Jesus, values and technology

Present or absent? (Photo by e³°°°)

John Dyer at Don’t Eat The Fruit frequently has thought provoking meditations on the values implied by or developed by technology. His latest is a non-review of a project to offer “a social-media application built for church“. It’s a non-review because John has not seen the project, but it’s more than a review because it asks useful questions about the relationship between faith and technology, questions that too often get overlooked.

Among the interesting and challenging things John has to say in his post:The Table Project: Values Driven Technology? There are a few lines I’d like to question (as well as hopefully pointing you to the post to read for yourself because I am NOT pretending to have summarised it for you).

The task for Christians is to figure out where the values built into a technology’s usage conflict with the values system Christ gave us. For example, Jesus models things like being physically present, having  times of solitude and focus, and memorizing Scripture. We, however, through the use of online technology have come to value being virtually connected, being always online, and using our phones to search for verses we don’t want to memorize.

I think this confuses what Jesus DID with what Jesus’ values were. Take “being physically present” this is often produced by pastors and theologians as a trump card to beat down those who want to teach by distance or even do anything churchy online. But was physical presence one of Jesus’ values, or simply a by-product of the technologies available? The only alternative to physical presence for any sort of communication in the first century was hand written, hand copied, hand delivered letters (or other documents). Jesus did not choose physical presence, he had NO choice.

But as soon as the Christian movement was at all established, still within the first century Paul (and others, but none seem to have matched Paul’s prolific, enthusiastic and effective use of the technology) started writing letters. Others began telling the gospel in writing… Even Jesus, when faced with a crowd too large for just talking (without an amphitheatre – more technology to distance presence) used a boat and the hills of Galilee as a makeshift amphitheatre.

The issue is not PHYSICAL but PRESENCE. The problem with Facebook, Twitter and the rest is not that they are not physical for they manifestly are! It is that they attenuate presence. (I have a string of posts discussing “presence” do read one or two). Basically presence is not binary. Two people can be in the same room, but barely mutually present. People can be at the four corners of the earth, but highly present to and for each other. It is presence that matters, not physicality!

Memorising Scripture is also potentially a problematic value, as Socrates points out in Plato’s Phaedrus the technology of (hand)writing destroys memory. The issue again is not the technology but (perhaps) how we use it. If we use our phones etc. to recall a passage whose exact wording we have forgotten this is potentially a good thing, for we may see the “verse” in context. The ancient who relied on memory often had little idea of context, we can…

Media and presence in distance education

For some people e-mail as well as offering the chance to think before "speaking" also offers a sense of "presence" (Photo by janetmck)

In this post I want to move beyond the earlier one “How’s my presence?” where I argued that presence is not a binary state, but a graduated one. We can be more or less present. Here I will summarise briefly some fascinating research by Steve Wheeler at the University of Plymouth, make some suggestions arising out of my understanding of his work, and so prerpare for discussing a course I am preparing and teaching in (a) future post(s).

Wheeler, Steve. “Creating Social Presence in Digital Learning Environments: A Presence of Mind?.” In Learning Technologies 2005 Conference: Combined Presence. Queensland, 2005.

Wheeler investigated 305 first year education students (272 females and 33 males so more women than would be typical in theology classes) most were mature students with full-time jobs, with a mean age of about 40. So apart from the gender imbalance not unlike the “distance students in my classes. They completed two sets of questionnaires, at the start of their studies and 6-9 months later.

Photo by timparkinson

The real surprise, it should not have been – with the usual 20/20 hindsight it makes good sense, was that students with different approaches to learning showed striking differences in their perceptions of “presence” in differing media. So autonomous and tenacious students had strikingly different perceptions and responses to face to face learning. Autonomous students “neither need nor experience a great deal of social presence” in this setting (p.6), while tenacious students do experience high levels. For e-mail the results showed similar tendencies. Curiously for telephone these figures tended to reverse, with autonomous students experiencing presence and preferring this medium. He speculates that this difference reflects an autonomous student’s need to feel in control of the process (student initiated telephone call).

At the least this means that different students will perceive “presence” differently with different mixes of media, and therefore a course that uses varied media will be more likely to promote a feeling of participation across any varied group of students.

neither need nor experience a great deal of

social presence

How to avoid reading books (read effectively)

Good students avoid reading books. They read effectively. They read less words, but learn more. To explain this I need to start by describing how average students read, so you will understand what I mean.

Head scratching by a r b o Many of us read wrong!

The average student faced with a book reads it. They begin at the beginning, or more likely at chapter one. As we shall see this is never the right place to start. They then slowly – but only sometimes surely – plough through until, with a sigh, they finish the chapter. Little information and few ideas are retained, the words have mysteriously passed from eye to brain, only to drain out through the pores of the skin to join the other lost words in linguistic limbo. Such reading is the next best thing to useless. Better to read effectively. This time spent in “uselessness” could have been invested more wisely. For “wasted time” often pays surprising dividends, but time spent merely reading a textbook seldom does!

Having described how one ought not to read books, and hinted at why, let’s think about how to read effectively. The aim of the smart student is to read as little as possible but gain the maximum benefit from that reading.

I’ve always been a slow reader, I try to cope by “reading smarter”.

One way I do this is to “waste time” overviewing something before reading it:


The contents list should give you a fair idea of what the book is about and how it is organised. A few moments1 spent on the contents list lets you make intelligent guesses about where to find what. You might even join a conversation about the book without sounding totally stupid.

The foreword (before the first chapter) often tells you what the author thought their book was about. That’s vital reading! Likewise, the conclusion (Like detective stories, serious textbooks demand you read the ending early on!) should let you write a summary of the book in a few sentences.

Go on, write the summary down! At the worst you can look back at it later, and shake your head over how naive you were before you understood the full complexity of the topic ;-)


Look first at beginnings, endings and headings to try to get an idea of what the each chapter is about and how the different parts fit in.

Then skip through the material. Do not actually “read” yet, but look at a bit here and there. This will firm up your idea of what the chapter is about, and where it is going. By now you should be able to join a conversation about the chapter and sound like you read it!

Essential “reading“: they say a picture is worth 1000 words. (1Kw in metric measures.) Well-chosen pictures are worth 1Kw! Though badly chosen pictures are worth-less. (However, they are fun to look at, so worth wasting time on ;-) Charts, tables and diagrams are usually (even when badly done) worth at least 1Kw – so spend time on them!

At this stage you should be able to write a brief summary of the chapter. Yes, just like you did for the whole book earlier.

Moby’s important reading by ktylerconk The effective way to read textbooks is the way we “read” newspapers or magazines!

Important “bits”

Then read carefully the bits that you think matter most. See, now you are reading effectively. Seldom (using this approach) will you actually “read” all of a chapter, but you will get a good idea of what is in it – often better than if you had scanned each of the words!

I find if I try to read page by page it goes in my eyes and out my ears. Reading that way, I forget almost all the content five minutes after I saw the page. Such reading is a waste of time – don’t do it!

Sometimes with the way of reading I have described you read some parts twice. But they will be chapters or sections that really matter. Sometimes you will end up not reading some pages at all. However, you will know where they are if you need them “one day”!

In summary

Do a survey of the book, or chapter. Play with the material till you know what it contains, and where things are. Only after this, actually read carefully the “bits” that matter to you.

Congratulations, if you practice reading like this you will be reading effectively. More results for your effort!

  1. 1mo is shorter than 1min but much longer than 10secs. []