Technology changes us. It doesn’t just speed up or make better what we already are. It doesn’t just change viewpoints and relationships. It changes us, as individuals and as communities. The excellent short video The Web is Us/ing Us from earlier this year gives a quick introduction to this.
For Marshall McLuhan, the technology of the alphabet transformed us: by putting letters and words in a line, order was created where it did not exist before. Similarly, the technology of the printing press created individuals who commonly and privately read the same book, the same newspaper. The public was created where it did not exist before.
The television, radio and the Internet created the mass of mass communication where only the public existed before. The Internet does this in a de-centralized way whereas TV and radio required centralized broadcasters, so the effect is not entirely the same. Again, McLuhan’s short The Medium is the Massage can give a great overview of these ideas without getting to the complexities of Understanding Media.
A recent Think Christian comment posited, “The 21st century is no different—only that we have more gadgets.” The discussion was on the so-called emerging church and the odd questions of what it actually is or is not. The commenter asserts that the 21st century emerging church comes forth from the protestant churches just like the protestant churches “emerged” from the 16th Roman church. The only difference, he suggests, is that we have iPods now.
Many have pointed out that the formal cause of the 16th century Reformation was sola scriptura: by Scripture alone do we know what is necessary for salvation. Entailed in this is its material cause: that we are justified by grace through faith. However, the formal cause of sola scriptura cannot come about without the technological (efficient) cause of the printing press. A public must exist which has access to the printed Scriptures in large numbers.
The technological cause here today is very different from the printing press. The Internet changes us in a very different way than widespread printing did. The emerging church, by extension, will not just be a Reformation plus iPods.
How is the Internet changing us? History will tell, but the concept of Ubuntu sets us on the right track. The material and formal causes that follow from this technological cause will be very different from the Reformation.
To say that it’s “just technology” is what McLuhan calls somnambulism. Wake up and realize that we are changing and moving even now. When we are transformed so is our church: that’s what is emerging.