Monday, February 14, 2011

A review of ‘Flickering Pixels: how technology shapes your faith’

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science.

I continue to be highly interested in the relations that have come to exist between religions and modern technology(ies). I thus bought this recent (2009) book on Amazon purely on the basis of its promising subtitle. Without getting ahead of myself, let me just say that I didn’t get my money’s worth.
The author of this little book (less than 200 pages, small size) is Shane Hipps, described on the back-cover as “the lead pastor of Trinity Mennonite Church… [whose] previous career in advertising helped him gain expertise in understanding media and culture.” Throughout the book, and with a very personal style, Hipps tells us that he has a right-hemisphere-dominated brain, so that he thinks more holistically and in terms of images, rather than the preferred modern, linear, rational left-brain mode. This then explains why the books is a mosaic of “flickering pixels” of ideas, images, and stories which one finds difficult to merge into a coherent narrative or thesis. And one must recall that preachers (in all religions) love stories.

That left-vs.-right-hemisphere thinking in itself is an interesting issue. Because Hipps, while rarely directly addressing what should have been his topic (how technology shapes your faith), emphasizes an important development in the history of Christianity (and the book is solely concerned with Christians, past and present): the invention of the printing press. The author tells us that the of religious ideas through books, as opposed to the effect of icons and paintings in churches, lead to several important things: a) people reading the scriptures on their own and thus breaking free of the Pope’s hold – hence the Reformation; b) more elaborate and rational arguments to be made, even in sermons; c) a much reduced need to rely on one’s memory, thus changing one’s way of thinking (in general and regarding religious issues in particular).

One of the book’s recurring leitmotivs is that technologies have also had one common characteristic (and hence one common consequence): to try to extend our human capacities, physical and mental, often succeeding but sometimes with unintended consequences. One common effect that modern technologies have had is the acceleration of our lifestyle (transportation, communication, etc.), though unfortunately the author does not explore this important trend almost at all.

One idea that Hipps does dwell on is the fact that modern information (digital) technologies have made our communities “together apart” (the title of Chapter 10). He writes: “Electronic culture disembodies and separates us from those closest to us.” Further: “If oral culture is tribal and literate culture is individual, the electronic age is essentially a tribe of individuals.” Later he gets critical: “I find it troubling that so many communities of faith are in hot pursuit of these technologies. The Internet is seen as the Holy Grail of ‘building community’.” He adds: “We love the efficiency of our interactions; they allow us to be in touch more often. However, there is a big difference between being ‘in touch’ and truly connecting with others.”

Another interesting idea that the author highlights is his view of modern culture as being essentially “right-brainy”, for two main reasons: a) it is largely image-based, due to the dominance of television in the way we receive information; b) it is no longer linear, as the hyper-text structure of the web has superseded the book’s linear structure. And that, of course, changes our lives and our relations to the world, the latter being an essential dimension of religious life, particularly in Christianity.

Hipps then explores various ways that this new culture has affected our lives and relations. In particular, we seem to be losing our tendency to meet and to listen to one another, particularly when we disagree (it is so much easier to rebut someone by email than face-to-face). And of course, loving one’s neighbor, and being tolerant and forgiving, are essential components of one’s religious life. Secondly, the social structure seems to be changing, with teenagers having so much more information and many new skills that elders do not have, something that has never happened in history. Our author notes a paradox: childhood is fast disappearing, with youngsters knowing all “facts of life” so early nowadays, but adulthood is also disappearing, or at least adults are retreating while teenagers and young folks now exert more and more control in society.

Hipps concludes his book by stressing the need for us to realize that we do not have to be passive with regard to these developments; modern technologies seem to be directing us, but we certainly have much power to exert and much margin to maneuver.

To sum up, overall, the book did not satisfy my (left-sided) mind, though this review has helped me crystallize its ideas better than when I was trying to making sense of them while reading. There was, to my taste, too much preaching of the “let’s not let our love for one another be shaped by technology” kind, not to mention the fact that the book was clearly written for a Christian audience, with its constant referencing of the Bible and Jesus. There was no exploration of how theology (understanding of God) or religious practice (how often and how people now pray, for instance, or the nature of the weekly sermons, or the debates with atheists, or the science-religion discourse) have been affected by modern technologies.

For that I will have to look for another book…


Mohamed said...

A modern example of the way technology affects religion is the new iPhone app that helps Catholics to confess. Apparently the Church approves of it.

I'm interested to know how the internet and other information technology will affect Muslims. The ease of access to religious knowledge (including knowledge of other religions)might have the unintended consequence of making young Muslims question the "facts" of their faith more robustly. I wonder if modern technology will threaten the religious establishment, and how the establishment will react to that. Does the author discuss such issues in his book?

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Thanks, Mohamed.
Your points are relevant and valid, but unfortunately they were not raised by the author.
You may, however, refer to previous posts of mine where I mentioned some similar applications as the iConfess iPhone app ( as well as how the internet's new media tools are being used by Muslims, including the religious establishment (
There is, obviously, a lot more to say on these issues; we'll come back to them many times, I'm sure.

Larry Gilman said...

I admire your fortitude, reading an entire book apparently based on the (to me) utterly vapid "left-brain/right-brain" motif.

Issues about how religious texts are being communicated, how proselytizing is being altered, etc. are fascinating. Nor are they new, though we can now see them in a new way. Christians in the Roman Empire employed (and thus popularized) the codex book because it was so very _handy_; contemporary parallels are not hard to think of. But my particular fascination is with how attitudes about the _substance_ of religion -- usually unvoiced assumptions about self, soul, spirit, matter, God, prayer, meaning, revelation, etc. -- are being shifted by technology.

To really probe how information technologies may affect religion, we should examine the ways that print and, more recently, our immersion in mechanized forms of "information" have affected expectations about our relationship to the divine. Many conservative/fundamentalist/evangelical members of book-centered religions have, I think, latterly tended to conceive more and more of God as a message sender, various holy books as messages, and ourselves as message receivers, almost in Shannon channel terms. A sacred text tends to become an informatic object, a symbol string, a chunk of revelatory code. Revelation boils down to file transfer from God to the believer's brain. Muslims and Christians who believe in what conservative Christians sometimes call "verbal inspiration" -- i.e., God wrote the Book (whichever) word for word, using prophetic proxies, and this original character string has been conveyed to us without error -- seem to me to be trending toward an assumption that the Koran or Bible is _informatic_ in essence. I can't speak to earlier Islamic views, but the traditional Christian view of Christ as Logos (word) unified with a human being is almost opposite: this Word was not a _message_ but a Person, could not have been reduced to 1s and 0s even in principle, was not _stored_ in a human being or body. At least on the Christian side of things, one might examine if we have been shifting from Logos to bit, from incarnation to information. If so, how, to what extent, with what effects, etc.

More generally, is it possible that our current cultural assumptions about information, our preoccupation with its transfer, storage, and processing, are tending to deepen the plausibility of various mind/matter, God/world, spirit/body dualisms?

I've taken a few initial cracks at pondering these and related questions (as a blogger trained in communications engineering, not as a scholar):

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Thank you, Larry, for your comments, and for referring to your articles, which I will later read with great interest.

I read the book "Flickering Pixels" entirely because although one can more or less determine from the first few pages how rich a book is going to be, one can't declare a book void of any interesting ideas at all just because one may have identified a major flaw in it. Secondly, we may debate the merits/demerits of the right-brain/left-brain concept, but one can either refer to brain imaging techniques that tell us which parts of our brains are doing what when we think/pray/sleep/etc. or just take that concept as a metaphor/model...

Your idea of whether sacred books are "informatic" objects is very interesting; that is certainly largely the case for Muslims. I don't think modern technologies greatly affect such conceptual issues in Islam; I think they affect more the practices of the religion, but I do not dispute that technology is influencing religion(s) in very many ways...

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