I have been following Shane Hipps for the past year after I heard him speak at Q2008. Flickering Pixels is a thought provoking book that fluidly incorporates some key topics from his previous book The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture along with new material from presentations, podcasts, and short articles. Mr. Hipps has distilled the information from his past publications and presentations into a coherent story that makes the reader question the positive and negative effects of technology and media on our personal, social, and spiritual lives. Mr. Hipps’ unique career path, juxtaposing a previous career as an advertising executive with Porsche and a current career as a Mennonite Pastor, gives depth to the message in the book. Both careers spend a lot of time attempting to deliver messages that stick with us. Whether discussing a particular brand from a company or the gospel from the church, most people assume that as long as the integrity of the message is protected, the method of communicating doesn’t matter. Mr. Hipps builds on the message from Marshall McLuhan (The patron saint of Wired Magazine), “The medium is the message”. A quote from Mr. McLuhan bluntly states, “Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how that are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot. For the ‘content’ of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind”. The message and the methods are tightly coupled – you can’t change one without affecting the other.
This is an interesting statement from a person that lived before texting, Facebook, American Idol, and mega-churches, but it’s hard to imagine that we are as manipulated by the TV as by the content. The book supports and explains this position by highlighting historical examples. For example, consider the technology of printed text. Mankind originally lived in tribes where anything that was known, was collectively known by the tribe. Stories and history were told and retold in order to keep them alive. Once written text was invented, a single person could transfix thoughts in time and space and there was no longer a need for the tribe. Writing and reading are linear, logical activities that exercise the muscles in the left-hemisphere of the brain. As these muscles got stronger, Western civilization created new economic models, new government models, and new religious models. When civilization got too left-brain strong, they started deconstructing and reducing everything in the name of “efficiency”. The problem with a lopsided, left-brained approach to Christianity is that we tend to make formulas about how to be Christian – “apologize for your sins” + “Believe in Jesus” = “Go to Heaven”. Christianity became a highly individualized place where emotions, feelings, and experience had no place. The church became a million points of light. Dogma (what we believe) won out over ethics (how we behave).
From the fifteenth century to the early nineteenth century, no new communication technologies were created, so Western culture had 400 years mentally feeding strictly from printed text. If Printing had such a profound influence on Western thought over the past five centuries, how is the image-based internet society shaping us today? Since the invention of the photograph and the television our media has changed from primarily text based too primarily image based. Our strong left-brain muscles are atrophying and our right-brained muscles are getting most of the exercise. In many ways the mental-strength pendulum has swung to extreme right-brained. In this new image based society we vote for political candidates based on intuition and appearance rather than reason and analysis of policy positions. We are hostage to brands. We are stuck to the surface and want to be entertained instead of lead to a deeper understanding. Hipps says, “Internet text presents a nonlinear web of interconnected pages and a vast mosaic of hyperlinks with no fundamental beginning, middle, or end. We are immersed in a boundless, endless data space. These are the conditions specially suited to the right-brained.” As a result, our intellects are spread a mile wide and an inch deep. In the church, it is no surprise that we see a growing biblical illiteracy in the electronic age.
We should strive to have equal left and right brained approach to our Christian faith. For example, the left-brain is fed by the Pauline epistles and the right-brain is fed by the parables and examples of Christ. Your whole brain is necessary for a well-rounded faith. To get there, we need to have an understanding of the technologies and media that have and are currently shaping us.
Flickering Pixels explores many other ways that technology and media are shaping our psyche and approach to faith. How do virtual communities affect our ability to relate in real social settings? How does the imbuing of information affect our ability to develop wisdom? How does exposure to the entirety of planetary suffering affect our ability to extend compassion to those close to us? How do the benefits of getting close to those that are far from us, via Facebook and other social network sites, affect the closeness we exhibit to those nearest to us? How have parent-teen relationships changed and what are the implications given that parents are undocumented immigrants and teens are native citizens in the digital world? Mr. Hipps does an excellent job exploring these topics and more in Flickering Pixels.
It seems that mankind has this idea that we create and are the sole influencers on the world. We seldom slow down, take a look back and realize how our own creations are influencing us. Flickering Pixels is not a Luddite’s Handbook bashing technologies, rather it highlights the benefits and discusses the potential harm that can occur if the technology is overextended. I highly recommend reading this book, but if you are not that into books we can message each other about it on my blog or Facebook… lol… :).