3 Essentials on Technology from Postman

In 1995, I was finishing my undergraduate studies, and I took a summer course in New York City. Part of the course involved lectures with Neil Postman, Professor of Media Ecology at New York University. His writings deeply nurtured a healthy skepticism towards technology in my thinking.

Media ecology sounds good, but what is it?

Ecology implies the study of environments. Eco(oikos house) + logos(words). Environments in the natural world are well-known, ie. a frog pond. A media environment is not as familiar. It is a more complex structure which specifies and imposes on human beings certain ways of doing, thinking, and feeling.

In the case of media environments (e.g., Youtube, Whatsapp, books, radio, film, television, etc.), the specifications are often IMPLICIT and INFORMAL. You cannot always see them. Like the bottom half of an ice-berg, they are half concealed by our assumptions that what we are dealing with is not an really an environment but only a machine.

In other words, we don’t often think about the environments nurtured and developed by technological tools. We don’t think of a tool as doing any other than what it was designed to do—a shovel just digs holes. But technology gives and takes away from our everyday lives.

Media ecology tries to make these half-hidden specifications explicit and help us to think about how technology shapes our lives. Media ecologists know it is usually the parts of something we don’t see(or think about)that can cause the most devastation—just ask the crew of the Titanic.

Allow me to share with you three of Neil Postman’s most profound ideas about technology.

Neil Postman called all technological change a Faustian bargain. By this he meant that all technology gives some things to us AND takes away other things from our lives. For every advantage your smartphone brings to your life, there is always a corresponding disadvantage. Sometimes the disadvantage is much bigger than the advantage. Other times, the advantage exceeds any disadvantage that can be imagined.

Now you may be saying to yourself, “Thank you very much Captain Obvious.”

Yet, you would be surprised to learn how many people believe that new technologies are completely unmixed blessings. Technology is all good, they say, and give us the latest and the greatest. The majority of people have drunk Samsung or Apple’s Kool-Aid. They know all the good things a smartphone brings to their lives. They can extol the near “miraculous signs and wonders” a smartphone provides. But you will also notice, if you pay attention, most people completely neglect to mention any liabilities of their smartphone.

Neil Postman says, “This is a dangerous imbalance, since the greater the wonders of a technology, the greater will be its negative consequences.”

To understand Postman’s first idea, ask yourself not only, “What will this new technology do?” but also ask, “What will this new technology UNDO?” The second question is probably more important because it is hardly ever asked or reflect upon. That is probably why we are dealing with screen addiction among young people today. There are always great costs embedded in every new technology and culture will always pay a price. Do you know the real price you pay for the technology you use?

Technology is good at hiding the ideas it contains. Often the worldviews/ideas are hidden from plain sight because they are abstract in nature. Theoretical should not be taken to mean unreal. All ideas have consequences. Just because we cannot see them, we should not assume these ideas do not have practical consequences upon our lives. The truth is they do.

In a nutshell, Postman’s second point: “To the man with the hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

This truth about human nature can be extended to other areas of life. “To the man with spray-paint, everything looks like graffiti,” or “To the man with a ruler, everything looks like a measurement,” or “To the man with an Instagram account, everything looks like a selfie.”

In other words, every technology has a prejudice. Technology is biased. It is predisposed to some things and averted from others. Like language itself, Postman says, every technology favours certain perspectives, mindsets and viewpoints over others.

In a culture without access to books, human memory is of the greatest importance. The elders with long memories of the past, who can share their wisdom, are highly valued. That is why Solomon was thought to be one of the wisest men who ever lived. The Bible says(1 Kings 4:32) that he knew 3,000 proverbs and 1000s of songs—by heart.

In a culture with printed books, or in a culture with Google, such displays of vast memory are considered a waste of time. Why dedicate yourself to memorizing vast portions of the Bible when you can instantly find it on Google? The writing/reading person favours logical organization and systematic analysis over memory. They favour speed over reflection. They favour information over wisdom. They favour the perception of the eye over the ear.

Printed words undermine the ability of people to memorize.

Every technology comes with a philosophy buried inside of it. Once people eat the fruit, they release the idea, and the consequences follow. This point is summarized by Marshall McLuhan’s famous sentence: “The medium is the message.” May everyone reflect deeply on this truth and critically unpack the beliefs inside every technology.

Postman explains this by using an analogy. “What happens if you place a drop of red dye into a clean glass of water?” Do you have clear water PLUS a spot of red dye? Obviously not. Instead, you have a new colouration of every molecule of water in the glass. It is impossible to separate out the colourful molecules.

This is what is meant by ecological change.

Just like a drop of dye impacts every molecule of water, so does a new technology. It does not just add something to a culture. It changes EVERYTHING about the culture.

In the year 1500, after Gutenberg invented the printing press, you did not have old Europe plus the printing press. You had a completely new Europe.

After the invention of smartphones, every culture shifted. It was not the old culture plus smartphones. Smartphones gave a new colour to every political campaign, every family dinner, every classroom, every church service and every industry.

After Mpesa, you did not have Kenya plus Mpesa. You have a completely different way of banking, loaning funds to friends, and sending money to your upcountry relatives. Mpesa has given Kenya a different colour. The whole culture has experienced change as the result of the introduction of Mpesa.

Christians must be diligent observers of these kinds of technological changes. The consequences of technology are always vast, unpredictable and largely irreversible. Christians must be able to discern not only the tools but also the changes these tools create. We must nurture a healthy suspicion of those who want to exploit new technologies to the fullest without acknowledging that traditional values will be dismantled as a result.

Because it changes everything, technology is equally compelling and important for Christians to consider. It’s potential is too great to be left entirely in the hands of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Tim Cook. We must develop a theology of technology.

Perhaps the best way to view technology is the same way we might view a thief in the night. Technology is an intruder into our culture and traditions. Our high-tech tools, while allowed under God’s sovereign eye, are really a product of our creativity and hubris.

We must keep our eyes wide open so that we may be aware of what it does for us and to us. After careful consideration of what technology gives and takes away from us, we need to proceed slowly so that we may use technology rather than be used by it.

Viral Church Planting

Oscar Murui is a speaker who communicates with authority. Even if you don’t agree with everything he says, his words command attention. His delivery is serious and deliberate. He presented the keynote talk about the future realities of Global Christianity. Click here and here to watch.

According to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, Africa with 631 million Christians, is now the largest church in the world. The centre of Christianity has relocated to the southern hemisphere and it is booming! Not only is the church in Africa spreading like a wild fire, the population is thriving. Africans are multiplying like rabbits. The population of Nairobi is expected to reach 40 million by 2050(from current 4 million) and Africa will reach 2.4 billion people(from current 1 billion).

The future of Christianity is African. Dozens of African countries have an overwhelming majority of Christians. The question is, how will Africa evangelize its own as well as the rest of the world? Even though Africa has added hundreds of millions of people, it has not increased the overall percentage of Christians. In other words, the net number of Christians has remained consistent.

The future of Christianity in Africa is about youth and children. Africa is the youngest continent in the world. With a huge youth bulge(average age of a Kenyan is 19 years of age), and the life expectancy being in the 60s, the church has an urgent task. Even though the average age in the Kenyan church is 40, the church must focus on the 4-20 window. This refers to the most receptive age categories to the gospel are between four and twenty. This is where the real battle lies. Teachers, musicians and media content producers have and will continue to have a huge evangelistic potential.

The future is crowded immobility. Africans are moving to the cities and Kenya’s projected rate of urbanization is more than double the global average. 250,000 Kenyans move into cities every year. Buying land is already expensive in Nairobi, but when the population increases to 40 million, it will be insanely so. We must change our church-planting strategy and establish churches as close to people as possible. Churches will need to by hyper-local and small to survive. This will require the training of thousands of bi-vocational pastors.

Ed Stetzer wrote an article about rhinos and rabbits comparing them to different church-planting philosophies. He writes:

It is unfortunate, but the White Rhino appears to be on a trajectory to extinction. And there’s little wonder why. Human and environmental factors aside, the rhino has a built-in malefactor that hinders their own proliferation—a gestation period of 16 to 18 months. It takes a year and a half for a rhino to have a baby, meaning that even if all others variables are ideal, the birth rate is going to be excruciatingly slow.

Yet, all other factors are never ideal, so some rhino babies do not make it to birth, while others die soon after. As a result, you’re unlikely to hear about rapid rhino multiplication. Instead, expensive and painstaking management is required simply to avoid extinction.

Contrast rhinos with rabbits. The animal’s name itself has become a synonymous symbol for rapid multiplication. Why? Rabbits have a gestation period of 31 days—one month. This system of rapid multiplication allows the rabbit to persist and flourish despite various environmental impediments that should cause its demise.

Oscar, making reference to this article admonished churches to reproduce themselves as rabbits. He said, “After four years, you can produce one rhino church but after four years, you can produce millions of rabbits.” Africa needs hundreds of thousands of rabbit-like churches. New, smaller churches are concerned with aggressive evangelism because if they don’t, they will not survive. 90% of the world’s churches are 100 people or less and only 1% of churches are 1,000 people or more. It is easy to train a pastor to lead a church of 30 people; it is difficult to even find a trained pastor willing to lead a church of 2,000.

Grace of God and Flaws of Men

Grace of God and Flaws of Men by Anand Mahadevan

Though Anand Mahadevan rightly states in his book, The Grace of God and Flaws of Men, “When sin reigns darkest, grace shines brightest,” he gets one bit wrong.

The Mumbai-based church planter fails to cushion the reader from this greatest of Biblical truths. He neglects to provide any wiggle-room so a person can squirm away. His book offers no leeway to drift off the course. It would have been a whole lot easier if he allowed us to avoid our flaws and comfortably settle back into old patterns of thinking.

Instead what we get is something like drinking water from a fire-hydrant. On the one hand, you are overcome with how bad these faithful men(Hebrews 11) behaved. On the other hand, you are overwhelmed with how God could bless such notorious sinners. Mahadevan drenches us with the realness of our sin and, at the same time, the genuineness of God’s reckless grace.

In page after page, via the stories of Abrham, Isaac and Jacob, the reader is confronted not just with the ugliness of sin but the reality of God’s grace. In chapter after chapter, the book plunges the depths of the darkness of these heroes of the faith only to climb to the heights of the glorious riches of the Gospel of grace.

Several features of this must-read book become apparent within the first hour.

First, the author deeply loves the Gospel of Jesus. The writing emerges not from a dry, aloof observer of what others experience. This is a powerful, soak-it-all-in, testimony to the living truth of Jesus. He writes, “I hope you are drawn to worship Jesus as you read this book,” and encourages us to, “worship and adore him for a few minutes at least after every chapter.” You will, in fact, be bowing down on bended knee as you recognize the existential presence of grace.

Second, fresh writing these days is hard to find. Often a reader loses interest as they feel like they have been there and read that. This is not the case with Mahadevan’s book. His twenty-five year career in journalism certifies him to tell familiar stories in original ways. For example, he skillfully relates the Biblical narrative found in Genesis 19, “There within the dingy confines of the cave, Lot and his two daughters committed the most abhorrent of sins,” and “even the most sexually permissive person will not say that sex between a father and daughter is okay,” then connecting this scandal to Jesus’ birth, “the human ancestry of Jesus Christ can be traced all the way back to that despicable, drunken and incestuous night in that cave.”

Finally, the author’s own personal experience with God’s grace is weaved into the tapestry of the book. It is obvious he has walked the talk. He shares snippets of his own struggles, like when he didn’t attend church for a year, or when he lived a life of wild abandon, or when he did unbalanced corporate interviews. Because of his straight-forward admissions of wrestling deeply with sin, the reader is supplied with courage to dive below the surface of superficiality in their own struggles.

Like a breaking news report, Mahadevan delivers the message that God revealed himself for 1500 years as the “God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” In the same breath, he gives the scoop on the stinking-with-sin lives of Abraham the “serial offender”, and Isaac the “biased unrepentant” and Jacob the “foolish deceiver”. Although these men were all deeply flawed and terribly broken, over the course of their lives, they were transformed by God’s grace. In the last chapter, we read, “In revealing Himself primarily as the God of these three men, God is telling the world that He is a God of transformation who takes messed up sinners, forgives them and transforms them into heroes of faith.”

In the end, this book points us to Jesus Christ. We are more damaged than we actually know, at the same time in Jesus, we are more loved than we ever dreamed. Because of Jesus, we have great hope towards living a life of purpose. Mahadevan challenges us, “Grace is only complete when our experience of forgiveness and transformation compels and empowers us for mission…even if this mission often involves great suffering.”

How do you know if you have understood the book’s message? You know because you begin to joyfully live a life of obedience and sacrifice. You look to Jesus—not to yourself—for the origin, meaning, identity and destiny of your life. In other words, you find your whole life built on Christ. We don’t do this to earn God’s favour, we do this in response to the favour that Jesus has already earned.

If you desire to recover the heart of the Christian faith, this book is for you. If you crave a raw, on-the-rocks presentation of the Gospel of grace, this book is for you. It will push you toward a deeper understanding of the Big Story and promote God’s mission in the middle of your everyday life.