The Tools Are In Charge

First, A Story...

I recall a friendly argument I once had with a fellow musician. At stake, of course, was the whole of Western Civilization.

My perspective: Classical Music (memorably once described to me as "First Class" Music) was superior in quality to popular music, based on the presence of clever constructive devices (motivic unity, interesting chord progressions, advanced chromatic and harmonic languages, etc.)

His view: popular music is no less ingenious, but that the area of interest now lies not in the notes or harmonies, but in the delivery mechanisms used to deliever it. The knobs and sliders on the mixing panel and the buttons on the effects rack supplanted, in his view, the earlier fascination with notes and chord structures.

This took place in 1990--before the WWW, portable mp3 player, and the affordable digital home recording studio. If I could have peered into the future and seen our church organs idled, and our sanctuaries routinely retrofitted to accomodate LED projectors, sound systems, wireless microphones, and soundbooths, I would have been terribly surprised. (I'm still surprised, in fact.) An entire subculture of media specialists now exists, folks who understand how to "work the projector" and "run sound." Legions of sound techs and musicians, armed with the latest gadgets arrive at the church early on Sunday: not for Bible study, but to perform sound checks and rehearse.

I must admit, my friend's argument was compelling and difficult to answer. If people can ascribe "value" to a great masterwork based on the skill behind its construction, one can certainly find the same merits in the complexities of an effects rack or a garage band mix?

Still, something didn't (and doesn't) quite "feel right" with this approach.

What's Going on Here?

Neil Postman, author of "Amusing Ourselves To Death" fame, wrote another, lesser-known book called "Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology." I'd recommend it for it speaks directly to one of the most important, yet easily overlooked issues of our time--a society's obsession with its tools and technologies.

He offers the concept of a "technocracy," a situation wherein humanity's tools and technology displace or obliterate the existing culture:

"In a technocracy, tools play a central role in the thought-world of the culture. Everything must give way,
in some degree, to their development. The social and symbolic worlds become increasingly subject to the
requirements of that development. Tools are not integrated into the culture; they attack the culture. They
bid to become the culture. As a consequence, tradition, social mores, myth, politics, ritual, and religion
have to fight for their lives." (Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, 1992, p. 28)

An uncritical fascination with novel technology results in a jettisoning of anything that smacks of "the old way." The mode of communication that accompanies new technology inevitably re-forms the discourse itself, ultimately destroying it entirely.

Technology is no longer a merely tool or a means to an end, but ultimately becomes the end itself. The actual content becomes secondary to the fact that we're using a certain technology at all! In some cases, maybe this is innocent or debatable, but when it comes to delivering God's Word, we're dealing with a far more serious situation. If our obsession with technology can marginalize, destroy, or otherwise distract from, the message (the Word), then we are certainly on dangerous ground. Is it possible that such a situation is taking place in our tech-heavy congregations?

We Are Not Alone

Organized religion is definitely on the defensive these days, but we shouldn't feel like the only ones under fire. The technofetishism that's spilling into our churches also touches many other facets of our world. Here are a just a couple of examples:

  • Big-house recording studios are expensive facilities, decked out beautiful furnishings high-dollar sound gear. The recording industry has been shaken up by a flood of low-priced but effective amateur audio gear. These tools are now everwhere, forcing many studios to close.
  • The discipline of computer science is facing a crisis, for the next generation of programmers are increasingly relying on the use of automatic code generation tools, pre-existing libraries, and copy/paste. Moreover, since most of the research dollars are now being poured into social media and personal data-mining exercises, fewer truly innovative projects are appearing.

Today's technology certainly affects our communication models in a way never before seen (even the printing press pales in significance). While there are certainly fantastic benefits, there are also tremendous risks. If our interest in Church becomes contingent on the degree to which technologies are adopted (and I would argue in many cases, this is true), we risk confusing the medium and the all-important message. Therefore, before we "throw the baby out with the bath water," it is imperative we understand that technological innovation is never purely "neutral," but requires us to weigh its consequences.

As far as my musical argument goes, I believe my friend's assertion reveals his embrace of the technocracy. He was willing to dismiss the existing tradition, instead suggesting that production skills (the technology) provide a value and/or level of interest that supersedes the content of the musical message.