Saturday, September 29, 2018

Genuflecting At The Digital Altar (Or, Is Nothing Sacred?)

They say that age is but a number, and there are many days I believe that. Often, I awake feeling relatively youthful, and the daily walks I undertake are conducted with vigor and strength of purpose. Other days, I feel rather keenly the aches and pains (still relatively minor at this point, thankfully) that age imposes, and my walks take on the character of prescribed medicine, nothing more.

But that is just the physical aspect of age. The other, more important one, in my view, is the thinking and attitudes we bring to each day of our lives. In that regard, I like to think that I am more youth than aging man.

I try, for example, to stay conversant with and engaged in important issues, although admittedly at more of a remove than when I was younger. As well, rather than regret my generation's waning influence on life, I welcome it. When it became feasible, I retired, partly because the job and all of its attendant politics had become a heavy burden; the other reason was the moral obligation I felt toward the young people coming up in teaching. Full-time jobs were and still are hard to find, and to continue occupying a spot a younger person could do with more energy and creativity struck me as wrong. Unlike some of my generation, I harbour no delusions about indispensability.

However, there are other times when I feel old, because there are some things I doubt I shall ever embrace, my beliefs confronting and contradicting the perceived wisdom of our time. A prime example is my feeling about smartphones in the classroom, about which I recently wrote. To me, the putative educational benefits are far outweighed by their costs in terms of attention and focus. Being wirelessly connected to the outer world sacrifices or at the very least severely compromises our attention to the world of our immediate environment and, even more importantly, to our inner world. Digital distraction hardly facilitates reflectiveness.

Sadly, educational institutions are not the only ones that have prostituted themselves in the rush to demonstrate relevance in the digital age. That mania is now spreading to organized religion. The Campbell River Baptist Church has decided to genuflect at the altar of the digital god:
Pastor Jeff Germo ... is among the first pastors in the world to use a Swedish developed communications technology, Mentimeter, to make online, real-time spiritual connections with his flock while preaching. Mentimeter, used widely in corporate board rooms and academic lecture settings, is an interactive survey tool that posts instant answers and results to the mobile devices of those connected to the event.
On the surface, some might say this is a divinely inspired idea:
Germo started his sermon by asking parishioners to take out their smartphones and tablets, click on a Mentimeter link and punch in a code.

Moments later an email arrived asking parishioners if they had ever failed terribly.

Just two per cent replied: “No, I’m a winner.”

Germo expressed amazement that any member of the congregation said they had never experienced failure.

“If you are more than a year old, you probably would have failed at something,” said Germo as a man at the back of the auditorium of about 250 people raised his hand to acknowledge he chose the no failure answer.
A large display showing the survey results allowed the good reverend to drive home his point:
... most people are experiencing some difficult things and have a hard time getting over failure,” Germo said. “So, you are not alone.”
So what am I on about here? Is this a reactionary rant, or an opinion borne of age and experience?

Some years ago at a staff meeting, we were each given a handheld device that would achieve the same kind of survey input available to the Campbell River congregation. We were told such technology would revolutionize the classroom experience, making it far more interactive and relevant. After a few 'rounds', I think most of us felt more like game-show participants than educators undertaking some professional development. The medium indeed was the message. Needless to say, the idea gained no traction and was never implemented.

So far, the Campbell River church attempt at digital relevance seems to be an isolated incident. I sincerely hope it stays that way. In this connected age, people very much need refuge from distractions and sensory overload in order to rediscover their centres. Churches have traditionally offered such refuge, but like so many social media adherents today, will they now be tempted to increase their number of 'followers', not by anything deep or meaningful, but by embracing the latest trends? This particular one, if followed to its logical conclusion, will achieve no such thing.

How long will it be before part of Sunday services involves checking your email, your Twitter account and, last but not least, the ever-present Facebook? Once the genie is summoned, it cannot be put back in the bottle.


  1. One of the myths of our age is that we are "connected" by digital technology. Very few consider the degree of that connection. It's always been my expereice that eye contact is the ultimate -- and trickiest -- way to communicaate.

  2. An excellent observation and oh so true, Owen.

  3. ..

    Had to invoke one of my patron saints, Lorne.. Its taken me years to even get a bit of what he saw & foresaw.. and I was a pretty faithful and attentive attendant at the weekly McLuhan Center conflabs.. later led by the estimable scholar, author and McLuhan translator, Derrick de Kerkhove

    There's lots of ore for you to mine in the linked article.. and refine..
    And that's a rich vein you've struck.. in its own right !

    As my sister, a now retired senior educator
    who taught principals how to be principals always said..
    'we are creating curriculums for students
    whose jobs or careers have yet to be invented..'

    Cel phones ? In the classroom ? Whatever for ?
    When I moved to the farm we were called to the table via a farmhouse bell..
    washed up via a large summer kitchen washbowl
    and we heard the price of wheat and sowbellies via CBC radio
    while reaching for the pickled beets or savory roast pork n gravy..
    or the sweetest corn or blueberry pie you could ever imagine..
    and yes, we dried dishes.. pots n pans, steamers and serving plates
    and returned to the pitchfork, tractor or haymow

    Hell, prior, I was lucky enough when still in Toronto
    to hear Bill Mazeroski's home run
    via a buddy's 5 dollar transistor radio enroute home
    Do ya think the nuns woulda let me listen
    to the early innings in the classroom ? Right ..

    1. Many thanks for the link, Sal. Methinks there is much wisdom there.

      As for your reference to the transistor radio, that indeed brought back some rich memories that serve as jarring contrasts to today!

  4. I'm starting to feel like a stranger in my own society and that's not an entirely negative feeling.