The Next Story: Life and Faith After the Digital Explosion by Tim Challies

In The Next Story, Tim Challies attempts to lay out what the subtitle suggests: an idea of life and faith after the digital explosion. I came into this book with fairly high expectations. I have my undergraduate degree in Computing with a specialization in Cognitive Science, and I am currently working on my Master of Divinity in Theology. So a book that looks at how technology affects us mentally and spiritually sounds like a hit to me. But maybe that background is working against me, because I found that the book was not really that insightful. Realistically I’m trying to put myself into the shoes of others and it probably is for the average person, but I guess I’ve just had too much time to consider it already.

I also wasn’t a big fan of his writing, feeling like it went on for twice as long as necessary to make his point, but this is a theological blog so I won’t spend a lot of time commenting on that, but it probably did colour my opinion to be a bit more negative than maybe the content actually deserved.

I have one other critique that I would like to get out of the way before getting into his content in more depth – at which point this reflection will seem more positive because for the most part I did like the content. Challies lays out early on that he is attempting to bring together the three domains of experience, theory, and theology. What I found generally is that he did a good job of experience and one of the others in any given chapters, but not really all three at the same time. Not that I really hold that against him – it’s a very challenging goal in my opinion, especially to get theology in there. So maybe I shouldn’t have been that surprised that I think he largely failed at incorporating all three at the same time, with theology being the one most often left out. And I guess because of that failure to incorporate all three at once, that is probably why most of the content wasn’t that ground-breaking to me as I’ve largely already studied or at least personally considered the other two of theory and experience.

To get to a more positive note, for the most part – with one significant exception that you’ll read in a moment – I liked what he had to say, and if you have not already considered some of these issues then I definitely can see this book as being worthwhile. The topics he covered were as follows:

Communication

In this first section he talked about the idea of communication, touching on a theme that will persist: technology often leads us to trade in deep communication for shallow communication. Sure, we can keep up with our 500 Facebook “friends” but is the level we’re communicating to them at really the same level as if we had 10 actual real-world friends? No, of course not, but it is a trade most people are willing to make – quantity over depth. Challies discusses some of the ways that communication can become an idol and while I don’t think I really disagree with any of it, it felt like he was stretching to get some theology portion to fit within this chapter.

Mediation

In the next section Challies talks about the idea of mediation. This isn’t that much different from the first section but with a different emphasis. As we live in a world more and more mediated, we are essentially putting up walls between us. If you read this blog instead of hearing me say it, it is a mediated communication. That communication of course is better than no communication at all, but we often settle for it instead of trying for something with more depth to it. Media – or mediation – is great once again for getting a wide expanse of knowledge or connections, but it is very challenging to really experience relationship through a medium. For example, I think we can all agree that if a romantic relationship must be long-distance for a time, it is better to have technology than not, but we can also all agree that it would be much better if the two people were able to spend time face-to-face instead. How to make this theological? Again Challies stretches a bit in my opinion to really link the ideas, but he points out that God is immediate/unmediated. By going back to only mediated relationship with each other and with God, maybe through a virtual church or prayer groups by email instead of in person, then we are giving up a lot of the potential for actual relationship.

Distraction

This is the section that I think the most people need to read. I think most people have stopped and noticed the problem of mediation and that face-to-face is better. I don’t think most people have realized how much they allow technology to distract them. I’m a BlackBerry user, and as much as I hate to admit it, it is the best example I know. When that beep sounds, I answer. When that red light blinks, I answer. I’ve become somewhat capable of ignoring it for a more opportune time, but generally speaking if you have a cell phone, let alone a smartphone, you know what I am talking about. It is actually addicting to respond to that message because you feel like you are connected to the world through it. And then we begin to actually expect that distraction and we have a hard time focusing on what else we’re doing even when we aren’t getting a beep. Even as I write this, I keep looking over at my phone just in case that red light is on. When I do school work I’ve learned largely to leave the phone on the other side of the room, muted.

Two tidbits of theory here that most people don’t realize. One: we can’t actually multitask. It is impossible for the human brain. The best we can do is switch back and forth really quickly. Some can do that better than others for sure, and we will get better at it with practice. But we can’t really do it, and even if you practice your whole life, you will not ever be able to do two things at once as fast as if you had just done them sequentially. Challies points out that studies show on average we take 50% longer to do 2 things at once than separately, so just imagine how bloated that percentage gets once you’re up to 5 or 6 things at once, as many of us students attempt to do.

Second theory tidbit: Even when the message isn’t coming in, we are still distracted by knowing that it can come in at any time. I generally leave my instant messengers on when I’m working, as well as of course my BlackBerry. Studies have shown that this distracts us, too, and has some of the same effects as actually attempting to multi-task. We are always waiting for that beep or that pop-up notification, so even if one doesn’t come there is a little bit of our processing power that is being forfeited in order to check in every once in a while.

Information vs Wisdom

This was another very good section I think a lot of people could benefit from. It separates the ideas of data, information, knowledge, and wisdom, with the beginning of the list being the most shallow but easiest to obtain and the end of the list being the deepest and requiring the most investment. We like to say that we live in the Information Age, and it is true. We are surrounded by information and data. We tend to be lacking in knowledge and especially wisdom, though. It is like with communication – do we choose deep communication with a few people or shallow communication with a bunch of people? Do we choose wisdom on what matters, or do we value simply having more information? What do we do with that extra information? Usually nothing, but we feel better having it. I agree with him in saying that in general information is made an idol in our current culture. That is why everybody is expected to get a university degree even if they need to turn around and go to college afterward to get something they’ll actually use – they’re told that they simply need the information for the sake of having it.

What if we shed the need for information, though, and focused of deepening the information we have into wisdom? I bet we would get a lot farther. Challies talks a lot about how the constant need for information reduces our ability to develop wisdom, but I’m surprised he never brought in basic information theory to prove his point. Information Theory says that the more possibilities are out there, the more uncertainty we have on an exponential scale (having twice as many options doesn’t create twice as much uncertainty – it creates four times as much; three times creates 8 times as much,etc.), and the more processing it will take for us to settle on the correct information. We live in a world flooded with information, and consequently we live in a world flooded with uncertainty. In many ways it is bogging down our brains so much that we can’t move on to deepen that information into knowledge or wisdom. Wisdom is an important theological theme, but again it feels like Challies was stretching to include it here as it only backs up what should seem obvious.

Truth and Authority

This section somewhat bugged me, which is kinda funny because it is the one section where he got a heavy emphasis on theology but little theory rather than the other way around as in the other sections. In the Internet age, there is very little concept of authority. Challies contrasts the Wikipedia model to the Encyclopedia Brittanica model and argues that while there are some advantages to the Wikipedia model (he presents them briefly and then continues for a while about what is terrible about it), there are too many problems for it to be worth it. The main thing is the idea of authority. Wikipedia operates on a principle of majority rules. If most of the people who want to edit the article say one thing, than it wins and is considered the “truth”. There are a few thousand editors, but that pales in comparison to the millions of articles that anybody can write and edit. He argues that this undermines authority because a casual interest is on equal footing with an expert in the field with multiple degrees in it. While I somewhat agree, the democratized idea still works fairly well, at least over time, because most people will still correct flaws. A study he cites but then largely ignores says that the average Wikipedia article has four factual errors and the average Brittanica article has three. If the study is valid, and he basically dismisses it as invalid for reasons he didn’t flesh out, then that isn’t exactly a huge difference.

The majority of the section is a theological rant on authority, though. This is a rant I’m not a huge fan of, and our theological differences definitely came into play here. While I accept the authority of the Bible, I don’t take any one person’s interpretation as automatically higher than another’s, even if that person has a degree in it. He obviously has a much more conservative position and aims to hold on to traditional understandings of authority, with the top down revelation model of God -> Bible -> Pastors and Theologians -> Laypeople. I largely believe in a bottom up idea of theology, that it should come from the laypeople, although of course in interaction with the revelations of God in the Bible, nature, the Church, etc. If anything, I think those experiencing the real world have more authority than people with degrees, especially when it becomes unanimous (although I’m willing to say unless it is blatantly contrary to the Bible and even they see that contradiction) because they are the ones who are actually attempting to live the Kingdom of God rather than just ponder it in an office. Anyway, that’s why this section bugged me somewhat, and it was purely theological – I do agree with the premise that things like Wikipedia and Google are promoting a majority-rules authority; I’m just not as convinced that is a bad thing.

Visibility

This is another section that I think everybody has thought about, especially in light of various privacy failures of Facebook among others. But wow, Challies is paranoid, and not at all accurate when it comes to discussing the security measures being taken by major companies with our data. He says that just any employee at one of these companies could take all of our private data and stick it up on the Internet somewhere if he was so inclined. How often have you heard that happen? Not often, and there is a good reason: in very few businesses, and none that I would consider legitimate, would that actually be possible. There are ridiculous levels of internal security, and you are still far more likely to have your credit card stolen out of your wallet than out of the Amazon database. This is the only time in the book when I felt like his theory was just outright wrong.  I don’t remember there being any theology worked into this section at all – it was a common-sense but paranoid call to be vigilant about what data you are releasing where.

So Much Negativity!

That last bit leads me into my biggest annoyance as the book kept going: it was entirely negative. A couple of times he said that sure, technology has some redeeming uses as well, and it is always up to us to use it in good ways and not bad ones. I agree. But then he spent the entire book talking about the bad ones, and when he provided applications it was always application that involved using technology less. Maybe we should do those things, but maybe the answer to bad use of technology isn’t no use of technology but good use of technology? He even talked about this in the beginning, saying that most Christians went to one extreme or the other, either blending in and just following the crowd or else trying to retreat entirely, and then called us to a middle ground of discerning use of technology. But then the only discernment he ever mentioned were discerning what not to do instead of what to do. I tend to not be so pessimistic about technology so it was wearing me down by the end of the book.

The Summary

So, general statement on the book: it was alright. It is worth the read if you’ve never considered these questions before, and I know a lot of people haven’t as much as I have with my background. But I felt like it had the potential for so much more as well, just was held back by the generally negative tone, the conservative Calvinist theology (there was also a fair bit of total depravity talk), and the rambling and redundant writing style. I still feel like there has to be a better book on the topic, so if you know of one, please tell me in the comments. But we do live in a technological world and as he points out often, we are so inundated with information that we rarely stop to analyze it, so worst case scenario: this book helps you take some time to meditate on those questions and how it is affecting you and those around you.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.