distracted

A month or so ago, I posted about an article written in the Atlantic, titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” In the post (here), I raised the question of how the medium of Bible software effects our ability to interpret the text .

I just came across another article that’s somewhat related – this one in The Times Online – “Stoooopid …. why the Google generation isn’t as smart as it thinks,” by Bryan Appleyard. The article’s quite a jeremiad. The tagline states that “the digital age is destroying us by ruining our ability to concentrate.” The article does not simply rail against Google or the information age, but it challenges the “distractedness” that comes with being electronically “connected.” This distractedness goes beyond computers and reaches into how we handle our actual flesh-and-bone lives. One particular quote stood out to me. One of the interviewees of the article stated that he found himself “loving novelty” and yet “craving depth”. What a beautiful way of putting it, unfortunately it’s downright scary for me to hear my own soul in his words. The article reminds me of a passage from Luke:

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)

Just how much do I miss because of my self-imposed technological distractions?

Sean McDonough (my original thesis advisor) preached a related sermon in the seminary chapel on November 20, 2007, titled “Virtually Communicating” (mp3).

On a somewhat related note: L. Gregory Jones (Dean of Duke Divinity School) has put out a small article about his use of Facebook, titled “My Facebook Friends.” The article is rather balanced. While he notes the advantages of Facebook in keeping in touch with folks, he states that “Facebook friends and social networking are not adequate substitutes for authentic friendship.”

BTW: While I was reading article by Appelyard, I was distracted by my Facebook Firefox toolbar, where my current status had not been updated, so naturally I had to update it. At least I made it through the article without skimming!

Is Bible software making us stupid?

I’m an avid user of Bible software. I love BibleWorks. I dabble in Accordance. I use Logos. While I was writing my thesis, this software was indispensable. I’ve been wondering, however, if the use of Bible software has a price (besides dollars). One obvious cost is proficiency in the original languages. I’ve often heard Bible software referred to as a “crutch.” I must admit, I’ve allowed myself to grow too lazy with Greek and Hebrew in the last couple of years partly because of the readily available grammatical helps in the software I use. This “cost” of Bible software has been commented upon by many folks, and that’s not my point here. There is a more hidden insidious cost, I think. Guy Billout of theAtlantic.com has written a piece titled, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” I think that his concern applies to digital biblical scholarship:

… media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles.

In an age where vast commentaries of Scripture and ancient texts are readily available at our digital fingertips, I wonder if we run into the same problem. I remember writing a paper where I noticed that I was looking at snippets of an author’s thought rather than his whole argument. Now, I was not simply looking for a quote that supported my point. I was really looking for information. I was researching. I just realized how easy it was to decontextualize the information. It was easy enough for me to do this skimming a paper book. I believe it is all the more easy to decontextualize an author’s thoughts while we’re browsing search results on a screen. Billout quotes Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.

We are not only what we read. . . . We are how we read.

I wonder if our method of doing computer based research of biblical texts actually shapes the thought that we put into it. It seems that this is an area where the hermeneutics gurus could lend a hand. I seem to remember Vanhoozer speaking of “a hermeneutics of love.” Incidentally, I Googled this phrase and found indeed that Vanhoozer has written of this – as has N. T. Wright. This hermeneutic respects the “otherness” of the text and the author and seeks to understand them on their own terms without imposing our own desired meaning. It would seem that this course needs to be taken by researchers – especially those who are using “search results”.

I would certainly not want to throw out the Bible software baby with the bathwater. We need not wipe our hard drives. Still, it would seem that we should acknowledge the way media steers our train of thought. We should discipline ourselves to “love” the text enough to actually spend time with it and read to understand rather than to mine disconnected data.

I wonder, as a librarian – one who is supposed to help others gather evaluate and use information effectively – how can I help teach this “hermeneutics of love”? How can I model it? As an academic do I practice it? I wonder if anyone has tried to apply this kind of hermeneutic to “information science” in general? How does one discipline one’s self to practice charity when reading texts using Bible software?