Some people seem to think digital life is going to be the downfall of their faith tradition, if not civilization itself.

Others seem to herald technological advances uncritically, as though they are without risk.  Instead they focus solely on the rewards for communities of faith.

via Flickr's stewsnooze

I believe that people who advocate for digital life either helping or hurting faith are asking the wrong question.  To me, it’s more interesting and important to ask how humans are leveraging technology—how we change it and how it changes us.

In the next decade, faith communities will need leaders to help navigate the technological advances, with their attendant ethical challenges.

If leaders of faith communities simply ask, “Does digital life help or hurt?” then the result will be easy answers, that underestimate real concerns.

I invite you to engage with this running list (below) of uses of digital life by people of faith—add to it, change it or challenge it.

Positive Uses of Digital Life by Faith Communities

  • Communication tool: helps spread the message faster—from the event next Saturday to the essence of the religious message–especially with digital natives
  • Locus for information sharing between religious colleagues:  best practices in ministry, counseling, referral services
  • Source of connection and community for many, especially for those who have anxieties about stepping into a more ‘traditional’ face to face religious context (some for very good reasons)
  • Democratizing force: internet provides greater access to scripture. I can listen to sermons preached at All Saints Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills, CA from the public library in Detroit, Michigan.
  • Depolarizing: more lightweight exposure to the full range of views on what it is to be religious is possible (in places where the internet is uncensored, this guards against insular views)
  • Pushes the envelope in terms of transparency, which is often empowering.  In our digital lives, we are more likely to find out what the environmental footprint of your mosque? Does your priest or minister have a history of child molestation and have higher-ups looked the other way?  What information is visible to you?
  • Great tools for collaboration, which is a real challenge on many scales—from local communities to global religious bodies.  This can open up windows into better use of opportunities.
  • Made the hard work of interreligious and ecumenical dialogue much easier to maintain relationships and exchanges over time.  In previous centuries of interreligious dialogue a Jewish person from the U.S. and a Maori person from New Zealand might have spent 2 weeks together engaged in deep discussion, only to be separated by continents with long lapses between their letter exchanges.  Today, these relationships have more tools at their disposal through our digital lives.
  • Can be persuasive—I know that I feel better, grow in my spiritual life, etc. when I spend time praying every day, but don’t do it.  Persuasive technology can help nudge me in the direction I would wish for myself.

Negative Uses of Digital Life by Communities of Faith

  • Has potential to fundamentally alter what it means to be human
  • Some pursue digital life in place of “real” (usually defined as face-to-face) community. In some religions, face to face community is a part of spiritual practice.  In some cases, it is a path to spiritual growth to live in intentional community, contending with the very embodied parts of being human–from cooking meals together to studying together to even something as basic as sharing a bathroom.
  • Pairing the wrong forum with the wrong type of human interaction.
  • Listening Narrowly: Allows deeply polarized people of faith to find like-minded people and grow into disruptive, hurtful, or violent networks with potential for extreme scale.  With the right set of filtering tools, people can use technology to listen very narrowly.
  • Shallow Messages: Sometimes in the quest to be “relevant” in their use of technology, people end up obscuring the core of the message, or losing it altogether.
  • Underestimating the ethical quandaries of digital life: Technology must be wielded thoughtfully and morally:  If people don’t appropriately deal with the ethical questions of digital & scientific advances, then they aren’t doing justice to the potential for unintended or unimagined uses of those advances.

Digital Nation

In February 2010, Rachel Dretzin and Douglas Rushkoff ignited a more nuanced conversation called Digital Nation:  Life on the Virtual Frontier.  It’s 90 minutes worth of open exploration of the benefits and tradeoffs of digital life, with some global footage, though primarily focused on the U.S. context.  I appreciate the way in which both of them reflect on how digital life is changing what it means to be human.  Here is a more complete description:

Continuing a line of investigation she began with the 2008 FRONTLINE report Growing Up Online, award-winning producer Rachel Dretzin embarks on a journey to understand the implications of living in a world consumed by technology and the impact that this constant connectivity may have on future generations. “I’m amazed at the things my kids are able to do online, but I’m also a little bit panicked when I realize that no one seems to know where all this technology is taking us, or its long-term effects,” says Dretzin.

Joining Dretzin on this journey is commentator Douglas Rushkoff, a leading thinker and writer on the digital revolution — and one-time evangelist for technology’s positive impact. “In the early days of the Internet, it was easy for me to reassure people about what it would mean to bring digital technology into their lives,” says Rushkoff, who has authored 10 books on media, technology and culture. “Now I want to know whether or not we are tinkering with something more essential than we realize.”

People of faith whom I respect differ in terms of their view on digital life, and this is a conversation worth having as we look ahead to 2020 and beyond.  Looking forward to hearing from you, whether you agree or disagree.

Advertisements

Data visualization tools give us the ability to take numbers or words on a page or computer screen, and to overlay a sense of order and meaning onto them by allowing us to visualize the same exact data set in new, relevant, and sometimes context-specific ways.

One of my favorite popularized versions of data visualization comes from Wordle, which enables users to utilize simple word frequency counts to visualize the key thrusts of a given text.  Here, for example is a Creative Commons licensed image representation of last night’s State of the Union address:

At a glance, it allows you to see the key themes, catch phrases, and priorities.  Better yet, this data visualization becomes more meaningful when you compare similar data inputs to each other, looking for differences.  For example, here is a comparison of McCain (top) & Obama (bottom) nomination acceptance speeches at the Republican & Democratic National Conventions, done by Flickr‘s Thomas Hawk:

Interesting comparison! No further comment necessary 🙂  Recently, a company called WordBloom has applied data visualization tools to the Christian faith by enabling users to visualize their sacred text. Think of this as a next generation Bible concordance (cross-referenced indexing tool often used by preachers or lay leaders to prepare sermons & Bible studies.)  Here are some examples of the capabilities:

Word-study around a particular English word:

Or, view a word cluster to illuminate the definition of a Hebrew or Greek word, such as with the Greek ischuo (strength/power/health) below, along with links to passages in which that word appears.

There are at least 2 promising elements of data visualization tools for people of faith:

  • They have the potential to support a democratization of sacred texts–no longer does a lay person have to own a multi-volume biblical concordance to be able to have a robust in-depth study of their scriptures.  As users are able to visualize the Christian message in different ways, perhaps new insights will stretch them and help them grow in their spiritual journey.
  • Inter-religous data visualization that could map sacred texts of faiths in a much more accessible and lightweight way than ever before, have potential to increase understanding between peoples.

My sense of Wordbloom in particular, is that they’ve gotten a great start at an inexpensive way to offer this tool (only $36 for an individual annually.)  Also, they purport to be supporting charitable work (and they transparently acknowledge it is evangelistic work) through 10% of their proceeds.

One challenge, however, is that data visualization is only as good as the data with which you’re working, and in this case, Wordbloom‘s data inputs seem to be limited to specific translations of the Bible, such as the King James version, or particular Biblical dictionaries or commentaries which will always be biased by a particular lens of interpretation (full list of data inputs, as well as those they are working on adding can be found here.)

Overall, an exciting development–looking forward to seeing more of these tools in the next decade!

As my colleagues at Institute for the Future have forecasted, more & more people–particularly in North America–are beginning to track, quantify, and visualize data about themselves–from simple pedometers to track fitness, to complex genetic code to monitor chronic conditions and health probabilities.  One of the clearest expressions of this movement is the Quantified Self.

Some of the most exciting developments of this Quantified Self movement come when you consider a mashup of Quantified Self and neuroscience with tools like fMRI technology.  Are we on the way to beginning to quantify faith and its impact on our health?  The connection between physical health and spiritual practices has long been proven, and most recently featured in the popular PBS series, This Emotional Life.

Soon, we’ll be able to see the affect of meditation and faith community connections on our mental, emotional and physical health in a way that we never have before.  By 2020, quantifying faith will become increasingly possible, and this new potential has the potential to catalyze better health outcomes, as well as serve as a driver of growth and revitalization of faith communities.

Some questions immediately arise.  When you can quantify your faith…

  • How much more frequently will you perform your spiritual practices?
  • How likely are you to share about your faith with others, especially if you had discomfort with evangelism before?
  • What products, services, or tools will you use to measure your faith?
  • How will you monitor the feedback loops between your faith, health, emotions, and relationships?
  • With whom will you share your quantified faith data? What is that data worth to you?

This article provides an interesting glimpse into some emerging pockets of Judaism, highlighting how groups within the continuum of the Jewish religion are re-appropriating Jewish rituals, stories, and symbols to speak to their needs today.

Though this is not a very systematic analysis of emerging Jewish identities, it provides some interesting signals of new cultural and religious mashups; a sense of the fragmentation of Jewish identity, echoed in other religions in the past decades.

In the US context, the “personalization” or “customization” of religion seems to be a trend that results as much from our cultural movements than from any phenomenon inherent in the underlying religion.  From Punk Torah to G-DCast, this article provides some interesting examples of new constructions of Jewish identity.

Pope Benedict himself is encouraging Catholic priests to help communicate the Christian message, to express themselves, and to use as leadership tools.  As the Forbes report on the announcement put it:  Go forth, and blog!

Coming from the Vatican, this is an impressively bold and open-minded statement honoring the opportunities & risks of engaging with new media.  It is remarkable how this statement articulates a sense of technology as an amoral medium which can be put to service for better or worse, representing a much more nuanced understanding that is sometimes expressed by those who see technology as a tool for communicating whatever message one values the most.  As the message puts it:

The development of the new technologies and the larger digital world represents a great resource for humanity as a whole and for every individual, and it can act as a stimulus to encounter and dialogue.

For more, see the full message here, originally issued Jan. 24, 2010.

According to this article, U.S. Protestants are more loyal to their favorite brands of retail products than they are to a particular denomination.

Transferable Lesson:  Healthy, Beautiful Spirituality for Life?

While this article and its study aren’t strikingly convincing, there are groups out there that are seriously studying staying power of denominational brands.  For example, see “Brand Name Identity in a Post-Denominational Age” which links perceptions of denominational identity with the sense of overall vitality of a particular group.

While not wanting to minimize the content of the religious message these brands convey, one can’t help but wonder what lessons religious groups can draw about branding from the business world.

One of the most persuasive branding campaigns I’ve seen was done by the United Church of Christ–the campaign is called God is Still Speaking and it communicates with great clarity:

God is Still Speaking

So, too, is the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America rebranding through a new tag line, “God’s work, our hands.”  The Episcopal Church is harnassing the power of increasing literacy of video to invite people to upload their own stories about being part of that denomination at iamepiscopalian.org:

By 2020, how will religious brands have evolved?

Today at 2pm pacific US, internet-connected Second Lifers could take part in a Maundy Thursday service with others from around the world on a virtual island called Epiphany Island.  Here is the vision of the community:

Our aim is to: be church for you where ever you are what ever your circumstances.

Our vision is to see God glorified in Second Life.

To see Christians from different countries and theological persuasions come together to serve and worship the Lord.

To see the Anglican Church engage in relevant, meaningful and contemporary ways with the society around it.

To offer those involved in Second Life an experience of a God who deeply loves them and seeks a relationship with them.

To be a community who are known for their love and care, and their preparedness to serve others.

Imagine experiencing religious rites with others by viewing & communicating with their avatars…How does community feel different when experienced in this way?  How might it change a religious practioner ‘s understanding of the divine?  How is it liberating to those who shy away from conventionally religious spaces?  How much will online spiritual experiences grow in the next decade?