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Shaped by the Screen

10 May Student Ministry, Technology | Comments Off on Shaped by the Screen
Shaped by the Screen

This past January I gave my students a quick poll to get a sense of how much “screen time” they got on an average day. I asked them to total up all of the time they spent  in front of some kind of screen (cell phone, laptop, tablet, desktop, television, projector, ATM, etc.) on an average day. To my surprise, the average was around 18 hours per day; that’s nearly every waking moment of their day, or to put it another way, that means over the next year, these students will spend 273 days in front of some kind of screen.

These students are increasingly being referred to as “digital natives”, anyone born after about 1980, who live naturally and easily in a predominately digital culture, in which technology has been seamlessly and effortlessly been integrated into their everyday lives. Picture the student whose cell phone isn’t just an accessory but an extension of their hand or the young adult who’s delegated their long term memory to Google’s search engine.

It’s a trend that’s only becoming more prevalent… Perhaps you’ve seen the teaser for the latest from Google, “Project Glass” a fully integrated Android interface for your glasses that will essentially blur the line between screen and reality.

We’re becoming digital people, and our technology is shaping us. It’s not all that different than the advent of the book as a piece of technology. In the same way that the invention of the printing press transformed us into a literate society valuing things like knowledge, rational thought, and sustained focus, the advent of the digital screen is shifting us toward becoming a post-literate society valuing image, impression, and multitasking above all else.

It’s not just what’s on the screen that matters; it’s the screen itself that’s shaping us.

Can You Here Me Now?

One trend that we all see in this digital shift is our increasing use of technology to stay connected to others. We use email, Skype, and Facebook to stay in touch with family and friends. We use eHarmony to find spouses and online games to recreate with people all around the world. As of 2012, if Facebook was a nation, it would rank as the third largest nation on earth with a staggering population of 901,000,000.

And while on one level, this trend highlights the innate human desire to connect and  our wiring for community, on another level, it’s also wiring us to be satisfied with something less than real. We don’t have a lack of communication options, but…

What all of these various digital connections have in common, however, is the screen.

The fact is that we’re living in an age when people are choosing to connect with each other through technology rather than face-to-face. In a strictly physical sense, I’m not interacting with you, I’m interacting with an interface, and in this sense, the screen has become a Mediator between you and me. It’s the go-between, bouncing one-way messages back and forth between us. It’s essentially our translator, and as we all know, it’s easy for things (or people) to get lost in the translation.

Cultural researchers refer to this trend as “Mediated Relationships” or “Mediated Communication.” It’s where a digital medium stands between the one who creates the message and the one who receives them. It can be a one-way street (like Oprah reaching out of the television screen into her audience’s living room) or a two-way street (as in a grandson showing grandma his latest drawing via Skype). In both scenarios, there’s a simulated intimacy that we experience in a very real way; we feel connected.

I recently listened to an interview with a plastic surgeon that said there has been an incredible rise in the number of chin implants in the past two years. The increased popularity was directly tied to the fact that people hated seeing their double-chins reflected back at them while using video conferencing services like Apple’s Facetime and Google’s Hangout. People don’t want ugly double-chins showing on their screens. It’s a bad image of who they want to be.

Why We Prefer the Screen

Here’s the thing: while we’d all say that we prefer face-to-face conversations and while we would all freely admit that connecting with someone online is a poor substitute to being with them in person, we still tend to prefer the screen time. Why? Here are a few thoughts…

1. Mediated communication is convenient.

For one thing, the digital technologies that enable communication are ubiquitous. I can stay connected with someone halfway around the world as easily as someone halfway down the hall. I can be notified instantaneously on my desktop, tablet, and cellphone, and respond with whichever seems easiest in the moment.

2. Mediated communication demands less of our focus and time.

We can be selective in how and when we respond. Instead of holding a sustained conversation with someone, I can bounce back and forth between a text message and whatever else I’m doing. I don’t have to interrupt what I’m doing to be fully present to you in this moment. I’ll get back to you in the order you were received.

3. Mediated communication gives us greater control.

In a mediated relationship, I can have the control. When’s the last time you were on the receiving end of a digital silent treatment? Had a conflict with someone and don’t want to deal with it? Because our communication is mediated, I can hold them safely at a distance and delay the inevitable confrontation. Or worse yet, from the comfort of my mediated bunker, I can drop a confrontation bomb via 144 characters and avoid having to be around to face the consequences.

Most of us wouldn’t come out and say that’s why we gravitate to the digital, but the temptation for misuse will always be there.

An Immediate God

Could you imagine if the disciples had iPhones? “One second, Jesus. Let me check-in here at Gethsemane.” “Oh, there was a blind guy? Sorry, I was trying to tweet a sweet pic of these loaves and fishes that I took with Instagram.” God help us all.

The beautiful thing about Jesus is that He is im-mediate. He is here; He is present; He is direct. Sometimes, even uncomfortably so. But the God of the universe chose to step down into our mess and become one with us. No barriers, no veils, no screens, just Immanuel – God with us, God in the flesh, God face-to-face.

“There is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus.” – 1 Timothy 2:15

It is that reality that speaks so well into our current reality. An immediate God for an increasingly mediated world.

So, now what?

It might seem somewhat odd to ask, “How can I be like Jesus on Facebook? How can I love like Jesus on Twitter?” But as Christ followers, we’re called to reflect His character and priorities in all aspects of our life.

I think this question will be one of the great debates of the digital generation, “How do we as the church live, love, and minister as Jesus in a digital world?” It’ll be an ongoing, evolving conversation, no doubt, but let me offer 5 quick ideas specific to combating the negative effects of mediated relationships.

  1. Be the same person you are online as you are in real life.
  2. There are some conversations you should only have face-to-face.
  3. If they will say it TO you, they will say it ABOUT you.
  4. Communicate as if your words are going to be published in the local newspaper.
  5. Sustained spiritual healthy can’t solely be based on “digital fasts”. It’s not enough to occasionally escape our digital worlds to get healthy, we need to learn how to live well in their midst.
Aaron Brown
Professor of Student Min at Lancaster Bible College
Aaron Brown is an Assistant Professor of Student Ministry at Lancaster Bible College in Lancaster, PA. He attended Biola University and Talbot School of Theology. Before coming to LBC, he was the Sr. High Director at Living Word Community Church in Red Lion, PA. Aaron serves as the Project's editor and web guy.