I was looking forward to this book. I knew going in that I was probably not going to agree with some of it. An online acquaintance even warned me about it, but I hoped it would start some good dialogue. So I was still glad that I had accepted a review copy to post about it. (Thanks to Spaghettipie and BlogTourSpot.)
Maybe my expectations for the book were off, but this book failed to deliver on its promise. For some reason, I was expecting a book about current technology. The title suggests that after all: Flickering Pixels. Pixels are what we see on our computer screens, what I see as I type these words while listening to Harold Budd on my Harold Budd Pandora channel, what you see as you read them.
More Past Than Present
To be fair, the introduction concludes, “These pixels are only one example of the technologies that shape us.” So I went into chapter one expecting some historical review. I like historical review. Looking to past technology can certainly help us make sense of present technology. (Clay Shirky did this with incredible excellence in his essay “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable.”)
I didn’t expect to read about hardcore tech innovations, either. But I did expect a book about technology to demonstrate the author’s credibility with the subject. Since I love TED, I was hoping the book could be in dialogue with that organization’s wild enthusiasm and optimism.
Of course, the book addresses some forms of older technology. One key metaphor of the book is print culture and the result of print culture. Later on, the book talks about the telegraph, which Hipps calls the Victorian internet.
But Hipps never really gets around to discussing current technology with the wisdom of an insider. The book just doesn’t have enough street credibility to be taken seriously. (Shane himself seems to have credibility with some very respectable folks like Andy Crouch and Rob Bell, so I think the book lacks credibility, not Shane.) Still, I was expecting to read about social media, blogs, twitter, social networks like Facebook, and other innovative approaches to information like open source and wikis. In the few instances where the book addresses any of these current technologies and our current struggles with them, it does so through anecdotes. I appreciate the power of a good anecdote to give context to abstract statistics, but this book relies on anecdotes alone.
For example, a young woman is offended when her friend posts baby pictures on Facebook. A page later, Hipps concludes that
anonymous intimacy has a strange effect. It provides just enough connection to keep us from pursuing real intimacy. In a virtual community, our contacts involve very little real risk and demand even less of us personally. Vulnerability is optional. A community that promises freedom from rejection and makes authentic emotional investment optional can be extremely appealing, remarkably efficient, and a lot more convenient.
Now. Those are some interesting ideas, but the book doesn’t really explore them. I wish it did.
My biggest criticism of the book is its size. It is thin. It’s evidence is often philosophical or anecdotal. I really expected an analysis of the sociological and marketing research that so many folks have been doing on new technologies and new media. But we’re left with philosophies, stories–and what often feel like hasty generalizations and unearned conclusions.
Three Things I Loved
I’m not saying Flickering Pixels is a horrible book. There are moments that truly spoke to me. For example, Shane says,
Writing gives people the luxury to act without reacting. It separates the knower from the known, thereby allowing us to stand outside our thoughts and feelings and observe them apart from ourselves in time and space.
I like those ideas. Even if they don’t have much to do with the book’s promise, that’s some stuff worth chewing on.
Then, twice in the book, Hipps refers to his crisis of faith: “I had all the answers to the questions no one was asking.” That feeling of helplessness really resonated with me. So often Christians just aren’t invested in the world enough to know how to talk to people. We can be isolationists and separatists, living on the other side of stained glass windows. We have forgotten how to “be in the world but not of it.”
One more piece of the book that I love. In one of the final chapters, Shane thinks about the tabernacle as a kind of technological innovation. He writes,
Yaweh goes into excruciating detail for how to make and use all worship-related media and technology… It takes God over two hundred verses and six laborious chapters to detail the technologies to be used for worship—and this is in a Bronze Age culture. How much more might God be concerned with our technology in the age of the iPhone?
Still, I Was Disappointed
I guess I was hoping for Shane Hipps to give me more excruciating detail about our current technologies than he did. He seems to be a really smart guy. I’ll be interested to see what he comes up with in the future.
But this book just doesn’t deliver on its promise. The back cover says, “Shane Hipps takes readers beneath the surface of things to see how the technologies we use end up using us.”
I’d like to read a book like that about our current technologies, but this is not that book.
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- Flickering Pixels: Sponsored Discussion (www.blogtourspot.com)
- A Presentation About Community, By The Community – The Finished Presentation (neilperkin.typepad.com)
- Scot McKnight on “Virtual Community” (blog.christianitytoday.com/outofur)
- Shane Hipps on “Virtual Community” … Again (blog.christianitytoday.com/outofur)
- The Facebook Fast (blog.christianitytoday.com/outofur)
- Rob Bell interviews Shane Hipps about Flickering Pixels (shanehipps.blogspot.com)