Monday, May 27, 2013

Discerning the message and the medium

This week I finished reading The Life of the Body by Valerie Hess and Lane Arnold, the book we’ve been discussing this month at The High Calling. This final section covered the seasons of life, children, caring for the planet, and the conclusion.

As it is sometimes wont to do, kept moving away from these final chapters and toward another thought altogether (but there is a connection).

I kept thinking about where we get our information from. Are we as Christians discerning as we listen to news, watch entertainment, or read books (not to mention everything online), or do we let the culture saturate us as it saturates social, political and spiritual life around us?

Twenty years ago, for reasons related to work and my first surprising experience with electronic communications, I began to read about communication theory. I read writers like Walter Ong (Orality and Literacy), Kathleen Hall Jamieson (Eloquence in an Electronic Age), and a host of academics who were beginning to grapple with the electronic word and what it meant. I also reread Marshall McLuhan (The Medium is the Message), Neil Postman (Technopoly and Amusing Ourselves to Death), and Jacque Ellul (Propaganda).

What came of all of this reading and reflection was a sensitivity to both words as content and media as means to communicate those words/content. (Today we say “content” to collectively include text, photos, art, audio and video.)

Most of us, me included, usually focus on the words or content – the “message.” What we understand less is how different media, or channels, favor some kinds of content over others, and how these channels actually shape the message that’s sent and/or received.

Video, for example, like television programs, movies, network news reports, and uploads to YouTube, appeals to the emotions, the feelings. This is even true for documentaries. To fit the channel of video, a communication has to be shaped in a particular way if it’s to be effective.

This isn’t a complaint or regret, more a statement of what is. Watching a TED talk is not the same thing as listening to a speech, because the screen itself frames the talk, favoring certain kinds of content over others.

The world I currently inhabit for work is that of social media. And it’s a world that’s changing our ideas of authority – who has it, who we listen to, and who is believable or credible. Twitter and Facebook, for example, expand our understanding of authority to include our friends and networks. They increasingly give us filters on news. This can be good (accuracy checks on news media) and bad (205,000 people follow Roseanne Barr on Twitter and consider her a credible source of information on news and public policy).

On Twitter, everything you need to know has to be crammed into 140 characters. Talk about minimalist communication. Nuclear disarmament, or understanding international terrorism, in 140 characters. Or less.

This is how many of us get our information on issues, controversies, and news – and “many of us” includes Christians. Someone says something on a blog or Facebook, someone else tweets it or pins it on Pinterest, and it’s considered of equal importance and weight to what a Ph.D expert who’s spent decades researching and studying has to say.

I’ve taken issue with a few things in The Life of the Body, but to be fair, I’ve seen similar sentiments in Christianity Today, blogs belonging to respected Christians, and Christians posting and commenting on Facebook. We readily accept anything if someone we like or trust says it. Or we google a topic and learn everything we need to know by simply scanning the first page of search results.

Greater discernment is crucial. We live in a time when virtually nothing can be taken at face value. Just because it’s a trending topic on Twitter doesn’t mean it’s true. Even something seemingly authoritative as a scientific journal has to be examined. Did you know that there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of “peer-reviewed” scientific journals whose definition of “peer review” is a Visa card?

Retweets on Twitter and shares and likes on Facebook are not measures of truth. Volume does not equate to truth. Truth isn’t a popularity contest – the prime example of that being the life of Jesus.

We’ve been discussing The Life of the Body at The High Calling, even if I went off the track today and discussed it by not discussing it. Check The High Calling for the main post and comments.

Photograph by Fran Hogan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.


Doug Spurling said...

Thanks Glynn, my take on what you just said is the three words: "Greater discernment is crucial." Jesus said over and over, 'be not deceived' and to not be...Greater discernment is crucial

S. Etole said...

My father told me at an early age that you can't believe everything you read.

Lane Changes said...
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Sandra Heska King said...

This is good content.

And reminds me again to test everything by the Creator of the world's contents. It also reminds me how often I let culture shape me--and how much of its content makes me discontent.

Maureen said...

I can think of nothing that isn't shaped to deliver a particular message in a particular way. Any time we pick up a book, read a newspaper article, scan a post on some social media site, watch the news, go to the movies, listen to a political speech, we are getting a message we've had no hand in shaping, until we pass it on, augmented or not. How to become more discerning, when so much gets passed on without being given a second thought, remains a profound challenge. It takes each of us being willing not only to investigate more deeply but to make known our findings if and when and where truth is revealed. As we've seen again and again, however, even truth can be manipulated by both its bearer and its receiver.

Unknown said...

Good words, Glynn. One thing this online life has taught me is that there is always more than one side of the story. Living with Social media--I think--has taught me to be a better consumer and a better critical thinker. Thanks for reading along with us. I always enjoy your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

attention getters
number counters
feeding our
fear of being
the only one
not known