Shaping a Digital World: Faith, Culture and Computer Technology
Derek C. Schuurman
Popcultured: Thinking Christianly About Style, Media and Entertainment
It was a clear, sunny Saturday, and I was out early for my first spring garage sale. Dismissing the Google Maps algorithms on my smartphone, I followed handcrafted signs into my neighbourhood.
As I scanned the wares at my first stop, my eye immediately caught a glimpse of two Mac Pro silver towers sitting in the corner. A few inquiries later, I was contemplating what once went for a cool $2,499 each (in late 2005) and was now available for a crisp $20 together. The homeowner was quick to add, he was open to offers! What was I to make of this tantalizing invitation?
One place to turn for discerning insight on the myriad everyday choices technology and popular culture offer is the recent book releases of prolific UK-based writer and poet Steve Turner and Redeemer University College associate professor of computer science Derek Schuurman. Both authors are compelled to help us think Christianly about culture – particularly that made possible by electricity.
Turner investigates the broader expressions of leisure activity such as film, fashion, comedy, and photography, while Schuurman focuses specifically on computer technology. They both reject a kind of Luddite cultural separatism, and then elaborate what it means to consume, create, and critique culture as a biblically-rooted experience.
Although these two books are not companion texts, reading them together was delightfully enriching. Schuurman’s theological and philosophical investigation of computer technology could be read as an elaboration of the themes Turner introduces in his chapter on technology.
Schuurman unabashedly uses the Reformed framework of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration to organize the book. He helpfully pushes back against two tendencies: thinking about computer technology in abstract technical terms as merely numbers and microchips, or, idolizing advances in technology as the thing that will save the world. Schuurman’s invitation is to see technology as part of the unfolding of creation: it demands responsibility while offering freedom.
The essence of Schuurman’s thesis is that technology has both a structure and a direction. Some aspects of technology are governed by fixed laws of nature (structure), while the ways in which we harness technology is always shaped by our values (direction). Schuurman persistently revisits Scripture and prompts opportunities for concrete personal reflection around everything from computer purchases to ethical software development in healthcare to the implications of artificial intelligence.
Turner’s volume functions as a pop-culture primer that illuminates the form and function of mass-produced, largely profit-driven cultural expressions enjoyed by a broad, non-elite audience. In his lucid discussion about definitions, he insists that pop culture is not unsophisticated or trivial, and should be taken seriously even while it is often associated with leisure.
Turner brings a wealth of personal interactions with cultural producers to his writing, allowing him to offer intriguing back stories about common movie scenes, songs, clothing and other artifacts. These stories give us a rare glimpse into the motivations and driving values of social influencers. This dimension is its shining contribution to the broader discussion about the cultural enterprise.
Turner couples his astute anecdotal material with frequent probes back into Scripture. He offers some new readings of well-worn passages, such his suggestion that advertising finds a warrant in the parable of the talents because not publicizing your creations would be tantamount to burying your talents.
Turner clearly assumes an evangelically-minded audience. On several occasions, he presumes some dispositions and pushes the reader to move beyond a merely literalist reading of art forms and chides filmmakers who produce “toe-curling” Christian films, then describe a market failure as a spiritual attack rather than as bad art.
Both books are a worthwhile investment of your time and offer engaging discussion questions and additional resources at the end of each chapter. Not surprisingly, Schuurman’s volume reads more as a formal academic treatise while Turner offers up ample pleasing poetic turns of phrase and anecdote true to his popular context.
Well, it’s time to power up the two slick “towers” in my basement, informed by a far more robust theological disposition about their capacity and place in the world, thanks to Schuurman and Turner. My only regret is that I paid the full $20 suggested price – an early “first garage sale of the season” misstep that will be addressed in time for next Saturday morning.
—David Balzer is assistant professor of communications and media at Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg, and host of the weekly Sunday@CMU radio program. He is the former co-host of the GodTalk radio show on 680 CJOB in Winnipeg.
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