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Don't Take Your iPod to Church! (Part 2)

I’ve been enjoying writing these little articles titled “Don’t Take Your iPod to Church.” I’ll be the first to admit that I am overstating my case a little bit and even being deliberately vague at times. But through it all I’m seeing some great discussion and am being asked lots of interesting questions. It may be frustrating to everyone else, but I’m enjoying it, at the very least! Let’s press on.

In a previous article I introduced Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman and their contribution to my thinking on technology. From McLuhan we learn that we cannot neatly separate the medium from the message and from Postman, an interpreter of McLuhan, we learn that every medium carries with it some kind of a worldview—that every medium carries with it “a predisposition to construct the world as one thing rather than another, to value one thing more than another, to amplify one sense or skill or attitude more loudly than another.” Also from Postman we learn the simple truth that “a technology does what it was created to do.” Over time we will learn what it is that a technology was created to do; rarely do we know in advance how a technology will play out. We tend to be immediately positive about technological innovation, but from these two men we learn that there ought to be a certain caution, a hesitation that causes us to look before we leap, to think before we wholeheartedly embrace a new technology—like reading the Bible on an iPod.

So let’s look today at why reading the Bible on an iPod is not the same as reading it in print. I want to look at just two points: linearity and distraction. I’ll grant that there is much more than could be said and that my thinking in this area is undoubtedly underdeveloped. I am thinking these things through as I write them. So take this for what it is.

There is a kind of linearity in a book that is not present in most other media. This is one of the greatest advantages of books and undoubtedly one of the reasons God had Scripture committed to books (and before that scrolls and before that memory). In a book, we read from beginning to end, progressing from introduction to conclusion, from thesis to the proving of that thesis, from explanation to application. We know this is the case with a book—a book amplifies this sense, this skill, of following and grasping a linear argument. This has been one of the most common arguments against using television as a learning medium; though it can display facts, it does so in a non-linear way. The worldview wrapped up in television is one that is non-logical, non-linear. The same is true of electronic media.

Hypertext, text in a digital format, is a double-edged sword. Text in a digital environment is inherently non-linear because it is inherently interactive. Simply compare a printed Encyclopedia Britannica of old to Wikipedia of today for a stark contrast. A person reading the encyclopedia reads an entry from beginning to end, undistracted, focused on just the topic at hand. A person reading Wikipedia is constantly faced with bright blue text. Not only is the color a distraction but the reader knows that each highlighted word links to a new article. Gone is the linearity of a book and gone is the lack of distraction. You, like me, undoubtedly read a few words or a few paragraphs, before being carried away by clicking one of those blue links that demands your attention.

Reading the Bible in electronic format makes it easy to chase down cross-references, to read notes related to the content, to find word definitions and so on. But all of this is at the cost of the natural, God-given flow of the text. As we use our iPods in place of our Bibles, we begin to understand Scripture as we do Wikipedia, a text suited more to browsing than deep study. We begin to feel the Bible is interactive, that it is more for skimming, for following trails from A to B to Z than for deep study or analysis. This is all wrapped up in the very worldview of the electronic device.

At the same time, the ease of accessing the Bible using hypertext causes us, I think, to view accessing information, rather than applying information, as the noble end (see part 1.5 for more on this).

All of this to say that a book is inherently a better medium for linear study of a linear text.

And this brings us to distraction.

An iPod or iPhone or Palm or Blackberry or whatever electronic device you use to read Scripture is not a devotional medium, it is not a medium used for study or deep reflection. It is an entertainment medium or a productivity medium (or both). When I use my phone, I use it partially for entertainment and partially for business (though I like to convince myself that it is more business than entertainment). My iPod is 95% entertainment with just a small amount of productivity involved if I need to use it to check emails while I’m out and about. So even if I read Scripture on my iPod, I am reading it using an entertainment medium. Thus I am reading it in the context of entertainment. I like to think that my mind can easily make this jump, that I can use it for entertainment in one moment and devotion in the next. But I may be giving my mind too much credit (at least if Postman and McLuhan are to be believed). Can my mind, then, focus and study the text as it does when I read from a book? Or am I inadvertently viewing reading Scripture as a form of business or entertainment?

Furthermore, iPods and iPhones and all the rest of these devices are inherently distracting. They are made to be distracting, tying into one small device a variety of functions that are in constant competition with one another. The iPhone commercials teach us as much, showing a person browsing the internet and then seamlessly receiving a phone call. Multifunction is their very function and we cannot expect to escape that by using ours for a different purpose. Even when reading the Bible, we might at any moment receive a text message or phone call or a calendar notification or some other kind of an audio or visual stimulus. All the while we have information about battery life and data reception and such on the screen before us, distracting us. We cannot sit back and relax and read using an iPhone because we know that, at any moment, we might (and probably will) be distracted. The medium contradicts the message.

My Bible never rings; it never buzzes or beeps or shows up with sudden calendar notifications. It simply shows me the words given by God in a medium that is inherently undistracting.

All of this to say that a book is inherently a better medium for undistracted study of a life-changing text.

I’m done for now. Have at it.