Do Information Tech revolutions force the church to reboot?
The Information Age
Everyone knows we live in the information age. we have internets and computers, and many of us work in a cube/office environment working on information. And we all know that before that was the industrial age right? and the other ages, were like, bronze and irone and stone and such..
And I would have agreed with that 100% until I read something that got me really thinking.
I was reading a short paper/ebook on the future of learning and came a cross the following attributed to Robert Darnton:
We live in not the first but actually the fourth great Information Age. The previous ones he defines as the invention of writing in approximately 4000 BC, the turn from the scroll to the codex in the third century AD, the invention of the printing press (by chinese in 1045, and Gutenberg in 1450) and now, the invention of the internet
I had never thought about it like that, anything that makes it exponentially easier to record and distribute the collected knowledge of the human race.. makes sense.. is an information revolution, and ushers in a new age of information.
Well, looking at the printing press, I knew that it was in large part responsible for the current protestant landscape. The Bible is the best selling book of all time, and it popularity and availability in large part due to the new printing press. But the other impact is that the reformers made much better use of the new printing press to publicly make their case to the general public. So the roots of the current dominant model of church in the west is pretty closely tied to the last information revolution.
So I did some thought exercises. Did this pattern hold up over time? Can the previous eras be tied to a specific style of church and beliefs? And more interesting to me, what are the future implications of the this to the modern church of today, just now entering coming to grips with the new information age.
Is the protestant reformation the first Theo+Technical upheaval?
I thought back on the history of organizing information and I will be the first to admit I am not a PhD level researcher in this area, so feel free to slap me around where I get stuff wrong. But I took the 4 generations and broke them out a little differently and tried to match them to what I know of different cultures and their practices.. and it seems to me there is a tight connection to the communication and transmission of information and the types of beliefs and churches that it will support.
Information Age 1: language and the church of the story. This is so basic it wasn’t called out, and there is no real way to study the age *before* language. But as far as ages of information go this is square one in my opinion. And there are plenty of cultures still in the world that operate at this level. they either have no written language or one that is not full fidelity. and I think that if you are in a culture of this type, then your primary knowledge transmission is obviously only one generation at a time, through oral tales, which tend to be narratives along the style of the power of myth.
Information age 2: writing and the introduction of standards of belief. Here is the first and second era of Darnton are contained. I broke this up a little differently because I think some of the technologies lead to certain limits of content and trasmission ranges. The key thing is that knowledge can now be passed between generations and between people without them ever coming into physical contact with one another. The tribal close proximity, pockets of knowledge are now starting to be removed.
Stone: The first writing that was done was stone carvings and clay tablets. Think 10 commandments, and Hammurabi’s law. Why is it important that they are in stone? Well first, stone is not very portable. Second it takes a long time to make. Third, you are limited by the size of the stone. This is the writing equivalent of twitter. So this era is one of laws. The first laws come in this era. You have a large stone. You codify the rules and put them on the wall, everyone can see them there you are. And keep in mind all the laws of this Era are tied into the religious practices of the people, we are 4000 years or so before the idea of separation of church and state in the west. Longer narratives are only in pictures at this point.
Scroll: This is one of the first big revolutions of information technology in writing. Scrolls are portable. they are quicker to write, not as durable, but can contain far more text. However downsides are now easy way to book mark, or have people turn to a specific chapter. And if the chapters are on different scrolls there is no set order to read them. However the important point it that the technology has caught up to the point that conversion from oral traditions to written documents can now happen. And in that process their contents are also becoming standardized as well. The result is more of a studied priesthood, that has now a standard body of knowledge to refer to, although it tends to be non portable and temple centric.
Codex: This is one of the big revolutions called out by Darnton, I was sure why he felt the codex was so much better than the scroll, so I had to do some research. The key benefits are that it is dual sided, is more durable, and portable. So the information is much denser, and can be taken out to the people. Coincidentally it is also comes to popularity during the growth period of the earlier christian church. So the net effect of this technology is that you can now capture all the traditional narratives like a scroll but it is no longer dependent on a centralized temple and priesthood. Pretty convenient if you are trying to “spread the gospel” in a consistent format to all parts of the roman world. Another feature of this era is that the order and specific books that you include become something that is now important. It is still not possible to get into everyone’s hands, and you still have a power structure of literate priests required to make the church work.
Printing press: This is the next revolution called out by Darnton, and its roots to the current protestant reformation is pretty clear. The printing press comes on the scene around 1450, by the 1500’s chaos is breaking out all over the Catholic church. In fact much of our concept of literacy has its roots in the movable type face printing press. (pre the wiki)
Although the present-day concepts of literacy have much to do with the 15th century invention of the movable type printing press, it was not until the Industrial Revolution of the mid-19th century that paper and books became financially affordable to all classes of industrialized society.
So we can see not only the start of the protestant church with the onset of widespread availability of the bible in native tongues, but as the industrial revolution spreads this further into society, we can see the roots for the non-denominational bible churches of today.
Information age 3: Internet.
No limit to information:
if the stone tablet was like twitter in it limit on content, and you move from that to the size of scroll, and then to the limit of paper books. The leap to wiki must seem unlimited. You can literally have a collaborative work of essentially unlimited size int he current age. Hard to say what that means in practical terms, but it is clearly a new thing.
Language will be irrelevant:
Well this is an interesting one. The internet in many ways makes the access to information open in a way not easy to get your head around. If the printing press was remarkable for moving the Bible from greek and latin to the language of the people. The internet looks to make what language something is recorded in irrelevant. A producer of an idea can create it in whatever language they want, and anyone else can get an instant translation. This is still not perfect by any stretch, but it will be.
Seekers will be more common than missionaries:
I am less sure on this one, but I have often said that this is the generation of “seek and you shall find”. If you want to find something on the internet, you probably can find it. So the portability of the codex, and the ability to send it out with a missionary would seem to be something that becomes less important in the new age. People will self select when they want to learn, and they will largely be self guided.
Options will become overwhelming:
The overwhelmingness of the current amount of internet is easy to spot. And the availability of multi-langauge translations of any material means that for the next generation seeker, they will have a nearly limitless supply of options to pick from for beliefs and moral structure, regardless of where they are located physically, regardless of what language they speak. Want to learn about buddism? Taoism?
So what does that mean?
are there other features of the internet age that will prove to be more important and dominate? maybe.
Could it mean that the current trend of “Moral theraputic deism” is the inevitable result of seekers leading their own journey, in a vast world of options that aren’t grouped into specific pre-approved codecs anymore? It could mean that to.
We might not see it all clearly for another 50 years, but I do think that there is a revolution in church coming, and the new Information Ages tools will drive it.