Never-Better or Better-Never?

In the February 14, 2011 issue of The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik reflects on the growing amount of recent literature that celebrates the advances of technology, bemoans its harmful effects, or seeks to put it into a larger context.1

He refers to one camp as the “Never-Betters,” those who view the proliferation of information and communication in new and expanding forms as the greatest thing since sliced bread. “The Never-Betters” believe that we’re on the brink of a new utopia, where information will be free and democratic, news will be made from the bottom up, love will reign, and “cookies will bake themselves,” he writes.

Then there is the “Better-Never” group, the ones who wile away in grief or “geezerdom,” wishing (in some cases for compelling reasons) that the whole information revolution had never occurred in the first place.

Finally, there are the “Ever-Wasers,” those who would contend that what we are experiencing now, in the rapidity of change, is what humanity always has experienced throughout the ages as a “modern moment.” All of the upheaval, glee, and reluctance we hear, as we enter into discussions on how technology has changed and will continue to change our lives, tell a familiar human tale of how we experience the adjustment and movement from one era to the next.

I have been thinking about how Anglicans might view the debate currently brewing among these three camps, and the implications it holds for how our Episcopal schools should be welcoming the digital revolution into our communities (wholeheartedly?, reluctantly?). With such monumental implications for the way we live our lives and view our worlds, it is hard to formulate an all-encompassing response, so here are a few random thoughts on where we begin.

We are not only a “People of the Book,” we are a “people of many books,” and our tradition has centered around this collection of books, particularly as we go about what is central to what we do as Anglicans, worship.
There is the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, the Hymnal 1982, to name the most obvious but not the only books we make use of in our worship and understanding of ourselves. Indeed, Anglican worship can seem to be a process of juggling the printed word, from prayer book to hymnal to bulletin. The digital revolution is a tremendous challenge to—perhaps also an opportunity for—our predilection toward books. It can leave us wondering, worrying, and gravitating toward a “Better-Never” view of things. In school worship, it can cause us to ask the question, “Is this the best way to reach a generation that, in some cases, knows books only in the context of worship?”

Timothy Beal is a professor of religion at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. A student of the interplay of religious belief with popular culture, he frequently writes on the future of the Bible in a digital age. As he recently explained:

This year, about 6,000 editions of the Bible will be published in English alone, representing an incredibly wide variety of things and contents, from nostalgically appealing zippered leather-bound Bibles and family Bibles, to chronological Bibles in which all of the verses have been rearranged into someone’s idea of biblical history, to graphic-novel style Manga Bibles and R. Crumb’s Genesis Illustrated, to niche-marketed Bibles like The Golfer’s Bible and The Bride’s Bible, to Biblezines, biblical magazines that are designed to target different age groups and genders….

As Beal asks about the Bible, so we may also be asking about our own collection of Anglican books, in lieu of this sea change of digital options:

How will the way we think about, read, and share the Bible change in the emerging, networked, digital media culture in which everything is editable, movable, cut-copy-and-pastable, mashup-able, and in which the lines between inside and outside, canonical and non-canonical, are fuzzy and permeable? The decline of print culture and the rise of a digital network culture means the end of the book as we know it, and the end of the book as we know it will be the end of the Word (as we are likely to view it).2

As Anglicans, we come from a tradition that has always been open to and in some cases accommodating of the contributions that worldly study and the progress of ideas and customs can bring to our understanding of Christianity. In the words of Archbishop William Temple, Christianity is “the most materialistic of all religions,” in that the material world is one we do not retreat from but take seriously. It no doubt is an outgrowth of our belief in the Incarnation, and how the world is infused with the glory of God.

Because of this welcoming attitude toward what the world can teach us, I think it is hard for us to side with the “Better Never’ view, in that not only have most of us experienced the enhancements that technology have made to our individual and collective lives, but that in all human progress and discovery we give glory to God. To the extent that the digital revolution has made more information accessible, has enriched and diversified our modes of teaching, and allowed us to be in better contact with all corners of the world, our schools celebrate and will continue to celebrate the positive contributions a digital world can bring to our communities.

At the same time, the “disembodied” nature of this digital revolution poses great challenges to our understanding of how religious practice and the moral life are indeed embodiments of our beliefs and convictions. Our traditional welcoming of worldly progress has centered on the tangible. Now the very intangibleness of the digital revolution can leave us wondering just how we act and relate to so much of it. Much of the anonymity, the “cut and paste-ness” of this world is certainly posing new moral—and I would also say religious—challenges to us. As Gopnick observes, “The past twenty years have seen a revolution less in morals, which have remained mostly static, than in means.” What we are able to do digitally needs to be rooted in who we are as human beings, as embodiments, and what not only we can do, but should do.

There are times in my life when I seem to revel in the “Never Better” attitude: “Isn’t all of this new stuff great?” I will say to myself. It does not take me long, however, to be awakened back to reality.
We are still human beings making use of these new means, and as human beings we fall short. As one school’s director of technology put it, “To me, technology is but the primary stage on which the human drama is acted out, these days.” A principal performer on that stage is indeed the darker side of our human nature. In a school, perhaps one sees some of that darker side of human nature played out on that stage more graphically than in other contexts. The alarming rise in cyber-bullying as the increasingly dominant mode of relational aggression reminds us, for example, that this wonderful vehicle for more communication and information can also be a place where the human drama all too easily can take tragic form.

Perhaps in the end I find myself drawn to what Gopnik refers to as the “Ever-Wasers,” those who see in the monumental shifts we are experiencing the most recent manifestation of what we human beings have experienced throughout our history. Perhaps that is why an Episcopal school is such an important place for considering the various attitudes that have developed toward the digital revolution. We are places where history is taken seriously—including understanding the lessons we can learn from past monumental shifts—where both the glories and complexities of human nature are addressed in the classroom and in chapel, where we draw upon a biblical tradition that includes both, “Behold, I am doing a new thing,” and “There is nothing new under the sun,” and where chances are that a lively, ongoing exchange is taking place among the “Never-Betters,” “Better-Nevers,” and “Ever-Wasers” within that very community.

1. See Adam Gopnik, “The Information,” The New Yorker (February 14, 2011).
2. See Timothy Beal, “Will the King James Bible Survive?”, March 21, 2011 (acessed March 22, 2011).