Thinking Out Loud

May 30, 2019

A World of Social Credits

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 11:57 am

Yesterday Uber Technologies announced changes to its ride-share system insofar as it is affected by ratings that passengers give its drivers, and the drivers give the passengers.

It prompted the announcer on the talk radio station that’s on when I drive home to be reminded of an episode of Black Mirror in which every single interaction is tied to a rating system, including such trivial things as paying for your fuel at the self-serve station or picking up milk at the convenience store. People are constantly identified and the rating is quickly punched in at the conclusion of each transaction. Things like being a blood donor are obviously weighted higher for consideration of a person’s social credit score.

Early on in the episode, a woman goes to rent a car only to be told something like, “We only rent to sevens or higher.” She must then try to find away around the system, and my wife, who has seen the episode, says at that point the story gets darker.

I have always liked — and often used — the Max Headroom phrase “20 minutes into the future.” From my perspective, many of the things science fiction dreams of happening in a very distant future are often, relatively speaking, just minutes away from being reality.

Anything transactional in a goods-and-services sense always reminds people of the words of Revelation 13:

It also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name.

When BankAmericard and MasterCharge (today’s VISA and MasterCard) were first introduced in the U.S. some Evangelicals claimed this was the forerunner of the mark of the beast. (The same, but to a lesser degree, in the UK with the introduction of Barclaycard.) It was a similar reaction when UPC barcodes were introduced — somewhere I have a prototype print of the circular type of barcode that was never used — and then the same discussion once again when microchips for dogs and cats were first made available.

But each of these discussions focuses on the how of the technology, but not so much on the what.

What if your ability to conduct transactions isn’t determined so much by how much is in your account or the limit of your available credit, but instead by other factors, such as the social credits? What if, like the woman in the TV show, you can’t rent the vehicle for reasons other than financial? Uber stated that below a certain point customers may stop having access to the Uber app. People were calling in with opening lines such as, “Hi, my name is Dan and I’m a 4.87.”

The talk radio hosts spring-boarded to a discussion of Uber and Lyft drivers refusing to take people to certain destinations. What if your car breaks down and your conservative fundamentalist Uber driver refuses to take you to Joel Osteen’s church? Or what if the atheist driver refuses to pick you up at Saddleback to give you a ride home? (And why are they working on Sunday?) What if the fish on the back of your car caused you to be down-rated by people you weren’t even dealing with at arm’s length?

I would argue that the potential for market disruption — not to mention blatant discrimination — here is huge, and the insidiousness of it makes the issue of bakers refusing to bake wedding cakes for certain customers look tame by comparison. 


Update: There’s a reader comment below that bears highlighting. The link is to a New York Post story from May 18th which begins:

Imagine calling a friend. Only instead of hearing a ring tone you hear a police siren, and then a voice intoning, “Be careful in your dealings with this person.”

Would that put a damper on your relationship? It’s supposed to.

Welcome to life in China’s “Social Credit System,” where a low score can ruin your life in more ways than one…

 

Advertisements

March 15, 2019

I Want to Fly the Plane

Filed under: Christianity, technology — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:23 am

The plane which took us to Cuba last month. WestJest was one of the airlines affected by the Boeing Max 8 grounding this week.

Last night I received an email which had been flagged by Gmail (a division of Google) as being suspicious because the person who sent it to me appeared to be sending it from an email address which he had not used before. Actually, I know this guy, and he has about four different email addresses.

I carried my phone downstairs where my wife was working and I said that frankly, I thought this was none of their business. I am intelligent enough to look at the content and decide if there’s anything malicious in it.

Earlier in the day I had shared with her a discussion I heard on talk radio suggesting that the problem in the Ethiopian Air crash as well as the one in Indonesia might possibly have been caused by systems related to the autopilot function. Their pilots lack the training of their North American equivalents, probably due to the rise in affluence in countries allowing more people to fly, resulting in the need for many more skilled personnel. For such instances the autopilot is usually a blessing…

More and more it seems that the machines are taking over, not only in terms of function, but also in terms of doing our thinking for us. The on-air reporter was suggesting that the pilots and the countries concerned, simply need to get the plane up in the air and then let the computer take over. When something goes wrong, they lack the necessary skills to know how to fix the problem correctly and so they jerk the nose of the plane back up, resulting in a stall. As far as the investigation goes, these are early days, so it’s hard to know how the accuracy of that analysis.

Needless to say this causes me concern when it comes to self driving cars.

One thing that the airline story accomplishes is that it gives me the language necessary to say what irritates me most about my computer and my phone:

I want to fly the plane.

I want to be the one in charge. I want to decide for myself. I don’t want everything to do with my email and my social media and the business use of my computer to be run for me are to be on autopilot. Your paragraph

On Monday, I sent out a newsletter using the MailChimp program. I had to override the from address because the one it has stored as default is actually incorrect and the service won’t let me change it. Each time I type the address I got a large red warning sign telling me that my address lacks an at sign and that furthermore when I get to the point where I type it in it then gets upset but I am lacking the .com portion of the address.

There’s no way of telling the machine that I have a brain, but if it just gives me another two seconds I will type a completely usable address.

I want to fly the plane.

But more importantly I want to know why in a generation that is increasingly being taught computer coding we have to let these autopilot systems do everything for us. Eventually the machines will reach a complexity where are the humans will simply not be able to do the necessary overriding when necessary.

This is what many believe happened in the recent air crashes and it’s unfortunate if that is the case.

September 11, 2018

“This is just what this generation does, Mom.”

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:38 am

Checking our archives, I realized it’s been awhile since I posted something from Diane Lindstrom, who blogs faithfully, since 2010, at Nice One Nana. We don’t normally poach the pictures which go with material we steal, and she didn’t cite the source for this, but hey, in for a penny, in for a pound, right? I know the scenario is nothing new, but it’s her daughter’s response which got me; an attempt to normalize or justify behavior that seems so (using the first words which come to mind) bleak and hopeless. Or zombie-like. I just wanna scream, ‘Hey! What’s the matter with you people?’

Completely Inattentive

Two young women and two young men (mid 20’s) sat at the table next to us in the restaurant.

As soon as they got comfortable, out came their phones.

They did not say a word to each other.

The waitress came, the phone gawkers gruffly gave their orders and then went right back to staring at their phones.

They still didn’t say a word to each other.

About fifteen minutes after ordering, they gestured the waitress to come over to their table and then proceeded to complain about having to wait too long for their meals.

Shortly after complaining, their four meals came and they ate very quickly.

Not one word between them. They looked at their phones through their entire meal.

UNBELIEVABLE. 

Seriously. Who comes all the way to a beautiful resort surrounded by majestic mountains and capped with crystal blue skies – and stares at their phone???

My daughter Danae tells me, “This is just what this generation does, Mom.”

I don’t get it. I guess I’m getting old.  I just can’t imagine doing this.

The thing is, I don’t ever WANT to do this.

Rant over. 🙂

September 7, 2018

Social Media: What It’s Doing to Us

Some of you may have seen this on Facebook.

That’s rather ironic; since it does not paint the social media platform favorably.

The timing on this is interesting, since I was planning to write about this topic anyway. I’m not opposed to technology, nor do I resent the application of social networking. Rather, I was going to write something like, “I just want to go back in time and use the internet as it was in 2003.” That’s right; 15 years ought to do it.

Anyway, see what you think. Someone put some thought into this, but it hasn’t had many views and no public comments as of yesterday. (Perhaps this isn’t the original post.)

July 20, 2018

Changing the Way We Think About Thinking

Originally published in 2013, shortly after I joined Twitter, under the title, “A Picture Replaces 1,000 Words.”


Writing Literacy CommunicationSeveral months in, I have to say that I’m enjoying Twitter. But I also despair over all the things the new technology has wrought in terms of reducing literacy.

  • Twitter forces us to compress a message to 140 characters; usually Tweets are sentence fragments.
  • Texting forces us to compress words, resulting in thngs which aren’t really wrds at all.
  • Spell-check means that in many cases, the computer itself is filling out and completing our thoughts. Spell-check is on, weather you want it or knot. I think you no where I’m coming form on this point. (Yep, no mistakes there!)
  • Facebook tends to be absorbed with the minutiae of our lives, with little regard for the interest others might have in such trivia, hence a major loss of depth. Left to continue for a generation, we may forget how not to be shallow.
  • Tumblr and Pinterest rely entirely on visuals. So while it’s true that a picture is worth a thousand words, a picture replaces a thousand words. I don’t buy a second car and write about the year, make and model, my trip to the dealer, or who owned the car previously, or why we needed it; I simply post a phone-quality resolution photo with the caption, “Bought this today.” Yes, but what is it?
  • That said, isn’t it interesting that the cell phone or mobile phone, designed for communication now contains a camera? What does this say about our preferred mode of transmitting our thoughts and informing others as to our activities?
  • A culture of “copy and paste” means we often parrot the words of others without personalization. We re-Tweet, re-blog and regurgitate what a few key communicators are saying without including any personal editorial comments, to the point that often others wonder if we’re agreeing or disagreeing.
  • What verbal communication that remains tend to be more oral than written. We are rapidly moving from literacy to orality, not unlike many more primitive societies in remote parts of the world.

What does all this mean to those of us whose priority in life is to follow Christ?

  • Attention spans are being rapidly diminished; we need to rethink all manner of Christian communication, both in terms of online activity, but also simple things like how preaching happens or how small groups are led.
  • At the same time, we have to be willing to contribute to the glut of communication taking place. We have a message to bring, a message we want shared.
  • We need people to construct eye-arresting visuals (both static images and motion video content) that communicate the truth of scripture.
  • We need to engage a greater use of story to capture the attention of people over the duration of longer narratives.
  • We need to affirm our position as readers, the thing that separates us from animals. Therefore we need to model this for our children, and then having set an example, keep our kids supplied with age-appropriate books of all kinds, both fiction and non-fiction, faith-focused and general-interest.
  • Similarly, we need to passionate about thought about ideas. We need to allow ourselves immersion into what key writers and leaders are saying.
  • Everyone writing online needs to practice a greater level of concision. This is somewhat related to the first priority; we need to get our message across more efficiently.
  • While the message of the Gospel is simple enough that we can receive it as a child, we need to be careful not to lose an appreciation of the intricacies and complexity of scripture. We need to approach God’s word as a multi-faceted jewel and examine at different angles to see the refractions and reflections it produces.

November 9, 2017

The Essential Art of Concision

I debated between calling this “The Lost art of Concision” versus “The Developing Art of Concision.” First, a definition is in order:

Therefore, when I speak of the concision as a developing art, I mean the necessity of being able to put ideas across in a short-and-to-the-point manner; something you need in a world of soundbites. Last year I wrote,

It was Noam Chomsky who introduced me to the idea of concision. I’ve taught it as, “You’re selling your car through a media which is charging you $1.50 per word. How do you describe your vehicle persuasively, but keep the cost down?”

But when I speak of it as a dying art, I’m thinking specifically of the migration of many bloggers from what I’m doing now — typing/writing words — to podcasting; and to Twitter’s decision to gift everyone with 140 additional characters on Tuesday evening.

Twitter is obsessed with the number 140. (Originally videos were limited to 2 minutes and 20 seconds, which is 140 seconds.)  The new length, 280 characters, doubles this even though 160 would have been a nice gift in itself. Or 180 or 200. 280 seems long, it seems to rob Twitter of it’s basic character, heretofore. But I didn’t always feel that way. When I joined, I wrote:

I can’t say what I have to say in 140 characters.

In case you missed it, I tend to write long.

But the word concision has come up on this blog somewhat frequently. Earlier this year I wrote,

I have for a long time questioned how much time sermon has left.  With all due respect to those of you currently honing your homiletic craft at either the undergraduate or graduate level, I really think that this particular form is destined to go the way of the CD or the land line phone. I’m not saying there aren’t some great preachers out there; I spend my evening hours listening to sermon after sermon online. But that’s me. For others there are a host of reasons why sermon doesn’t work. ADD or ADHD comes to mind. Some sermons are simply too long. Some say it’s just not how they learn. Some claim that high profile Christian pastors have simply set the bar too high and average pastors can’t achieve the quality that is now widely available online. Others would argue that we’ve become accustomed to media bursts, sound bites, and increased concision.

The Bible itself is amazingly concise. Readers are often fascinated to learn how narratives they had heard about — Creation, Jonah, The Prodigal Son — when they actually got around to reading them, were expressed in a very limited fashion. In an article about Christ’s ascension the subject was raised (pun intended):

A reader wrote, “We’re told… at his ascension that he will come again in like manner as they have seen him go.” But what do we know about that manner? How long were the disciples staring as he rose into the sky? Was there a low cloud ceiling that day? The Bible’s tendency to brevity and concision makes me think that perhaps God didn’t just beam Jesus up, but his ascension may have have been more prolonged; a vertical processional to heaven.

It also came up in a piece on diminishing attention spans:

You see this in the way books and articles in periodicals are written now; in fact you’re seeing it in the piece you’re presently reading. Pick up an older book — say 60 years or more old — and you might find an entire page consisting of a single paragraph. You might even find several consecutive pages consisting of a single paragraph. (I’m told that some chapters of Paul’s epistles were often a single sentence in the original Greek, no doubt a weaving of dominant and subordinate clauses that the reader of that time would follow easily.)

Today we use paragraph breaks to keep the content flowing; to keep the eyes moving on the page; to force us writers to adopt a greater degree of concision. Our writing is also broken up by more numbered or alphanumeric lists, by bullet points, by sub-headers and by pull quotes. (We use them often at Christianity 201, where the devotions are by definition somewhat longer, and we want to make what would otherwise be an entire page of text more interesting.)

The trend towards podcasting is actually surprising, given the push toward brevity in a bullet-point world. Have you ever thought of what a full transcript of your favorite podcast would look like printed out? It would run for pages and pages. A blog post on a similar topic would be less than 2,000 words, and easily digested in under 7 minutes. (Or spoken in 15 minutes. Compare word length to spoken time at this speech minutes converter.)  We wrote about podcasts on an article on the trend from literacy to orality:

Inherent in podcasting is the right to ramble. Listeners get the nuance that’s missing in a traditional blog post (and this is one of the great liabilities of email) but they have to take the time to wade through the host(s) stream-of-consciousness narration. There’s no concision, a quality that decades ago Noam Chomsky had predicted would be, moving forward, a key asset in communications. A great concept that’s probably a seven or eight paragraph blog post instead becomes a 53 minute podcast.  Andy Warhol’s comment that “In the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes;” might be modified to, “In the 21st century, everyone will have their own talk show or be the host of their own radio station.” 

As Christian communicators however, we have to be careful when we try to reduce to mystery or complexity of the gospel to a concise motto, slogan, tag line or formula. In an article titled What is the Gospel, I wrote,

I also think that, when considered in the light of the Jewish appreciation of the scriptures as a great jewel that reflects and refracts the light in infinite ways each time we look at it, the idea of trying to formulate a precis of the Bible is to venture into an endless and perhaps even frustrating mission. What would Jesus think of trying to consolidate something so great, so wide, so high, so deep into a finite number of words?  Concision is great, but maybe it doesn’t work here.

Anyway Twitter, thanks for the extra characters; but I earnestly hope I have the wisdom to not overuse them. Readers, it’s a busy world out there; keep it short!


Yes, today I basically quoted myself throughout this article. To further embellish Chomsky’s teaching on concision would have made the article…well…not so concise.

For those mystified by the final graphic image, TL/DR stands for Too long, didn’t read.

For further reference in thinking about the difference between podcasting and blogging, this article is less than 1,100 words; you can halve the minutes in the above example.

 

October 5, 2017

What You Don’t See Just By Looking at the Amish

I don’t know offhand if the Amish permit what’s called here “Agritourism” — in other words farm tours — but I have something that would be of greater interest than seeing the hay lofts or furniture making workshop. I’d like to sit down with an Amish elder and discuss the underlying faith, specifically their faith and how it informs their customers. It beats driving around Lancaster, PA and going, “Over there! It’s another one!” and then snapping camera-phone pictures of these precious people simply trying to live their lives in peace.

This week, I got a bit of an insight into the type of information I’m seeking. I work two days a week at a Christian bookstore that my wife and I coincidentally happen to own. When an audio book came in missing the shrink-wrap usually found on audio products1 I considered the idea of listening to a few minutes of it as, despite the various podcasts and sermons I listen to constantly, I have no personal experience with audio books.

Then I discovered the book was voiced by none other than Christian Taylor, one of the regulars at The Phil Vischer Podcast.2 I decided to see (or hear) what her vocational labor produced.

The audio was for the book Amish Peace: Simple Wisdom for a Complicated World by Susanne Woods Fisher.3 Interspersing Amish proverbs with anecdotal stores would make this a fun read, but it was probably a bit of a challenge voicing a reading of the book.

Putting it as simply as I can, there is a world here which, while it may seem strikingly different to observe as a tourist, is actually more different than you think in terms of the underlying principles which guide everyday life in an Amish family and an Amish community.  They live out an ethic which is certainly rooted in the Sermon on the Mount and other teachings of Jesus, but in many respects almost goes beyond that high standard in terms of everyday life.4

Even if I could embed myself in an Amish family for a week, I don’t know that I could ever expect to fully get it without having spent a lifetime being educated and shaped by their community values, passed on from generation to generation. They live in a world without electronic media and yet possess a wisdom many of the rest of us cannot imagine. Their formal education ends at Grade 8, yet they have better literacy rates than in other neighboring rural areas. Their children are given responsibilities that would boggle the minds of parents who bubble-wrap their kids in the cities, such as driving a team of mules to plow a field.5 And their pace of life means they see things which the rest of miss while driving Interstate freeways at 70 mph.

I enjoyed the (audio) book, but I find myself wanting more; more than I can get from simply packing up the car and heading off to Amish country or Mennonite country to simply look at them.6

I want to take a month and be them.7


1To my readers in other countries: For years records, tapes and CDs in North America have come plastic-wrapped, as we don’t want to get to get germs, at least that’s what a record vendor in England told me years ago.

2As in “…We’ll talk to Skye and Christian, too, but we’ve got no guest this week for you…” (Show theme song.) Christian is a voice actor. christiantaylorvo.com

3Oops! Fisher wrote Amish Peace in 2009. In an earlier version of this blog post, I identified the book as The Heart of the Amish which she wrote in 2015. This appears to be a different book, not a title update. My bad.

4The stories about forgiveness will break you.

5Full disclosure: The book admits this freedom results in a much higher rate of Emergency Room visits due to injuries compared to other children in rural areas.

6Pennsylvania or Ohio or Western Ontario would be the destinations of choice for such an excursion. The book notes the Ohio Amish have a lower percentage of people living in farm communities.

7I would probably not be able to give up my phone or internet connection. Today, several houses share an outdoor phone booth of sorts which is for making calls, not receiving them. That would be somewhat insufficient.


Christian responds:

Related: A 2010 article I wrote about the Amish and the concept of being separated from the world.

Photos: Daily Encouragement by Stephen & Brooksyne Weber.

August 20, 2017

Google Now Provides the Information instead of Referring

Like many of you, I couldn’t help but notice that increasingly, Google was giving me the answers I was looking for right on their results page, without my needing to make a second click. Appreciating the convenience I didn’t really pay much attention to this, until publishing and media watcher Tim Underwood linked to a piece at Mashable titled, Google is Eating the Open Internet.

The rather opened my eyes to the present situation: Instead of being a site which refers you to people who have the answers, Google is now seen as provider of those answers.

But the affect on the websites from which the information is culled — the creatives and researchers who do the actual work — is devastating. Example:

…Brian Warner, founder and CEO of CelebrityWorthNet.com, understands perhaps more than anybody the power of Google’s wall-building.

Warner started to notice the content from his site appearing directly on search results pages in 2012. Two years later, he got an email from Google asking to scrape all of his data, which he turned down. Another two years after that, Google did it anyway, and the impact was catastrophic.

“It was extremely painful, it was extremely devastating,” Warner said. “We got to a point where our traffic was down 85 percent from a year or two earlier.”

Search for the net worth of any celebrity at random today—let’s say, James Earl Jones—and you’ll get the number ($45 million) and a short biographical blurb pulled from CelebrityNetWorth.com with credit and a link…

And later, the broader application:

…There’s also a steady stream of more subtle indications of Google’s inward pull appearing every day—features like on-site hotel booking, restaurant menus, spa appointment tools, and dropdown recipes to name just a few.

These tweaks might sound minor, but Google’s position as the web’s central nervous system means they can have a big impact on smaller businesses that orbit it.

In the long run, though, there seems to be a pretty glaring hole in this plan. That is, as Google likes to reassure wary publishers, it’s not in the content business.

The company ultimately relies on reference sites like Wikipedia, IMDB, Fandango, and the CIA World Fact Book to compile and update the information it uses.

If Google continues to choke these sites out, what incentive will there be for new ones to come along? …   (emphasis added)

   Then early this morning I caught up with my Saturday print edition of The Toronto Star and columnist Heather Mallick was saying the exact same things about Facebook in a piece titled, Like it or not, Facebook Owns You. For her it gets personal:

…We donate to the Guardian to keep it free for everyone, but remember that we do this because former editor Alan Rusbridger made the numbers clear. In 2016, Facebook “sucked up $27 million (U.S.) of the newspaper’s projected ad revenue that year.”

Facebook was the interlocutor, the middleman who slipped between readers and journalists and siphoned off the money. When I step onto the thing for even a moment, I make money for Zuckerberg. I work for him, not the Toronto Star.

I wouldn’t mind being followed for weeks by ads for the hand vacuum (designed in England, made in Malaysia, which is why I despise Dyson) I ordered five minutes ago from an online retailer with no discernible connection to Facebook.

But I do mind that my salary was effectively lower this year because Facebook knew this, its targeting having destroyed the print and online ads on which the Star itself relied.

I take a dim view. With less money, I’ll buy fewer things advertised on Facebook, but it doesn’t care. It’s in the business of attention, not retailing. Its hands are clean.

Of course they’re not. They’re loaded with lucre, and they’re taunting people individually and en masse, damaging quality of life and eating freedom. You are owned…

For my Christian readership at this page, this is important. Obtaining the “answers” or “results” one is looking for without clicking through to see the full context of the page from which the mighty search engine derived them could be devastating, especially as the field of material offered grows to include things of religious or theological interest. At best, all of our online sites are somewhat subjective, including this one.

But I’ll have more to say about that tomorrow.

 

April 18, 2017

How Do We Define Progress?

Filed under: Christianity, parenting — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:03 am

Driving a car isn’t fun. When I was young, I would borrow one of my parent’s cars and take off and return around 1:30 in the morning. They often had no idea where I was and had no idea to reach me. Their only concern was that I not make noise on returning home. I learned to close the driver side door so very quietly and literally stripped on the back porch so I could just slip in the back door and land directly under the covers of my bed.

Today, parents would be catatonic if their kids were out at that hour with the family car.

It’s interesting how driving has gotten complicated.

We’re better equipped now with driver training programs that produce, in theory at least, very capable vehicle operators. But as a culture, we’re our own worst enemies when it comes to making progress at road safety. Consider:

  • We run the real risk of air bag injuries in an accident, or an accidental deployment of them; but the only reason we have them in the first place was that American compliance with seat belt ordinances was shockingly poor.
  • We’ve addressed the problem of drinking and driving various ways in an effort to stop the carnage caused by inebriated drivers but then several states and all Canadian provinces have introduced legalization of marijuana.
  • Our vehicles are equipped with various safety features, but technology has also brought us the cell phone; handy things to have if you’re traveling, but we have no technology that shuts them off while the car is moving.
  • Many accidents are caused by people who simply don’t know where they’re going, but GPS devices introduce another potential for distraction.
  • We have state of the art sound systems that prevent us from hearing the fire truck or ambulance which is gaining on us, and somehow we miss seeing those emergency responders in the rear view mirrors.
  • In our haste to resolve some of these things, we’re introducing driver-less cars before the complete infrastructure is in place to support those vehicles’ knowing the intricacies of the routes we’ll be taking, or how to interpret visual cues, or how to master the human type of responses needed in a crisis
  • We have simply too many vehicles on the road. 
  • Many jurisdictions continue to require emissions testing for cars while operators of transport trucks and dump trucks are allowed to somehow skirt the requirements and end up spewing enough smoke to temporarily block visibility of the drivers in their wake.
  • We continue to license kids as young as 15, when specialists in neurology tell us the teenage brain isn’t fully formed when it comes to the consequences of ignoring safety as it would be if we only waited one year more.

So I ask, are we really all that smart?

January 17, 2017

Christians and Reading

bookstore-signThis is part two of two articles on the general subject of reading and language, especially as it relates to the closing of bookstores in the wider market, and Christian bookstores in particular. Click here for part one.

Times are a lot tougher than in the past. Millennials struggle to find jobs and wealth creation is not as it was in the days of double-digit interest rates. The R-word — recession — is occasionally mentioned; some say we’re moving into it, some say we’re in it, some say we’re in recovery. Christian bookstores could have reason to claim immunity for the following reasons:

  1. In full out economic depression, people turn to religion.
  2. Also in depression, people turn to entertainment. While the book industry doesn’t have the same profile as movies, music and television, it is most definitely a subset of the entertainment industry.

So why have so many Christian bookstores closed? As with yesterday’s article, I haven’t taken the time to cite studies and statistics, but trust me on some things I can offer anecdotally.

First, we mentioned the various time pressures, distractions, and diminishing attention spans. I would argue that this has led to decline in the traditional devotional reading time. Bill Hybels has tried to give this new life by christening it with a new name, Chair Time. I wrote about that in February, 2016. Curling up with a good book and building a personal library are becoming rare activities. The only way to ensure people have contact with books at all is sometimes to have small groups or home groups which are essentially book study groups. That doesn’t always happen however. Many house groups use church-provided outlines or small study guides related to DVD curriculum they are watching. I do like the traditional book groups, especially in the sense in which they provide accountability (to cover the chapters for the next meeting.)

Second, I think the problem is self-perpetuating. Focus on the Family did some studies a decade ago on the spiritual influence the Dad has in the home, citing things like church attendance over time. I would contend that a generation is arising that has never seen their fathers sitting in a chair reading and when I say reading here, I would settle for the Sears catalog or Sports Illustrated. Many homes no longer receive a newspaper; and I understand that, you can read it online. But online reading is very personal. I could be doing anything online now: Checking the weather, balancing my bank account, posting a social media status update, watching YouTube videos, playing an online game, reading a serious article, or writing for my blog. But when someone sits in a chair reading, they are very obviously reading. Kids need to see this modeled for them as a life component every bit as normal as brushing your teeth.

Third, I believe that leadership is not setting the pace. In the retail store where I hang out, we see Sunday School teachers, we see worship team members, we see small group leaders. What we don’t see is elders, deacons, board members. Sometimes I will visit other churches and I see the names of these people printed in the church bulletin and I don’t recognize any of those names. We even had an instance of a pastor who we were told on good authority did not use his book allowance in ten years. (The man was incredibly arrogant and probably felt he knew all there was to know.) There are a few exceptions to this, but many people are chosen to serve their church in this capacity because they are business owners or executives who are successfully managing the company they work for and are considered wise enough to run the affairs of the church. Maybe they’re too busy to work on their own spiritual formation. That wasn’t the case with Stephen however. When The Twelve needed to create another tier of leadership to do the everyday running of things, they chose, “a man of faith, full of the Holy Spirit.” (The solution to this is pastors who buy the books in bulk they want their elders to study and then give them out as required reading.) 

Fourth, the stores need traffic generators; they require a constant hit bestseller to pay the bills. The Left Behind series accomplished this. The Shack brought people to the stores to both discuss and purchase the book. The Purpose Driven Life did the same. (I know there are people here who aren’t fans of these three examples, but they make the store sustainable for people looking for a classic Spurgeon commentary, or something by Tim Keller, or an apologetics resource.) Even on the non-book side of things the Gaither Gospel Series DVDs provided that traffic. These days, whenever something takes off in the Christian marketplace, Costco and Barnes and Noble are quick to jump into the game. Conversely, it doesn’t help when major Christian authors experience moral failure. The publishers occasionally offer products exclusively to the Christian market, but they only do this for specific chains (Mardel, Parable, Family Christian, etc.) not the independent stores who so desperately need this type of support. You have to be inside the stores to see other products you might wish to read or give away.

Finally, we’re not presently seeing a spiritual hunger. People are not desperate for God in North America and Western Europe right now. We hear reports from Africa or South America, though it’s hard to really quantify what is happening when there are often fringe movements or revivals based on extreme Charismatic doctrine or a mixture of Biblical Christianity and local animistic beliefs. In my early 20s, I remember hearing a Christian speaker say (quite tongue in cheek) “We don’t need the Holy Spirit, we have technology.” There is a sense in which this is true. It does remind me of the adage, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink, but you can put salt in his oats to make him thirsty.” We have to find ways to instill that hunger for reading in our local congregations. Pastor recommendations of books from the pulpit are the most significant factor driving customers to make purchases or place orders.  Another way the technology can be made to work is by providing chapter excerpts for people to sample; but publishers are very reluctant to do this, for reasons which escape me. 

In conclusion, all the factors mentioned in the previous article are impacting bookstores in general, these factors listed here are some things that concern me about the Christian market in particular.

not_enough_shelves

Older Posts »

Blog at WordPress.com.