Ours is an age infatuated with information, addicted to information, and voraciously hungry for ever increasing doses of information. The promise of cyberspace, and particularly of the Internet, is that it will usher the much-vaunted information age into its own. More people can have greater access to more information more often. Data becomes transportable at hyper-velocities. The screen becomes the window of the soul, exposing a vast vista of previously unavailable or hard-to-find information. All we need to do is point, click, and take it in. In a just a few key strokes I can link up with thousands of databases, Web pages, and other information cornucopias.
Ignorance is often an impediment in a fallen world. When a lack of knowledge is the primary problem in a particular case, the dissemination of pertinent knowledge is a God-send. The earth has been a place of scarcity ever since it was cursed and fallen mortals were barred from Eden. Knowledge is a resource subject to scarcity as much as is food, water, gainful employment, intelligence, and housing. Ignorance may mean death, and knowledge may save lives
As communications media develop, knowledge becomes more widely available and certain aspects of scarcity are diminished, often with profound results–whether medical, political, or otherwise. Followers of Christ should feel the imperative to overcome ignorance more than anyone; for they know that people need to hear and accept the Gospel message if they are to find eternal life. The evangelistic imperative placed on the church by Christ demands the alleviation of spiritual ignorance. For this reason, Christians have been at the forefront of harnessing technologies for the spread of the Christian message–yet often without considering the hidden cost of the technologies they employ.
However, as Jacques Ellul has warned, the initial exuberance over a new technology often masks the problems that come to be known only later, oftentimes when it is too late to make important corrections. The positive effects may be immediate, otherwise there would be no market for the technology. The deleterious effects appear more subtly over time, and will be ignored or denied in the mass marketing of the technologies.
We should aim to be wise skeptics, who realize that something is wrong with everything in a fallen world, that things are rarely as good as they may initially seem, and that finite and fallen knowers can never accurately predict all the effects of a new mode of life. As Proverbs adjures us, “There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way to death” (Proverbs 14:12, NRSV).
When information is conveyed through cyberspace, the medium shapes the message, shapes the messenger, and shapes the receiver. It shapes the entire culture. To understand this shaping function, we need to distinguish between the propositional content of a message and its conditions of sentience. The propositional content concerns the assertion of facticity in any message or statement irrespective of context. For instance, the affirmation “Jesus is Lord” can be uttered out loud in a church service, written in a letter, found in Scripture, painted on a billboard, spoken live on the radio or on television, sent in a e-mail message to a believer or an unbeliever. In every situation, the statement objectively means the same thing. However, the conditions of sentience (or ambiance of awareness) differs in each case, thus affecting how the message will be perceived.
The conditions of sentience in turn engender sensibilities–the perceptual and intellectual habits that we typically take for granted. Social critic Sven Birkerts understands sensibility (which he puts in the singular) as “a refinement or cultivation of presence; it refers to the part of the inner life that is not given, but fashioned: a defining, if cloudy, complex of attitudes, predilections, and honed responses.” Our sensibilities encompass how we think as much as what we think; they draw our attention toward some things and away from others.
The stewardship of the senses is no small matter in our information-overcrowded world. Our perceptual and intellectual capacities are limited; we cannot possibly handle the ever-increasing quantities of information with sufficient wisdom. Therefore, our sensibilities serve as our filters and our guides. They are the editors of the soul and direct our orientation toward good or evil.
As Simone Weil said, “If we turn our mind toward the good, it is impossible that little by little the whole soul will not be attracted thereto in spite of itself.” Jesus also underscored the importance of developing appropriate sensibilities when he declared: “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Matthew 6:22-23). Good eyes behold truth and enlighten the soul.
Christians and Jews are “people of the book” because they believe God revealed his truth to the varied writers of Scriptures through in words that ought to be conserved, understood, and obeyed. Throughout history, the books of the Bible have been meticulously copied, recopied, and preserved so that the faithful would have the Holy Scriptures at their disposal. Of course, the Scriptures are not deemed holy simply because they are inscribed words, but because they are God’s inscribed words to us. However, the very form of the book, its conditions of sentience, are not incidental to how we orient ourselves to reality. The nature of the book itself and how we read shapes our souls.
Neil Postman argues that American culture has been molded by the book in an unprecedented way. The American veneration for literature produced what Postman calls the “typographic mind.” This mind pursues logical coherence and intellectual depth; it is impatient with superficiality, but is willing to endure long and complex arguments for the sake of finding truth. For these reasons, Postman called the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in America “The Age of Exposition.” He says:
Almost all of the characteristics we associate with mature discourse were amplified by typography, which has the strongest possible bias toward exposition: a sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively and sequentially; a high valuation of reason and order; an abhorrence of contradiction; a large capacity for detachment and objectivity; and a tolerance for delayed response.
Such mature discourse is rare in our age of incivility and intellectual impatience. Much of the blame, as Postman and others have argued, can be placed upon television, as we mentioned in chapter one. When a culture moves from typography to an image-based medium as its dominant and normative mode of expression, the very concepts of truth, reason, and evidence undergo a profound shift. Joshua Meyrowitz, a professor of communication at the University of New Hampshire, comments about his students: “They tend to have an image-based standard of truth. If I ask, ‘What evidence supports your view or contradicts it?’ they look at me as it I came from another planet.” Why is this? “It’s very foreign to them to think in terms of truth, logic, consistency and evidence.” Might this same erosion of the idea of truth and the ideals of logic, evidence, and consistency be perpetuated in cyberspace?
Receiving information through the computer is not necessarily identical to receiving information from books, although they both involve text. Many, however, are oblivious to the importance of a change in the conditions of sentience. For instance, newspaper columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote that “while text will survive video, paper will not survive the computer. At the turn of the century text will forever leave paper and take up residence on-line.” Krauthammer is not worried, though, since “clay tablets gave way to papyrus, sheepskin scrolls to bound books, illuminated manuscripts to Gutenberg type.”
Despite this optimism, cyberspace may, in some insidious ways, further the erosion of truth wrought by television. With both the screen and the book, one may be reading print; however the print appears in an entirely different medium or arena. Krauthammer neglects the differences between inscription on objects (papyrus, sheepskin, bound book, illuminated manuscripts, Gutenberg type) and the insubstantiality of the screen. The screen contains words that appear and disappear at will (or sometimes against the will of the bewildered user). Any one screen may contain innumerable words, because the words are not inscribed upon a surface; they are posted on and easily deleted from a monitor. The differences are highlighted by the bad joke about a stupid secretary was caught using white-out to make corrections on screen for word processing. White-out obscures markings made on a freestanding object, a surface which bears imprints and allows for cover-ups. Words typed on the screen are not inscribed on an independent, imprintable object. They require no great effort to remove or revise. They are evanescent, ephemeral – lacking in substantial rootedness or stability.
The inscription of words on surfaces, whether through handwriting or printing, gives them a kind of weight and identity. Novelist John Updike elicits just the right philosophical categories when he says that “there’s something about the sensation of ink on paper that is in some sense a thing, a phenomenon rather than an epiphenomenon.” That is, the book’s message is materially embedded as a phenomenon. The book is literally stained with meaning, nearly unerasable. It stands alone, without plug. The varying content of the screen, however, is an epiphenomenon because it is dependent on electricity and completely erasable, just as a shadow has no independent existence apart from an object and light. The screen’s content cannot stand alone. A power failure is enough to efface it or erase it entirely, and a software failure can lock up the material somewhere deep in the bowels of the silicon.
When Yahweh made his moral will known to the people he brought out of Egypt, he inscribed the decalogue on two stone tablets, which were delivered in person by Moses to the people. The Ten Commandments were “inscribed by the finger of God” (Exodus 31:18). “They were inscribed on both sides, front and back. The tablets were the work of God; the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets” (Exodus 32:15-16).
With this divine action, the Creator forever dignified the written word. Even after Moses broke the tablets in response to the worship of the golden calf, God directed him to make two more tablets, upon which God rewrote the law of the covenant (Exodus 34:1-28). These tablets bore physical testimony to the revelation of God. It was not sufficient for Moses to simply repeat what he had heard God pronounce. God’s words were recorded literally in stone to signify their perpetuity and incorruptibility. The physical inscription of truth is central to God’s revelation to humanity.
This raw physicality is literally felt in all books. Erik Ness comments, “Many readers love the very physical essence of books – the weft of ideas, the warp of words, the loom of paper all bound in leather. No computer screen can match this visceral pleasure. Screen glare, a clattering keyboard and a humming hard drive are no equal for the magical heft of a book.” By comparison, the effect of words on a screen – whether written or read – can depreciate the depth and gravity of language itself. Since I do not turn any pages, but instead scroll through material, I may lose the sense of linearity reinforced by the book and other printed matter. The screen has less involvement with physical history than does the book. I can easily move about a text electronically without fingering pages. I can “call up” a screen that records my previous work or something I have downloaded. Yet the screen text does not bear the marks of the physical world and the human touch. No pages are worn, no highlighting appears, no distinctive smells are evident. The screen is clean, always the same; it has no history and little personality. It is a receptacle for text and images, but it is imprinted by none of them. Without power, it is a mere blank, a dead conduit.
Writing on the screen, as opposed to composing on paper, may also encourage a certain carelessness by virtue of its ease of execution. Birkerts observes that, when writing consisted of putting words to paper,
The path between [the writer’s] impulse and inscription was made thornier by the knowledge that errors meant having to retrace steps and do more work. The writer was more likely to test the phrasing on the ear, to edit mentally before committing to the paper. The underlying momentum was toward the right, irrevocable expression.
By comparison, word processing allows for immediate expression, the freedom from linearity (I can work at any point in the document), and revision with little pain. Heim concludes that “the power at your finger tips tempts you to believe that faster is better, that ease means instant quality.”
The computer screen–despite its myriad enchantments–may not be a hot house for the soul. The book, that stubbornly unelectric artifact of pure typography, possesses resources conducive to the flourishing of the soul. A thoughtful reading of the printed text orients one to a world of order, meaning, and the possibility of knowing truth. The computer screen, despite its allure, often lacks the resources for making the truth lodge deeply in our souls.
Douglas Groothuis is an associate professor of philosophy of religion and ethics at Denver Seminary and the author of many books, including The Soul in Cyberspace (Baker, 1997) from which this article was excerpted.
“Groothuis cogently raises some very troubling questions about the nature and impact of cyberspace.” (Quentin Schultze)
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“While most Christians are content with a superficial and pragmatic assessment of the new information technologies, Douglas Groothuis probes more deeply. He wisely recognizes the symbolic power of technology: machines don’t just do things, they shape us by equipping our imaginations and language with powerful new images, metaphors, and assumptions. Groothuis has done a great service in alerting us to the temptations that will challenge the twenty-first century church, and in providing the tools to discern what is real, what is true, and what is to be treasured.” (Ken Myers)
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