Craig Detweiler, iGods: How Technology Shapes Our Spiritual and Social Lives. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, November, 2013. 256 pp. Paperback, $17.99.
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Thanks to Brazos Press for the review copy!
Craig Detweiler is professor of communication and director of the Center for Entertainment, Media, and Culture at Pepperdine University. He also writes a lot, and he’s make a film or two. In other words, a book on technology is right up his alley.
I first encountered Detweiler when I was writing my thesis, and I found his work in Into the Dark: Seeing the Sacred in the Top Films of the 21st Century to be helpful. Mainly, he was interacting thoughtfully at the theological level with films, and more open to it being a revelatory encounter than many Christians who write books on movies. Maybe a little too open for some people, but I nonetheless thought he had many valuable ideas when it came to watching movies responsibly.
So, when I saw he wrote a book on technology, I expected similar thoughtful interactions. Flipping through the table of contents, you can see that Detweiler focuses on the big tech giants:
- Apple (chapter 2)
- Amazon (chapter 4)
- Google (chapter 5)
- Facebook (chapter 7)
- YouTube/Twitter/Instagram (chapter 8)
In his writing, he is trying to sketch a theology of technology, “to point out how spiritual our designs can be and how material theological concerns should be” (10-11). Doing so requires interacting with the “iGods” who are first identified as the founders of the above tech giants (8). Obviously this is a play on Apple’s “I” language, and it certainly fits the point Detweiler is making on the whole. That is, the technologies that we use so often are meant to be centered around us, but eventually they start to mold us. As an extension of us, they are separate, yet intimately connected. Detweiler wants to explore this interface.
There is some fluidity in language, so that Google and Facebook themselves take on iGod status (9). As you continue reading, this isn’t really a problem, so perhaps it is best to consider the “iGods” as a way of referring to the tech company itself when it reaches a certain stature, or may relate to the man behind it. YouTube/Twitter/Instagram have not yet reached “iGods” status, which is why they get a combined chapter. But they are well on their way.
In his opening chapter defining technology, Detweiler notes that “from each tech company profiled in this book, we can deduce a creation narrative” (40). If that is true, there is a sense in which each company is promoting a worldview that involves telling their creation story, explaining what problem they are here to fix, and how to achieve true redemption through the product they are selling.
Detweiler then traces the cultural history of each of these tech companies, with interludes on the internet (chapter 3, 73-77) and social networking (chapter 6, 131-135). The focus is mostly on explaining the development of the particular company. So for instance, the Apple chapter (45-71) follows a similar trajectory as the Steve Jobs movie, and goes from Job’s parents basement to the announcement of the iPhone (46-65). The final 6 pages then get into more detail of the implications of this particular technology, how it affects us, and how we can respond. This is a pretty typical breakdown of the other 4 main chapters.
While this is informative and interesting, I didn’t find much of the discussion particularly illuminating. Overall, I would say the book is more historical than practical. A better title might have been “The Rise of the iGods” to bring out this fact. I think I was expecting the chapters to be more focused on thinking theologically about the particular technologies than they actually were. But, from the opening chapter, Detweiler alerts readers that “we will study the leading technology companies as a means of determining what theological shifts are occuring. We will measure these general revelations against the special revelation of Scripture to figure out whether they need to be embraced and encouraged or resisted and reframed” (43). Given that, this isn’t a case of false advertising. From a general glance over the cover and table of contents, you might assume this is a much different book. But Detweiler defines his study well early on, so once you’re reading, you know where you’re going.
The question then is whether or not this is the journey you want to take. And whether or not this kind of journey is even helpful. Going back to Detweiler’s last quote, I don’t particularly think that “theological shifts” brought on by tech companies qualifies as general revelation. We can certainly bring special revelation of Scripture to bear on them to understand them better, but its seem like a stretch to bring in the category of general revelation. This goes back to what I mentioned earlier about Detweiler’s film book. His eagerness to listen to the culture and to bring Scripture to bear on it is to be commended. But, in the midst of that, it sometimes feels like the culture is being elevated to a revelatory status that is sometimes not appropriate. Does not mean God cannot reveal himself through culture, but rather that the human products of culture are perhaps better thought of as indirectly revelatory. The reveal more about the person made in God’s image, which thus reveals God. But the product itself is not revelatory.
Having said all that, this book can still prove useful. I don’t know who I would particularly recommend it to because of its emphasis on the historical dimension. The discussion questions at the end of each chapter are sparse and sometimes vague (it’s hard to write good questions!). I had thought about using it in my digital media class, but since I’m teaching high schoolers, this is really out of their league. There are other books I might consider (From the Garden to The City for one), but this book didn’t seem suitable for that purpose to me. Still, the storytelling involved in explaining the rise of Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon was compelling. If that is what you’re particularly interested in, this is a perfect fit. If you’re more interested in thinking theologically about technology, this book has some fruitful lines of thinking. But on the whole, I didn’t find it all that thought provoking. I could maybe give it another read through to decipher whether that was my problem or the book’s problem, but given what I’ve said above, I’ll let you decide.