“In the early Christian icons,” my priest explained. “You can tell the Christians from the non-Christians by the technology they’re using. The non-Christians are reading from old scrolls, but the Christians stand flipping cooly through books in the codex form. The early Christians were right on the cutting edge of technology.”
Lately, I’ve been studying a newish realm of education called “multi-literacy.” As more forms of communication become available to non-experts through technology, students need to be trained in how to effectively communicate in those forms. For instance, before word processors made it easy, it took expertise in calligraphy to use different fonts. Now, it takes three clicks. But, do we know what different fonts communicate? It took expertise to participate in photography. Now, most of us have a camera in our phones. But, do we know how to compose a photograph? As technology makes the basic levels of these communication styles available to non-experts – by Microsoft word, by Photoshop, by hyperlinking – a new form of literacy must be taught in schools.
One class has me working on a multi-literacy “essay”, in which I create 32 slides in Powerpoint full of animations, hyperlinks, pictures, music, video clips, and quotations all analyzing a poem which appears on the first slide. It’s been a challenge to think about how color and shape and size convey meaning. Even though it’s taking hours more than a regular essay, it’s been a lot of fun. I’m learning to speak the language of the internet and the advertisers and the designers. And, as I learn how to speak it, I can learn ways of using it well, and why it has been effective in communicating with me (for better or worse).
I haven’t really been in a Sunday school classroom since the all the Internets happened. But, I hope multi-literacy has blossomed there, as well. I hope we’re living up to the old Christian tradition of being on the cutting edge of technology.
I hope that the Sunday school teachers encourage students to pull out their phones to find Bible references. I hope they tell them to type reminders into their iPhone calendars about when scripture memory verses are due. I hope they teach them where their phones and computers can be a boon to their walk with Christ, as well as where they can be a hindrance. I hope Christian educators recognize and develop the ability of these tools to further spiritual discipline and love of God.
There are two sides, of course. On the other hand, cell phones and the internet have a way of drawing us to them addictively. But, perhaps the way they draw us is more like food than like drugs. Food is one of those areas where moderation is unavoidably necessary to health – neither perfect abstinence nor perfect indulgence can be realistically held for long. This is why food has long been understood as a part of spiritual discipline, through both fasting and feasting and taking Holy Communion. In our world, interacting with technology is almost impossible to abstain from. Because of its prevalence, the tendency is often to advise reigning in technology use, especially for young people. But, perhaps this amounts to multi-literacy anorexia. Maybe we need a nutrition lesson in technology use: not just how to use it less, but how to use it better and for more good.
If you’ve seen a preschooler play with a touch screen, you know how fluent the next generation of Christians is in technology use. What many of us have, for the first time in history, is a tiny object with us at virtually all times, with abundant access to information; scripture passages, apologetics, ancient Christian texts, notes and calendars that can remind us to be who we wanted to be, if we’re clever and brave enough to learn and teach how to use it.