Posts tagged with: technology

When John concluded his gospel, he supposed that if all of Jesus’ doings were written down, “that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.”

The last two millennia have seen quite a bit of change, to be sure. Christians have done their best to make John’s comment come true, filling the world with writings on the life of Jesus, the biblical revelation, and the implications of the gospel for every aspect of all walks of life.

But at the dawn of the third millennium, we are seeing an increasing shift to digital media (sometimes, but not always to the detriment of analog media like books), it’s conceivable that a single hard drive might have room for all the books that have ever been written (and not just the religious, theological, and biblical ones).

And as there has always been demand for the Bible (said to be the best-selling book of all time), so too there is demand for new and innovative ways to apply the power of computers to religious and theological texts. Currently these demands are being met by the de facto cooperation between non-profit and for-profit enterprises.

Take, for instance, the developing relationship between the non-profit Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) and the for-profit Logos Bible Software.

In addition to advertising on CCEL’s website and in their electronic newsletter, Ken Verhulst, a spokesman for CCEL, says that there’s an agreement for Logos software to be sold by CCEL. The non-profit then receives a share of the sale price. “These funds are used to keep CCEL going,” he says.

Phil Gons, who works in Logos’ press relations department, says that his company has “a good relationship with CCEL” and that they are in talks “about ways we can work together.”

Gons also points to BibleTech, a newly-inaugurated conference held in January hosted by Logos that had a large turnout of open source and non-profit folks. The conference website lists participants like OpenText.org, “a web-based initiative to provide an annotated corpus of Greek texts and tools for their analysis,” and the CrossWire Bible Society, “an organization with the purpose to sponsor and provide a place for engineers and others to come and collaborate on free, open-source projects aimed at furthering the Kingdom of our God.”

That isn’t to say that non-profits don’t feel some market pressures, too. Verhulst says that there is a strong push to move CCEL towards self-sufficiency. The donor who keeps CCEL going “is encouraging us to strive towards ‘independence’ — not profit status, just the ability to sustain ourselves.”

All this is a new twist on an old story in theological and biblical publishing. There have always been critics of major publishers like Zondervan, Thomas Nelson, and Tyndale, which are for-profit enterprises. Crossway, by contrast, is a non-profit venture that focuses on publishing around the English Standard Version.

The reality of the situation in the digital world is that open source and for-profit ventures are just as much partners as they are competitors. Given its practical focus, for example, CCEL generally limits itself to “public domain” works, while companies like Logos can use tools like their pre-publishing and community pricing systems to gauge market demand and bring major projects like Luther’s Works and Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics to digital publishing.

As in other sectors, enterprise is the driver of innovation, without which other non-profit ventures might not be possible. Even “public domain” works were once published for sale. It isn’t the case, either in traditional or digital publishing, that the choice is simply between for-profit or non-profit efforts. Instead, we live with the all-or-nothing complementary reality of both for-profit and non-profit publishing. And we are better off for it.

I was reading about Bill Gates’ speech to the Northern Virginia Technology Council last week, which received a lot of media coverage (PDF transcript here).

In the speech about software innovation, Gates “speculated that some of the most important advances will come in the ways people interact with computers: speech-recognition technology, tablets that will recognize handwriting and touch-screen surfaces that will integrate a wide variety of information.”

“I don’t see anything that will stop the rapid advance,” Gates said. I appreciate the insight that a corporate mogul and business insider like Gates provides.

The predictions did make me think about this observation from Alasdair MacIntyre, however, which serves to temper some of the more audacious claims often made about technological progress.

MacIntyre writes,

Any invention, any discovery, which consists essentially in the elaboration of a radically new concept cannot be predicted, for a necessary part of the prediction is the present elaboration of the very concept whose discovery or invention was to take place only in the future. The notion of the prediction of radical conceptual innovation is itself conceptually incoherent.

To his credit, much of what Gates is describing doesn’t meet these criteria. They are not “radically new” concepts, but the integrative alteration of already existing concepts (some might argue that this has essentially been the modus operandi for Microsoft’s success: not innovation per se, but rather innovative popularization of integration).

That said, we need to be cautious about the precision of our claims about future innovation. Statistically we can predict that radical innovations are quite likely to happen, but by definition we can’t know what they will be.

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, November 8, 2007
By

Today was a pretty full day that just wrapped up a few minutes ago. Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY, opened up the day with a keynote address, “Pioneering the New Media for Christ.”

Mohler emphasized the communicative mandate of the Christian faith: “To be a Christian is to bear the responsibility to communicate.” Setting this statement within the context of stewardship, Mohler emphasized the biblical foundations for a Christian view of communication. In creation God made human beings in his image, as communicative and rational beings. The account of the Fall in Genesis 3, however, provides us with the context of sin.

Although Mohler didn’t make the link explicit, the Fall’s effect on communication comes to expression in the Genesis 11 account of the Tower of Babel. So language can be both used properly and misused (to lie, to slander, to gossip, and so on). But after Creation and Fall comes Redemption, which is expressed in terms of the divine communication, the revelation in Jesus Christ (the Logos of John 1).

Mohler engaged Francis of Assisi’s instructions to teach and preach “with words when necessary.” Admitting that actions must be consistent with our declarations, Mohler asserted that words are always necessary. “No one is going to intuit the Gospel,” he said. Citing Romans 10, Mohler noted that faith comes by hearing the Word.

With a brief theology of communication in view, Mohler examined the varieties of technological means that have been used to transmit the Gospel. Christians, he said, are a people of the Book, a “literary” people. Noting that Christians initially used radio to a greater extent than television, Mohler provided the basis for a comparison of various kinds of media.

In this way, the advent of the Internet is more like radio than TV, insofar as the ease of access, production, and broadcasting, in North America is far more extensive than was popular access to TV in that medium’s early days (78% of Americans have access to a computer, and that percentage is markedly higher the younger the target group).

Mohler’s address provided evidence for the claim that blogging, podcasting, and videocasting are legitimate and important media for Christians to responsibly and prudentially engage the culture and proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ.

The talk raised the following issues for me. Given that “Godblogging” as a phenomenon is “talk about God” in a particular form, the possibilities for identifying the parallels, relationships, and continuities between “Godblogging” and “theology” (God-words) are plentiful. I also considered Augustine’s treatise on Christian rhetoric, De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Teaching), especially Book IV, as a source of seminal relevance.

On a more minor point, Mohler attributed the lack of Christian engagement in film in the early days of Hollywood to economic and artistic deficits. It seems to me that there was just as much a cultural deficit, which is perhaps what he meant by an artistic deficit, in the sense of the inability to appreciate beauty wherever it exists. There was (and still is among some) a profound and deep distrust of the theater and film (and television by extension) as inherently deceitful and powerful tools of diabolical power, given the pagan backgrounds of the theater.

Here’s what the CRC’s 1928 Synodical Report on Worldly Amusements had to say about film in particular:

It is also common knowledge that the moving picture industry is to a large extent in the hands of unscrupulous men, whose only concern is large financial profits regardless of the moral influence of the presentations. A large number of these pictures are a shameful exploitation of the sex-instinct; and many other exert a baneful influence through the portrayal of crime, a flippant attitude toward parental authority, the dignity of hte govenrment and of the church. Because of these things the movie-theater is undeniably one of the most destructive forces in our country, morally pestilential.

Based on these and other observations, the committee recommended abstinence from theater attendance by Christians.

With that minor caveat, Mohler’s address was full of Christian wisdom about the technology of our culture and Christian engagement. More to follow in the morning.

Also: The folks at Stand to Reason are live-blogging the event. There are a number of posts on Mohler’s talk.

The folks over at the Reformation21 blog, produced of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, have a great discussion going about the spiritual, cultural, and pastoral implications of pornography (here, here, and here).

The first post takes up the Naomi Wolf article, “The Porn Myth,” which also occasioned in part my reflections on the pornification of culture in general and technology in particular.

Carl Trueman aptly wonders (in the second post),

Could it be that pornography is the ultimate free market industry — creative of, and driven by, an insatiable need for change to create new demands and new markets with personal solipsistic gratification as the all-consuming and ever elusive goal? If so, there are elements of it which are symptomatic, rather than constitutive, of a much wider cultural problem and which thus require more radical cultural criticism than `it’s bad for women and it’s dirty’, true and serious as these undoubtedly are. Porn addiction becomes merely an extreme example of the general way we live today and of the worldly expectations which our culture infuses into us as natural and acceptable.

(Trueman also recommends two pieces on pastors and pornography, available here and here. And here’s a follow-up story to the latter piece.)

I read Trueman’s critique in the light of the observation made by Gertrude Himmelfarb in the mid-90’s, that among social conservatism there is “an older Burkean tradition, which appreciates the material advantages of a free-market economy (Edmund Burke himself was a disciple of Adam Smith), but also recognizes that such an economy does not automatically produce the moral social goods that they value—that it may even subvert those goods.” The commodification of sexuality seems to fit into the latter category (i.e. the subversion of goods).

(As an aside, so-called “crunchy cons” might claim to represent this “older Burkean tradition,” but from what I’ve seen its an open question to what extent they appreciate “the material advantages of a free-market economy.”)

And in the third post linked above, Rick Phillips coins the following phrase: “The idolatry of the porn worldview.”

Relating the pornography theme and another recent Reformation21 post on the necessary connection between faith and works, check out the work of X3Church, particularly the Esther Fund, which connects with people who work in the porn industry to try to give them a new life after porn. It’s a ministry with “a passion to help porn stars find freedom from the porn industry by helping them rebuild their lives through financial assistance, education and more.”

Blog author: abradley
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
By

In his recent and fascinating book Five Minds for the Future, Harvard professor Howard Gardner outlines the 5 basic types of intelligence people have:

1. The Disciplinary Mind: the mastery of major schools of thought, including science, mathematics, and history, and of at least one professional craft;

2. The Synthesizing Mind: the ability to integrate ideas from different disciplines or spheres into a coherent whole and to communicate that integration to others;

3. The Creating Mind: the capacity to uncover and clarify new problems, questions and phenomena;

4. The Respectful Mind: awareness of and appreciation for differences among human beings and human groups;

5. The Ethical Mind: fulfillment of one’s responsibilities as a worker and as a citizen.

Gardner makes the striking point that the Synthesizing Mind is becoming more important than ever, given our highly technological, highly informational world. The Disciplinary Mind — or what we think of as classical intelligence, the stuff child prodigies are made of — has dominated the intellectual landscape throughout history. But, Gardner argues, now that the Internet, technology, and media are making massive amounts of very dense information available to the average person, the type of mind that can acquire and store information is still impressive, but ultimately less useful than a mind that can process, connect, and communicate cross-disciplinary information to others in a meaningful way.

Thanks to the Internet, everyone can now access the vast storehouses of intellectual wealth that once belonged only to a concentrated elite. It makes sense, then, that the new elite could turn out to be those who can receive information rapidly, sift it, connect the dots, and put the whole picture to the best possible use for others.

In my mind, the Synthesizer concept parallels entrepreneurship in a few interesting ways. Just as information can behave like a type of good or service, it seems a person with a Synthesizing Mind can make prudent use of knowledge for the good of the entire human community. Technology makes it possible for the Synthesizer quickly to select the most relevant material from the experts — who have divided their labor to manage whole disciplines and systems of thought — without laboring to build a monolithic knowledge base of every field on his own, which would take a long time and allow him to share only a few authoritative insights at the end of all his pursuits. This does not mean the Synthesizer hurries or skips over important steps: he still must be a careful scholar who humbly stands “on the shoulders of giants,” as Sir Isaac Newton put it. It simply means he is free to use his creative powers to illuminate more readily for others the way various disciplines interact and the consequences they have for human life. That in turn makes him able to harness and combine the talents of others to form a serviceable “product” faster than a person with a Disciplinary Mind.

If thinking truly is “connecting things,” as G.K. Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy, the concept of the Synthesizing Mind has a great deal to offer to people of every category of intelligence. Even if you disagree with Gardner’s categorizations, having a Synthesizing Mind might help you to figure out why.

An addendum to my Wedesday commentary, in which I highlighted the positive ecological role human beings play by developing new technologies:

Joel Schwartz at NRO draws attention to the fact that there are some scientists who, for various possible reasons, actually oppose the development of technology that minimizes or reverses the impact of human activity on the environment (called, with respect to climate change, geoengineering). To wit,

For many climate scientists, however, the goal of studying geoengineering isn’t to determine whether any particular proposal is practical or safe, but “to show, with authority, that all such paths are dead-end streets,” and that the focus needs to be on requiring large reductions in people’s fossil-fuel energy consumption.

Socrates in some sense has come full circle. In a case of life imitating art, researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Central Florida in Orlando have received a grant to create life-like virtual representations of historical figures, with whom students can interact, dialogue, and inquire (HT: Slashdot).

“The goal is to combine artificial intelligence with the latest advanced graphics and video game-type technology to enable us to create historical archives of people beyond what can be achieved using traditional technologies such as text, audio and video footage,” said Jason Leigh, associate professor of computer science and director of UIC’s Electronic Visualization Laboratory. Leigh is UIC’s lead principal investigator.

This project seminally resembles the technological world depicted by Robert Silverberg in his mid-80’s novella, Sailing to Byzantium. In that work set in the 50th century, Silverberg’s characters travel to variously themed reconstructions of cities, complete with interactive simulacra of historical or mythological figures.

The UIC/UCFO project will focus on creating digital “avatars,” who mimic the mannerisms and characteristics of the persona they represent: “Leigh said his team hopes to create virtual people who respond with a high degree of recognition to different voices and the various ways questions are phrased.”

Some commentators wonder if the concept has commercial appeal. Judging from the popularity of the cities in Silverberg’s novella, I would certainly think so.

But what is more striking is how a project like this provides an answer, albeit one that is incomplete, to the conundrum of communication posed by Socrates himself so long ago.

In the Phaedrus, Socrates makes the following critical observation about the nature of writing:

I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence. And the same may be said of speeches. You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer. And when they have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not: and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves.

We now have within our sight a superficial answer to Socrates’ critique; these avatars will presumably be able to know “to whom they should reply,” and “to whom not.” Indeed, the simulacra might be able to give more than “one unvarying answer.”

But I think in some ways this simply sharpens rather than dismisses Socrates’ criticism. Will these avatars, in spite of the technological achievement of interactivity, fundamentally represent anything more than the illusion of intelligence, or “the attitude of life”? Whence comes the dynamism and spontaneity of human rationality, willing, and consciousness? Is it possible to truly recreate such things by means of “artificial intelligence”?

I’ve discussed previously the complex interrelationships between the next-generation gaming consoles and hi-def DVD formats, especially as complicated by the pornification of culture and technology.

So far I’ve focused on the battle between Sony’s PS3 (paired with the Blu-ray format) and the Xbox 360 (paired with the HD-DVD format), and argued that the hi-def formats rather than the porn industry itself would act as a decisive influence.

In an recent Newsweek article, Brian Braiker conclusively exposes the vacuous nature of the often highly exaggerated claims about the influence of the porn industry on technology (HT: Constitutionally Correct). He rightly wonders,

If people aren’t buying adult DVDs in the numbers the “official” estimates suggest—and, in fact, if cable and free online porn is driving the demand for physical product even lower—how does it make sense that porn will be the deciding factor in the battle for supremacy between Blu-ray and HD-DVD formats?

It doesn’t make sense, and that’s why the “conventional wisdom” about the power of porn needs to be questioned. And there’s more and more reason to suppose that Blu-ray is beginning to turn the tide against HD-DVD, even though the latter is far more porn-friendly. New plans have also been announced about the release cheaper Blu-ray players from Funai Electric Co. Ltd and from Sony later in 2007, increasing the low-end competitiveness of the format.

There’s a good debate on video about the format wars here, which also addresses the question of porn’s influence. Tom Arnold, editor at Hollywood Reporter, raises the observation that neither format can win as long as both are readily available. In this way, the format wars can really be seen to mirror the “cola wars” of the 80’s between Pepsi and Coke. If the market is large enough, perhaps it can support multiple formats, brands, or flavors. Arnold also said, “Porn is not the driver.”

But beyond the issue of the influence of porn on the format war, and its indirect impact on the next-gen console conflict, the dichotomy of the PS3 vs. Xbox 360 also needs to be adjusted. The fact is that Nintendo’s Wii is an important and powerful player in the console gaming market. This despite the accusations leveled by some that the Wii is not truly “next-gen” because it displays at 480p resolution (which qualifies only as “enhanced” and not “high” definition). But this past February saw the Wii dominate both the PS3 and the Xbox 360 in sales.

So, assuming that the Wii doesn’t suffer from the attempt by a Christian group to label it a “portal to porno” because of the potential to access adult content through its connection to the Internet, the next-gen console contest is officially a three horse race.

Internet access is a feature shared by the other next-gen consoles too, and despite the rather unfriendly response from the gaming community to ThePornTalk.com’s message, I see it as a praiseworthy and well-meant attempt to inform parents about the reality of technological advances. It certainly is true parents often are unaware of the potential content and capabilities of game consoles.

Have you heard about Logos Bible Software? Here’s a bit about the founding of the company from the February NewsWire update (and on their blog here): “A couple of young Microsoft programmers with their entire careers of high-pay and lucrative Microsoft stock options ahead of them, dropped everything to join a partner and risk it all on pursuing their dream.”

The story continues: “They weren’t satisfied with using their skills to help businessmen have access to the latest and greatest in technology just so they could be more productive or do better in business…

They wanted more.

They wanted to use those same skills to help God’s people in every walk of life have better access to the treasures of God’s Word.

They wanted to use the latest and greatest in technology to create tools for taking people deeper into Bible study than they ever thought possible.”

Logos Bible Software is the tool of choice for many seminaries, including my own school, Calvin Theological Seminary. I continue to be impressed with the range and quality of the products offered by Logos. There clearly is a commitment to providing research tools that are relevant and highly powerful, tailored to theologians, pastors, and laypersons alike.

I’m especially a fan of their pre-pub system, which allows users to express interest in future products and get them at a discount, while giving the company an idea of the viability of a particular offering. For instance, check out pre-pub offering of the full 14 volumes of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. They’re now doing for Barth’s Dogmatics what they’ve done previously for Pannenberg’s Systematic Theology, Luther’s Works, and Hodge’s Systematic Theology.

And now, Logos Bible Software has been named a finalist for the prestigious “Consumer Product of the Year” award given by the WSA, a technology and trade organization. The latest iteration of Logos’ premiere software, Logos Bible Software 3, is up for the award.

If you’re not familiar with Logos, check them out. To be sure, there are some other useful (and less costly) options out there, such as the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. But the entrepreneurial, innovative spirit and the God-centered commitment of the folks at Logos have combined to create a research tool well worth consideration.

If you are familiar with Logos, you can voice your support by voting for Logos Bible Software as the “Community’s Choice” winner at the WSA (it will be up to the official judges to award the “Consumer Product of the Year” honor).

If you would like to show your support, simply create an account and vote for Logos Bible Software.

You will have to create an account here.

Next, vote for Logos Bible Software here.

They say that technology drives culture (HT: Zondervan>To The Point).

But what drives technology? Many believe that pornography is the driving force behind adoption of particular technologies. Thus, says Slate television critic Troy Patterson, “Watching YouTube is far closer to consuming Internet pornography than staring at the television. … But then, all media culture has an increasingly pornographic feel, doesn’t it?”

Let’s look at some actual cases where this claim has been made (HT: Slashdot). In a recent TG Daily article reflecting on CES 2007, Aaron McKenna writes,

Quite famously in the war between Betamax and VHS the latter won especially because the adult industry preferred it. If you’ve been around long enough, you probably remember that the very early home video rental stores were primarily responsible for driving Betamax out of the market. And those stores carried almost exclusively pornographic content.

Thus, the fact that pornographers preferred VHS rather than Betamax assured VHS of being the dominant home video technology.

Many are applying this argument to the current battle between Blu-ray and HD-DVD formats. These competitors want to bring high-definition content to the home theater on DVDs. The drives are expensive and the technology is new, so are we in a comparable position to the relationship between VHS and Betamax decades ago?

McKenna did a straw poll at AEE and “got the strange feeling that HD DVD has won the format war already, at least in the porn industry.” Meanwhile, Sony has announced that it will not allow XXX rated content in Blu-ray format. So in this case, it might not be so much pornographers choosing HD-DVD but rather Blu-ray excluding pornographers.

But a recent piece in Electronic Gaming Monthly (“Blue Steal: Is Blu-ray winning the high-def disc jam?” by Marc Camron, February 2007, 34-35) describes another aspect of the DVD format war: gaming. Michael Pachter, a Wedbush Morgan Securities Analyst, points out that the new PlayStation 3 comes with a Blu-ray drive included. Its main competitor, the Xbox 360, is compatible with an add-on HD-DVD drive that runs about $200.

“Blu-ray is in a better position because more people are interest in purchasing a PS3 than in purchasing a stand-alone HD-DVD player,” says Pachter. “That interest will continue for several years. That means that the studios will see a Blu-ray installed base much larger than the HD-DVD installed base, and they will ultimately be compelled to make the best economic decision, which is to support Blu-ray.”

At the time Camron wrote his piece, the news hadn’t dropped yet about Sony’s ban of adult-rated content. But even so the Blu-ray has something going for it that Betamax didn’t: the PS3, which can now be marketed as the family-friendly gaming system because it’s Blu-ray drive won’t have hi-def DVD adult content.

We now know what format pornographers prefer. But the question remains, which one will parents prefer?