Welcome to the Brave New World of new media. Over the last two decades, we have experienced nothing less than a revolution in the ways that information is gathered, manipulated, published, and disseminated. And, as is the case with any development of this magnitude, Christians must give careful consideration to our responsibility in the context of this new digital age.
Years ago, Nicholas Negroponte of the MIT Media Lab declared the revolution as a shift from atoms to bits — digital bits of information shared computer to computer. Even in 1995, that looked like an overstatement. We now know that it was not. The old world of media was about paper, books, newsprint, and film. The new world is digital, appearing mainly on electronic screens. The great media transformation has been described as a shift from dead trees to live screens, opening unprecedented opportunities for the sharing of information.
Looking back, it is now clear that the development of print — the Gutenberg Revolution — was a major factor in the spread of the Reformation. Books and Bibles could now be printed in mass quantities, and printing presses could be easily hidden and hastily reassembled.
The printed word became the context for public conversation. Theological disputations, political debates, and philosophical arguments took shape in books, pamphlets, and other forms of printed media. Christians responded by placing a premium on literacy and engaging print media with a sense of missionary zeal.
A second revolution in communication came mainly in the twentieth century, with the development of the film industry and broadcast media. Once again, Christians quickly came to understand their responsibility to listen carefully to the public conversation that now shifted to radio, television, and cinema.
The third great transformation in modern communications is the Digital Revolution — the great shift of information and entertainment to the internet and an ever-expanding universe of digital appliances. The digital world is home to the new media, a constellation of new modes and technologies of communication. Once again, the public conversation has shifted in light of this revolution. The world has gone digital.
The migration of information to digital formats happened with stunning speed, leaving newspapers, magazines, and the major television networks facing the possibility of extinction — at least in their present form. The impact of the revolution is still unfolding. The internet is now home to millions of weblogs (blogs) that drive the news and shape opinion often before the major media know what is happening, much less what to say about it. Webpages offer a seemingly endless stream of news, information, entertainment, analysis, gossip, and nonsense. The digital world flattens hierarchies. A teenager might be writing that blog that scoops a major news network on a major story. The great challenge for most of us is not access (the challenge of the old media) but adequate filtering. The digital world is all about open communication — the gatekeepers of old media are no longer in control. How do we find what we need and disregard all the rest?
The New Media world includes social media, as the world is increasingly and incessantly connected. The 350 million registered users of Facebook would, taken together, constitute one of the largest nations on earth. Twitter, the microblogging phenomenon, is now a major platform for instant news and analysis. Like every information revolution, the digital revolution and new media present Christians and the church with both enormous challenges and unprecedented opportunities.
In 1 Peter 3:15, the faithful Christian is described as “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” Christians must be engaged in the public conversation that goes on all around us. Like the old media of print and airwaves, the new media demand our attention — not just because they are the conduits of what is new, interesting, and entertaining — but because these are the media currently shaping the minds around us, igniting the interest of the public, establishing what our friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens understand as reality.
Like the Reformers who seized the opportunity afforded by the Gutenberg Revolution, we must see the world of new media as an arena for Christian truth-telling. Our engagement with new media is driven by impulses that are evangelistic, missiological, and grounded in apologetics.
We must be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” in the context of new media as well as the media platforms of old. We rightly treasure the printed book, but we are also aware that the public conversation is now largely online.
Like every information revolution, the rise of new media requires Christian discernment. At the same time, there is no way we can ignore this challenge and deny the revolution. We can hardly expect to explain the hope that is in us when we aren’t even part of the conversation.