Techno-Babel

 

Now the whole earth had one internet and the same binary code. And as technology progressed they came upon a crash-free, virus-free, stable OS and installed it everywhere. And they said to one another “Come let us compose lines of code and Beta test them thoroughly.” And they had computers for networking, and wireless routers for data transmission. Then they said, “Come let us build ourselves a chat room, with fully functional video conferencing, and let us make a search-able database of screen names for all, otherwise we’ll be scattered abroad and out of touch for minutes (or even days!).” The Lord logged on to see the chat room and the video conferencing function, which programmers had designed. And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they are all using ‘C’, this is only the beginning of what they will do; no connections they propose to make will now be impossible for them. Come, let us hack in, and confuse their language there, so that their servers will crash and shut down.” So the Lord crashed their program and they left off building the chat room. Therefore, it was called Techno-Babel because the Lord confused their language and crashed their servers so all were out of touch over the face of all the earth.

01000111 01100101 01101110 01100101 01110011 01101001 01110011: 11:1-9

I’m not actually opposed to using technology (I even wrote this essay on a computer) and I don’t believe God will really come down to destroy the internet. But, I am opposed to the uncritical use of technology as a medium for communication and I do believe God speaks more in spite of technology than through it. As we continue to press forward into the electronic age, I hope to use the story of Babel as a means of considering the limitations of electronic communication. By keeping the following two thoughts in mind, just maybe we can help prevent our own Techno-Babel: 1) Relationships are necessary for accurate communication; and 2) God is the only medium for real human connection.

1) The value of modern technology in communication is ambiguous. The internet enables people to see and speak to each other instantly across the world; translation programs even enable speaking with people who don’t speak the same language. Cell phones and PDAs allow people to stay in touch from nearly anywhere in the world and satellite technology may just complete the coverage map. At the same time, NE1 who has ever been in a txt msg fight knows how easily words can be misunderstood. No matter how clear your acronyms, abbreviations, and emoticons may seem to you, sth is 404 n transmission. @TEOTD, each side misses out on body language and facial expressions that are central to communication; a cold stare or a soft touch can say more than a thousand words.

Video conferencing is one of the newer gadgets to remove some of these issues. However, the relationships we develop with people, and not just the ability to see and hear them, are the basis upon which real communication becomes possible. It doesn’t take much effort to prove that miscommunication is quite possible, even likely, between people. Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians provides plenty of examples of how people can take a simple idea, turn it into a slogan, and miss out on the whole meaning of the message. It’s like saying ‘All things are lawful for me’ is a justification to do whatever I want (see 1 Cor. 6:12); perhaps a logical conclusion, but certainly not at all what Paul means when he speaks of Christ abolishing the law. The relationships in which words are spoken fill out as much meaning as the words themselves.

I’m certainly not denying the potential for technology to help start or continue relationships; I’ve known plenty of people who met online and my wife and I used countless hours of Skype video chat when I was 1000 miles away at school. To say that all uses of technology are inherently wrong would even implicitly deny the Bible’s validity; writing itself was at one time a new invention with an ambiguous potential for communication. What I am pointing out is that the written or spoken word has no single or necessary meaning; even the most treasured and beautiful words of scripture can and have been used to do incredible harm to others. The ability to speak instantly with anyone across the globe does not mean that communication is just the touch of a button away. Communication requires far more than the ability to hear and understand words; a whole network of presuppositions and assumptions goes into the way words are comprehended and the assessment or universality of that network is something that technology can’t even begin to address.

To speak to one another in a global society requires human relationships developed over time; nothing can replace the value of physically spending time with another human being. To share thoughts and ideas requires more than a program to map word equivalencies and nuances. The danger we are taught by the story of Babel is that globally unified purposes, actions, and languages aren’t inherently good. Enabling everyone to speak the same language (whether a ‘universal’ English or some totally unforeseen machine language) does not make communication possible across the globe. The kingdom of God stretches over all creation and certainly implies that the whole world is necessarily a part of our human relationships; but developing the ability to see and hear anyone, anywhere is nowhere near the same thing as edifying the Body of Christ through deep and challenging relationships with all persons.

Transferring data so that information can be rationally accessed is not identical to the life altering power of gospel community. Technology can be a powerful tool for human connection, but it is only a tool. Imagine if God had emailed Moses the Ten Commandments or sent a video series on Jesus instead of sending Him to live among us. The beauty and power of the gospel is that God loved us so much that He entered our world and changed everything. Christian relationships run deeper than broad band connections.

2) If the church ever hopes to be more than just one more sound bite in an A.D.D. world of flashy ads and catchy phrases, it must realize that God is the only mediator for human relationship. Technology only passively facilitates the senses’ involvement in communication; it does not actively enable anything to happen.  Technology allows the thoughts or experiences of an individual to be transmitted into the mind of another, but it does not provide any essential means for interpretation or evaluation. To arrive at the truth of the gospel message and to realize its transformative power, we must rest our hopes on the movement and action of God and not the marketability of our mission slogans or ad campaigns.

If you want to reach someone on the other side of the globe, you have many options. You can pick up a telephone, send an email, find a nice chat room, etc. But when you actually decide to share something of yourself with that person, the transmission of 1’s and 0’s isn’t enough. When you come to know someone by your relationship to God, you are necessarily connected to that person. I don’t mean something happens in a mystically spiritual way that unites ‘life-forces’ or something science-fictional, but I do fully believe that God unites people together in an absolutely real, almost palpable way. God binds us together in all of our relationships and is most fully present in marriage when “the two become one flesh.” The type of connection that unites us as members of the Body of Christ is far more real and far more meaningful than the ability to reproduce sensory data through 1’s and 0’s.

When we sit down and consider how best to “reach” people in the church, the conversation often presumes the need to condense the gospel message or share the church website with people outside the church. Neither practice is inherently wrong, but to think that the truth of the Christian message should be primarily conveyed in a 30 second spiel (or even a 30 minute sermon) is to miss the majority of the biblical witness. Certainly, the Holy Spirit is capable of reaching someone through a 30 second conversation or even just a single word, but to turn that potential into the basis for Christian proclamation is to miss out on God’s abundant gifts to humanity. The church does not construct an intellectual portal into a heavenly realm (or hack into God’s internet servers) to provide mediation between humans and God. The church trains persons to identify the abundance of gifts that God has directly provided for us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The church facilitates the development of formative relationships in which we are made members of Christ’s body and enables us, by the power of the Spirit, to see that God is the only One Who actively enables communication of the Word.

To share the Christian message requires God to activate our speech and enable communication. Technology provides an unparalleled medium of communication because it seems to be a more direct and permanent connection with one another than God could ever provide; technology provides instant audio and visual connections from and to nearly anywhere in the world.  However, the problem with Babel was not the inability to speak to one another and share in “the same words;” the problem was that people thought their labor was necessary to stay united. The more time and resources we put into the development of new technologies for sharing the gospel message, the more our attention is diverted from the fact that God has already united us in Jesus Christ.

Instead of finding ways to “reach” people, we should find ways to see what God is doing among us and invite others to share in our life together. We can’t rid ourselves of technology, but we can work to reform its use given a proper understanding of God’s role in the life of the church; we can work to make God, and not the appeal of a power point slide, the center of our proclamation and worship.

The next time you open up an email or chat window, consider what connection you really have with your conversation partner. Are you relying on and trusting more in a computer’s ability to get your message across than in the power of the Spirit through whom we are all connected? Good communication is a tricky business and technology is neither necessary nor sufficient for it to occur. To use technology in the life of the church requires a community of interpretation. To share in the Word of God requires more than a detailed reproduction of sense experience. Just as we must know the voice behind the text-message to avoid misunderstanding, we must know the voice of the One Who spoke creation into being if we really want to share the gospel. As I said before, I doubt God will ever come down to destroy the internet, but I would hope our tendency to embrace technology as the bearer of truth doesn’t force His Hand into causing our own Techno-Babel.

****Written in Spring 2010

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