Saturday 29 September 2007

Writing, communication, technology and relationships

This is my third post about writing. In this post I want to make some comments and pose some questions about the impact of new forms of information communication technology on how we communicate.

The impact of technology

I write this Blog as a 55 year old who can remember as a child our manual exchange home phone being the only one in our street (and everyone using it) and the day our first (black and white) TV arrived (I was 11). I have participated in many subsequent technology advances – colour TV (I bought one just after our kids were born and kept it till they were grown up), personal computers (I bought my first one in 1984), faxes, videos, mobile phones (my first in 1989 and I still have the original phone number), the computer mouse (a big step forward), email (1989), websites, call centres, DVDs, a Blackberry (will I ever escape email again?!), Blogs, Facebook and so on. We've come a long way since Eniac was commissioned in 1946 (photo is a US Army Picture).

With some lived experience of technology I know firsthand that it changes things. I also know that the changes are not always good. When television arrived it reduced family time together (certainly in terms of interaction), it had negative effects for children who watched too much TV, it closed lots of community cinemas etc. I could repeat this for other technology forms – there are always negative impacts, as well as the positive. So as we continue down this path of constant communication technology change it is good to pause (before the next development hits) and question just where each major new wave is taking us.

Language changes

Language is changing all the time (both spoken and written). The most obvious way this occurs is in terms of language use, particularly in relation to words, spelling and grammar. New words are added to the lexicon with each passing year. What was once seen as an established grammatical form slowly disappears (e.g. the split infinitive rule – I know some of you out there are still holding out on this one). Incorrect spellings become optional spellings and in some cases (over time) preferred spellings. Text genres also change and are adapted to changing needs and purposes. The company memorandum (on paper) has largely been replaced by emails. Personal letters have largely been replaced with SMS messages, emails, Blog posts, Facebook entries. Even literary forms such as the novel are less often straight-forward narratives to become more complex and diverse forms. This type of change has always occurred, but seems to have accelerated in the past 30 years. One of the key drivers of such change has been communication technology (and with it globalisation) which has had an impact on language use as well as the way we communicate.

The word and new media - multiliteracies

One of the most significant changes has been the extent to which the spoken or written word has been supplemented, replaced or changed by images, video and film, and even led to new representational forms (gaming is a perfect example). This has led some to suggest that the written word is less relevant than it was once. There is little doubt that the written word is used increasingly with other forms of communication and that in our world we are surrounded by more complex ‘multiliteracies’. By this I mean new forms of communication that are multimodal and require much more interplay between words, images, sound, video, spoken language etc. However, we still have much to learn about this topic. For those interested in reading a more scholarly discussion of some of this as well as a defence of the importance of narrative for children, you will find a recent paper I presented on this on my website.

Anyone who reads a Blog will know that there are communication options available today not dreamed of 20 years ago and this is changing the way (at least) some people communicate. If there are people out there (probably not readers of this Blog) who don’t think new forms of communication are emerging, they need to consider the more recent Web 2.0 developments such as MySpace and Facebook. There is little doubt that these new forms of social networking are having a big impact on the way under 30yr olds communicate. Of course, we’re not sure what impact this might have long term on the way we relate to one another, but members of Gen Y have embraced it with great enthusiasm.

Advantages and disadvantages of ICT

The advantages of modern Internet enabled communication forms are obvious:
  • The Internet offers global reach at minimal cost.
  • It is very easy for anyone to publish and communicate ideas (including Christian truth) in forms that are visually attractive and effective.
  • It is possible to build cyber networks of relationships and to engage with others concerning just about anything, including matters of faith.
  • We can have access to written texts, images, audio files, video material from our lounge rooms, including significant historical source material, newspapers, images, videos – the web is an incredible resource.
  • Search engines like Google are powerful tools for learning when used well.
But there are disadvantages:
  • Web-based communication is less permanent (links quickly disappear, websites close down, Blogs 'mutate' into new untrackable forms etc).
  • The reliability and accuracy of any communication is largely untested and unreviewed, hence anyone can present themselves as an expert on anything.
  • Individuals are also able to misrepresent themselves more easily to unsuspecting audiences.
  • The ease with which anyone can self-publish may well give individuals a misplaced sense of their own expertise and knowledge.
  • There is a tendency for the message to be limited in depth.
  • There are moral questions for any Christian about the less than helpful content that is available at the click of a mouse for adults and children and at times the negative impacts a technology application might have on us personally. Nicole Starling (my daughter!) has an interesting post that talks about eBay and the impact it can have on us.
  • The shear amount of time that the Internet can consume can be excessive – new communication forms can become addictive (Josh Harris has an interesting post on why he left FaceBook after a week).
  • The fascination with new communication forms may well lead to the neglect of traditional forms. What is lost when children don’t read (or hear) as much literature? When adults don’t read novels or even their Bibles as much as they once did?
  • There is a danger that for some the “medium is the message” to quote the Canadian educator, philosopher and professor of English Marshall McLuhan, who suggested that for many the generic form of media is more important than any "meaning" or "content" that the medium conveys (something I'd contest of course but he'd see new ICT forms as evidence of the validity of his statement).
Some random implications

Here are what I think are just some of the implications of the above:

1. When we communicate have a clear purpose and audience in mind and choose the most appropriate form for your message. A Blog is a perfect way to establish and encourage interaction and knowledge sharing amongst a network of people interested in a specific topic and who have similar life experiences. But it isn’t the best way for the Australian Tax Office to fulfil its responsibility to inform citizens of changes to tax laws and interpretations. One reader of this Blog commented in a response to one of my previous posts on writing that he isn't about propose to someone by email, but I've observed some examples that come close.

2. Make the most of new media without reducing the importance of the written word - remember the message is the key, not the medium. By all means use data projectors in churches but don’t discourage the personal use of Bibles by projecting all passages and removing Bibles from pews. Conversely, do use the data projector for showing an alternative translation of a passage or to draw in additional material that might support the teaching of God’s word. And all should know about Some churches might even consider using Blogs, Facebook, and MySpace as part of its community building strategies (hopefully not as a replacement for other things).

3. Encourage young people to evaluate critically the impact of each new form of communication and to be aware of potential problems (e.g. web scams, net predators, the dangers of publishing personal information on the internet for the world to see; how relationships might be affected by the way we communicate etc).

4. Don’t replace personal conversations with your friends, family and neighbours with SMS messages, Facebook, emails and Blog posts. Yes, they can work well when you’re on the other side of the country or the world but there is no substitute for personal communication.

5. Do use new media to point others towards significant wisdom and knowledge. A communication diet based exclusively on YouTube, SMS or Facebook entries has some significant limitations. But all are mediums that could be useful ways to communicate significant messages such as biblical truth and to strengthen relationships and networks of people exploring life’s big topics together.

Readers interested in more posts on literacy, communication and related issues might find my blog Literacy, Families and Learning of interest.

Thursday 20 September 2007

Oliver O'Donovan speaks on Moral Reasoning

Audio files and PDF transcripts of Oliver O'Donovan's three 2007 New College Lectures are now available to download from the New College website.

Series Title:
Morally awake? Admiration and resolution in the light of Christian faith

Tuesday 4th Sept | Waking

The metaphor of wakefulness is constantly drawn on in the Gospels to focus the heart of moral sensibility. How does the invocation of God serve to make the moral stance conceivable to us?

Wednesday 5th Sept | Admiring

Moral attentiveness to the world is a task of affective intelligence, of “admiration”, not merely of “cognition”. What kind of coherence and order do we suppose in our world and how do assertions about a “Word of God” serve to underpin that coherence?

Thursday 6th Sept | Resolving

How can we make the transition of reason from what is the case to what we are to do? How may we intelligently “frame” an action to perform without arbitrariness?

Monday 17 September 2007

Remembering the impact of Christians in History week

This is History Week in NSW and it got me thinking about Apologetic opportunities.

History Week was initiated by the History Council of NSW in 1997 to showcase the rich, diverse history being produced by organisations and individuals across the State. During History Week, community groups, local councils, libraries, archives, museums, universities, cultural institutions, professional and amateur historians across NSW open their doors to present the latest in today’s historical research - fascinating stories, artifacts and experiences about both our past and ourselves today. It seems to me that there might be an opportunity for some churches to be involved next year (maybe some are this year).

As individuals or churches there could be no better week to remind your friends, family, workmates, fellow university students etc that Christians have been used by God in many ways throughout known human history. And that history is ultimately about God's story.

It would be a great time to mention some of the many Christian men and women who have changed the course of history. Ultimately, you would want to work your way back to the one who has changed the course of history more than any other – Jesus Christ - but some of the following might serve as a wonderful bridge to a discussion of the gospel:
  • Some of the greats of the Reformation - including John Knox, Martin Luther, William Tyndale, Thomas Cranmer, John Wycliffe.
  • Great dissenters who took important stands – John Newton, Richard Baxter (Puritan leader and writer), John Bunyan (gospel preacher and writer), John Eliot (who laboured for the needs of native Americans following the impact of English Colonists), John Wesley (who founded the Methodist Church) and so on.
  • Great social reformers of the 19th Century – William Wilberforce and his colleagues (abolition of the slave trade in Britain, urban renewal, education for poor children, restrictions on child labor etc), Elizabeth Fry (prison reformer), David Livingstone (missionary and explorer who opened up Africa), William Carey (founder of modern missions), Hudson Taylor, Mary Slessor, Wellesley Bailey (Founder of the Leprosy Mission).
  • People who suffered for the church in the 20th Century – Richard Wurmbrand (Romanian Pastor), Brother Andrew (work in the Communist world), Corrie ten Boom and many others.
Christianity Today has a great web resource on Christian History that will provide some leads.
There are also some useful books such as Geofrey Hanks' book 70 Great Christians: Changing the world (1992). Probably the most comprehensive reference is the book edited by John Woodbridge More than Conquerors: Portraits of believers from all walks of life (1992) which provides lots of wonderful examples under headings such as Politics (e.g. Abraham Lincoln), Writers (e.g. C.S. Lewis), Sport & Entertainment (Eric Liddell), Thinkers, Industry & Commerce etc. This volume has many contemporary examples as well as some of the better known men and women of the past. Then of course there is the current film Amazing Grace that tells of the fight by William Wilberforce and others to end slavery in 18th century Britain. Any other ideas?

Sunday 16 September 2007

O'Donovan Lectures Available

Professor Oliver O'Donovan's addreses for the 2007 New College Lectures are now available from the New College Website.

As indicated in my previous posts the series was titled Morally awake? Admiration and resolution in the light of Christian faith. Professor O'Donovan suggested in his lectures that the experience of moral wakefulness is universal and ways of describing the experience, and the philosophical puzzles they pose numerous. In his three talks he considered how we overcome the constant tensions that arise between the objective and subjective, valuing and deciding, “good” and the “right”? He argued that Christian faith can shed light on this commonest and yet most mysterious of human experiences.

The three lectures were:

Tuesday 4th Sept | Waking

The metaphor of wakefulness is constantly drawn on in the Gospels to focus the heart of moral sensibility. How does the invocation of God serve to make the moral stance conceivable to us?

Wednesday 5th Sept | Admiring

Moral attentiveness to the world is a task of affective intelligence, of “admiration”, not merely of “cognition”. What kind of coherence and order do we suppose in our world and how do assertions about a “Word of God” serve to underpin that coherence?

Thursday 6th Sept | Resolving

How can we make the transition of reason from what is the case to what we are to do? How may we intelligently “frame” an action to perform without arbitrariness?

Friday 7 September 2007

O'Donovan on Moral Reasoning

The 2007 New College Lectures have just concluded and all those who attended were recipients of some wonderful teaching from Professor Oliver O’Donovan. When I met with him in Edinburgh last year to discuss the series Professor O’Donovan suggested that he wanted to present three talks on Moral Reasoning. He indicated that he had much thinking to do in the area and wanted to spend (perhaps) the next 10 years (!) exploring the topic. The series he presented on the 4th, 5th and 6th of September was titled Morally Awake? Admiration and resolution in the light of Christian faith. His talks were titled Waking, Admiring and Resolving.

Waking - On Night 1 he framed his opening talk around wakefulness - the mind alert to shape decisions and actions - using the metaphor of a journey. He suggested that moral reasoning requires us to think more seriously about the need for frequent journeys from what is the case, to what is not yet the case. To consider making right choices based on what is “good” and “right”. Moral thinking he said requires a journey from observation to obligation, from “goodness of the world” to the “rightness of some action”.

He outlined that we are to be attentive to: a) the world that surrounds us and with which we interact, b) self, c) and time, being only able to act now, although being able to reflect on the past and imagine the future. [An aside: I’d like to think through the place of prayer as we not only imagine the future but seek God’s intervention to direct our paths in specific directions; to make our imagined future reality. I think of Abraham pleading with God in Gen 18:16-19:29 to spare Sodom; seeking to God’s mind and the future and being changed in the process himself]. He also reminded us that to live life with one’s eyes closed is no excuse for our actions.

Admiring - On night two he explored “Admiration” and suggested that it “finds its proper object in the good, and terminates there”. Admiration is not mere effort or action, rather, it is “rest” in the biblical sense of the word. A form of knowledge, an experience of the objective. He suggested that through this “cognitive affection” we experience the world. Not just knowledge of “bare facts”, or unselfconscious objective knowledge. Moral knowledge is reflective.

There was much to consider. For me, his explanation of the place of attentiveness to the self was helpful. Our love of God and neighbour he suggested must be self-aware, not simply absent-minded.

Reflective self-love, the foundation of other loves, is the polar opposite of an unreflective pre-moral self-absorption, a self-complacence which consists in a failure to grasp the concreteness of the self, and so leaves us at the centre of our own universe without any bearings upon the reality of others.

An ordered knowledge of the world should lead to an ordered knowledge of self. Self not in competition with our “neighbour”, “God” or anything else. A warning against disproportionate attention to self.

There was also an acknowledgement that Christians believe that God is the source of our awaking and that the world is not fully grasped except as God’s creation and indeed new creation. The goodness of God is not just a gift, but also a promise of that which we might anticipate and to which the Bible in its pages point.

Resolving - On night three he closed the circle so to speak on his first night metaphor – the conclusion to the journey. [An aside: I assume also that in one sense it is the beginning, with “resolving” leading in turn to further experiences of “awaking”.] His concern in this lecture was how we make the transition of reason from what is the case to what we are to do. He started by pointing out that each area of experience of the world requires its own path of moral discussion (e.g. bioethics, political ethics, economic ethics etc). Moral reasoning is not mere problem solving, not just seeking solutions for life’s dilemmas. “Decision” he argued is “thinking brought to the point of action”. Not simply which of two courses of action to take, but simply “to take a course of action”. Not in a vacuum, but shaped by a train of thought which has resolved upon a course of action”.

He cautioned against viewing practical reason as ‘deliberation” and of weighing things up - of “proportional calculation”. He stressed that reason as resolution is to clarify our view of the work God has prepared before us to walk in, to point to where we might step in making a decision and engaging in action.” Quoting Paul’s letter to the Romans (12:1-2) he reminded us that we are to be “living sacrifices” as a consequence of “renewed minds” – thought leading to practical reasoning and action. The mind renewed “towards” the discernment of God’s will”.

In moving from observation to obligation, from “goodness of the world” to the “rightness of some action”, he suggested “not everything that should be done, should by us be done” (quoting Paul Ramsey). And, that compromise is part of resolving, “compromises are decisions, explicit or implicit, that render ideals practicable”. But of course with the sober reminder that there can be bad compromises as well as bad ideals. [An aside: This is an area of his talk that raised issues for me (and others), that I need to think through, as much of Paul’s writing would point us in the opposite direction at times, avoiding compromise that is counter to God’s truth in his Word].

He brought the discussion back to faith, love and hope and their relationship to moral reasoning and practical action, and offered a challenge, as well as a question, “How are we to understand the thought, that a process of thought beginning with love and proceeding, through hope, to faith, must reach love once again as its climax?”

Finally, he suggested that admiration is made perfect when faith and hope lead us beyond the seen world to the love of God and that resolution is made perfect when faith and hope lead us beyond individual decision to common service of God pursued in love for one another. Resolving that we will act together as a community he suggested is the purest form of action. [An aside: While he was making a general point about Christian community here, his example was very much focussed on the Anglican Communion. I suspect many would question this point, certainly the first question in question time gently challenged the point. While Scripture does stress that Christians are to seek to be like-minded, this is a call to have the mind of Christ. If seeking to live in harmony requires us to act in harmonious error, then Scripture would call upon us to take a stand against views that are counter to God’s wisdom as reflected in his Word]. Professor O’Donovan’s point was essentially to stress the need for love and respect within the body as we morally reason and seek resolution and action together. More specifically he was gently arguing for denominational unity, no more and no less. His conclusion returned to the more fundamental truth in Paul’s letter to the Philippians that we are to seek to have the mind and love of Christ as we are lead by the Spirit to act with one purpose.

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. (Phil 2:1-2)

The Lectures were outstanding. Professor O’Donovan did not disappoint. While as expected, the talks were demanding, it was a privilege to gain access to some first thoughts on an exploration of an old (and important) topic. While the lectures resonated well with Professor O’Donovan’s previous work, he was sharing and in a sense rehearsing some new ideas. The talks will be available on the New College website in the next week. Byron Smith has also provided his own summary and comments on his Nothing New Under the Sun Blog that are worth a read.