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Thamus and Theuth and the digital age

Statue of an Egyptian scribe, ca. 2500 BC

In the midst of my MA study leave, I am pondering this famous old parable and its implications for the digital age.

“Now the king of all Egypt at that time was Thamus… To him came Theuth to show his inventions, saying that they ought to be imparted to the other Egyptians… When it came to writing, Theuth declared: “… I have discovered a sure receipt for memory and for wisdom.” To this, Thamus replied, “O most expert Theuth, one man can give birth to the elements of an art, but only another can judge how they can benefit or harm those who will use them. And now, since you are the father of writing, your affection for it has made you describe its effects as the opposite of what they really are. Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful… What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory. And as for wisdom, you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality: they will receive a quantity of information without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part they will know nothing… And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom they will be a burden to society.”

Phaedrus and the Seventh and Eighth Letters

Welcome +James

A photo of James Langstaff, Bishop of Rochester designate

It was a great pleasure to attend the Inauguration and Enthronement of Bishop James Langstaff today as the new diocesan Bishop of Rochester.

As I’ve said before on this blog, I don’t know a great deal about +James but the early signs have been very encouraging. He’s already done enough to convince me this is going to be a very different kind of leadership for Rochester, and a number of small gestures that together add up to a change in culture. It’s still early days, but you can definitely see good things coming.

The service itself went very well and was a nice mixture of the traditional and more creative elements. I appreciated the packed lunch under my chair, having heard about the feeding of the 5,000 and the generosity of God.

However, might I recommend that to the Diocese that if a Powerpoint presentation is to be given about life in the diocese in such a service as the one we have just had, you might consider asking someone to help who has a considerably greater level of expertise in Powerpoint – both its production and then execution – than was on display today. Successful operation of such presentations in a church service is not just a matter of hitting a button and, sadly, we were reminded of that once again today.

Oh what it is to grow up digital

Grown Up Digital book jacket

Amongst all that I am supposed to do as an ordained minister is the fact that in my ordination I made a vow to be a good student of all that will deepen my faith and fit me to bear witness to the truth of the gospel. I am also a curate and therefore still in a period of training although sometimes it feels like I’m a long way away from anything ‘theoretical’ (which is what I always associate with training, wrongly I guess).

While it may not be the average book that curates are reading around the country, I’ve recently finished reading Grown Up Digital by Don Tapscott. The book was inspired by a large research project which spoke to over 10,000 people and produced over 40 reports. It assesses the worldview, culture and impact of what Don terms ‘the Net Generation’ – people born between January 1977 and December 1997. Those who right now in 2009 are between the ages of 12 and 32.

It’s a fascinating read that has done a great deal for me in trying to make sense of several different things. Read more

Powerpointless sermons

Cognitive Style of Powerpoint book jacket

As part of my dissertation work, I have come across an extremely interesting pamphlet called The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint by Edward Tufte. Tufte is Professor Emeritus at Yale and he is something of a guru, it seems, on statistical evidence, analytical design and interface design.

In the extremely readable pamphlet, Tufte eviscerates the use of Microsoft Powerpoint and says that in presentation situations, it weakens verbal and spational reasoning, corrupts statistical analysis, foreshortens evidence and thought, and forces all thought into hierarchical linear structures.

Amongst other things he highlights the Investigation Board into the final flight of the space shuttle Columbia and the sad disintegration of the shuttle during re-entry on 1 February 2003. The conclusions of that Board stated that they believed the endemic use of Powerpoint briefing slides instead of technical papers as a key component in the disaster and an illustration of all that was wrong in the technical communication at NASA at the time. He goes onto show a few of the actual slides and illustrate just what a terrible method of communication it was in that context.

He’s not alone. Greg Pece has examined the use of Powerpoint in the US Military and concluded that it has changed how missions are conceived, briefings are conducted and then the missions executed… and not for the better. Read more

mobile phones and projection

Mobile phones and projection

I’m less in touch with the bleeding edge of technology than I once was (and I was never that bleeding edge at the best of times) but I was interested to hear the news that those clever technology geeks are working on putting digital projection equipment into mobile phones.

There’s some very obvious business applications for people like sales reps who currently lug various bits of technical equipment around to do a pitch with the ubiquitous Microsoft® Powerpoint presentation. They will go from laptops and projectors to their mobile phone on its own. With phones increasingly being able to store and present Word files and all the rest, if you add a projection capability in there, those reps will be laughing.

I’ve been ruminating, given my dissertation interests, about how such technology might find its way into church and, to be honest, I’m struggling to see any obvious applications at the moment. The PCC meeting, perhaps, might be able to make use of it or, indeed, other smaller meetings – staff meetings, home groups, youth groups perhaps. I’m not sure yet though that the church has a ‘killer app’ for this sort of thing in the same way that businesses may well be able to make heavy use of such things.

Nevertheless, projectors and mobile phones. You heard it here first! 🙂

when does technology get in the way?

Obamas faced by sea of mobile phones

Rob Ryan alerted me to this post by Matt Rees about ‘technology and presence’ featuring a fantastic photo of Barack Obama and his good lady surrounded by a sea of mobile phone screens lit-up while they all try and photograph the moment.

It’s an interesting question as to when technology gets in the way of the moment, in this case the historic experience of seeing the first African American to occupy the White House.

As some readers and friends will know, I’m currently wrestling with a Masters dissertation on the influence of digital projection technology on worship and certainly a key question there is whether the technology facilitates an opportunity to engage and experience the Divine or whether it gets in the way. My emerging thought is that despite the raft of literature focussing on the pragmatic how-to’s of the whole thing, I think it changes more than just the pragmatic and practical and that actually our theology, our ecclesiology are all impacted. I am not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing but I think it is important to recognise and explore that impact.

Read more