all of the obvious benefits of the digital technologies, they have (at least) these three destructive tendencies: they dis-incarnate; they distract; and they segregate adolescents from adults. The best solutions are positive: to implement family practices and habits that resist these tendencies. For instance, families could consider having times together (several times weekly perhaps) for some activity (watching a movie, reading a book, hiking, and so forth) in which no digital technologies were permitted to interrupt. Similarly, they could (I am tempted to say “should”) banish all digital technologies from family meals. Basic cell phone/texting courtesy could also be observed in the home: no speaking on any phone to anyone absent while others are materially present; ask permission to excuse yourself, and then answer the call (if necessary) in another room (or wait and answer it later).
I would suggest also that texting in the presence of others should be regarded as rude, unless those present suggest/request it: “Susan isn’t here yet. Text her and see if she plans to join us.” Such measures would train young people in the habit of noticing those who are materially present’materially present because God made them that way. Also, by not permitting digital distraction during these times, young people would develop an increasing (rather than decreasing) capacity for sustained attention. Similarly, by having family activities at an early age, young people would regard it as normal to socialize with parents and siblings, and not merely their own group of peers/friends, and would thus have more ability to resist the adolescent ghetto later. Any activities that would encourage intergenerational communication, and any activities that would enhance the powers of attention, should be encouraged. If an eleven-year-old son learns to play chess with a parent and enjoys doing so twice weekly, this will help him resist the attention-destroying siren song of video games. Playing puzzles or word games would also develop powers of concentration and recognition of the presence of others.
Any family that is concerned about dis-incarnation, distraction, or ghetto-ized adolescents could easily think of ways to establish positive alternative habits to those of our digitized culture. In this sense, nothing is new. Christians have always been called to resist conformity to this age (Rom. 12:2); it is just that “this age” in our age is digital.