Facebook, Twitter, and the Tower of Babel
Q&A | Screenwriter and communication professor Craig Detweiler on the theology of technology
by Warren Cole Smith
Posted 2/19/15, 10:05 am
Craig Detweiler is a professor of communication at Pepperdine University, where he leads the college’s Center for Entertainment, Media, and Culture. He’s also a screenwriter and filmmaker. He wrote the screenplay for The Duke, a 1999 family-friendly comedy that still airs from time to time on the Disney Channel. In addition, Detweiler is the author of many books, including his most recent, iGods: How Technology Shapes Our Spiritual and Social Lives. We had this conversation at his office in Malibu, looking out a window with a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean.
Here in Malibu, you’re really close to where it’s happening in the entertainment and media culture. Is that why you wanted to be here? Yes. I originally grew up in Charlotte, N.C. I went to Davidson College, and I majored in English. There wasn’t really any kind of film program there, but I always loved movies, I loved media. My early hero was Humphrey Bogart. If I wanted to be part of that, L.A. was the place to be. So I came out here, I went to seminary at Fuller Seminary, and then I went to film school.
Well and not just any film school, right? University of Southern California is generally regarded as the best film school in the world. On my application, I told them I had never made a film but that I’d entertained up to 400 teenagers at a time at Young Life Camp. That was the extent of my professional entertainment experience. I think that they were just intrigued.
You also spent a couple of years as a missionary overseas. I taught English in Japan when I graduated from Davidson. It was just a great experience. I was introduced to the possibility of going overseas through InterVarsity’s Urbana Conference. I was just so captivated by the Japanese people. This was in the ’80s. It was the height of their boom time. They were really the most powerful economic engine on earth at that time. I think it showed me what it was like to live in an accelerated culture and amongst people who were working at this amazingly frenetic pace. When I saw this technological wave starting to take over America, it snapped me back to those go-go days of Japan in the ’80s. I’ve often wondered, how long can you live healthily and hopefully within an accelerated culture? What does it do to your soul? What does it do to your mind, your body, your spirit?
Talk about your career post-film school. When I graduated, my wife said, “You know what, I’ll work, I’ll support us for five years while you work on your film career.” So I stayed home, and I wrote all day every day. I approached it as a full time job, and I sold my first script within about maybe a year and half or two years, which is pretty fast in Hollywood terms. I have had movies that have been made. If you’re up watching the Disney Channel, for example, at 4 a.m., you might see one of my first films, called The Duke.
How did you transition to academia? While I was working as a screenwriter, my wife would come home and be like, “You seem like you’re going a little stir-crazy. You need to be outside. You need to talk to people. You’re not really an introvert. You’re an extrovert who happens to be a writer.” … So I would go and teach. It was usually Thursday afternoons at the Los Angeles Film Study Center, which is an amazing program for students at Christian colleges around the country. … I taught there one day a week and discovered that I really, really love that process. [It’s] 14 weeks with a group of people to say, “Okay, what’s your story? What’s your idea? What would you like to tell?” In those 14 weeks, we’d see things happen, we’d see their growth as storytellers, as young filmmakers. Of course, in Hollywood you can wait 14 weeks for someone to return your phone call or to read your script. While I was waiting on Hollywood and the slow pace that things happen and get made here, I was really energized by the idea of changing young lives.
That is a bit of an irony, isn’t it? Hollywood is this frenetic world, yet some of these movies take 20 years to get made and the original writer is dead and gone. It’s a strange hurry-up-and-wait culture. … Hollywood as a culture, and even the larger global technological culture—everything is urgent, but maybe not everything is important and maybe not everything is essential.
You started teaching and then you ultimately came to Pepperdine, right, about five years ago? I discovered I really loved teaching, and I loved investing in the next generation of filmmakers. I did that for Biola University, and I did that for Fuller Theological Seminary, creating more media-savvy pastors. Then Pepperdine called and said, hey, we’re in Malibu. We want to, you know, sort of take advantage of where God has placed us here, amongst the icons of the industry, the real decision-makers. How might we raise up, not just storytellers, but also people who could be executives, who could offer a green light, who could influence the kind of content that shows up on our television screens and the big screen? Right now, I think we’re trying to train both executives with a conscience and filmmakers who are committed to redemptive craft.
Your book, iGods: How Technology Shapes Our Spiritual and Social Lives, came out in 2013. How did you decide to write the book, and how has it been received? iGods, for me, began with the personal problem of the amount of screens coming into our home. I have teenagers, and they’ve gotten to a certain age where they expect to have a device put in their hand and felt all this social pressure to keep up with the pace. … What am I handing them, and are they prepared? They need a license to drive, but they don’t need a license to access all the knowledge of the known universe on their phones. As a parent, as an educator who dealt with students who tend to look down rather than up, who were constantly distracted and fractured in the classroom, I thought, I need for my own sake to do the research and understand what are these devices doing to us and what might we do through them. So that’s where it began.
Even though you love technology and also have a certain level of facility and skill in it, you’ve got real apprehensions about technology, right? I’m a professor of communication at Pepperdine University in Malibu, and I do not allow technology in my classroom, other than whatever I might want to show via a laptop, via one screen. I don’t need 25 different screens in the classroom and everybody looking up their own thing. I want to bring us together to thoughtfully reflect on how we are using those screens and how they are impacting us outside the classroom. … Sherry Turkle, who’s a psychologist at MIT, was an early enthusiast. She said, oh, this is the greatest thing in the world. We’re all going to have second selves and second lives. Now 10, 15, 20 years down that road she’s going, I’m not sure. I’ve done enough research now that finds students today are more harried and fractured and stressed out than students 20 years ago. They’re more connected on their phones, but they’re disconnected from each other and in some ways even disconnected from themselves.
Neil Postman talked about the net effect of technology—that we always adopt technology because of the positive benefits it brings to our lives, but usually the negative effects are little bit slower in showing up and only after we become addicted to the technology. That’s exactly right. This book iGods for me is a chance to push pause. We’ve already all embraced it uncritically. Now let’s back up and let’s think critically. And let’s not just think critically, let’s think theologically. Where is God in this process? What does God think about technology? What is a theology of technology?
How do you define technology? Some people would say technology is anything that was created after you were born, so we tend to give it “now,” in terms of things that are new, things that are cutting edge.
So we don’t think of the printing press for example as a technology. It was a cutting-edge technology that brought a spiritual revolution. It created a religious revolution. A fork is technology. Glasses are technology. A bridge is a technology. All these different things have connected us over the years. They’re all tools given by God. But now what do we do with them?
You used the famous quote from Arthur C. Clarke in your book that says that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Is it that magic that is enamoring? I vividly remember the first time I held an iPhone in my hand and that ability to just swipe it with your finger and it unlocks all of these possibilities, all of these apps. It was magic, right? It was like, how did they do this? How can my thumb suddenly have this power? It gives us this inflated sense of possibility, and we say, “And maybe not only is this phone magic. Maybe I’m magic. Maybe I’m a superhero. Look, I can Skype across the universe. I can broadcast myself from my phone.”
You even say that Jesus was a technologist, right? Everybody knows that Jesus was the son of a carpenter, but not many people have done a Greek word study. That Greek word for carpenter is actually “tekton,” which is very similar to the Greek techne that we get the whole field from. Nobody would ever say, “Well, Jesus was a technologist.” That seems crazy to us. But if we were to translate it today then maybe that’s a more faithful way of thinking about it or understanding it. He’s a craftsman, he understood tools, he understood how to work things. He was maybe more like an engineer. … Technologists are essentially real-world problem solvers. They think about the world and what we’ve been given and the tools that we have, and they figure out how to make things.
Let us stipulate Jesus was a technologist.There’s the biblical mandate to have dominion, to work the land, which requires this creation and mastery of tools. But again, we see very quickly in the Old Testament the building of the Tower of Babel, which required enormous engineering and technological skills to build but was also a rebellion against God. Just before Babel, God had used the ark, a technology, as a lifesaving gift, a lifesaving tool. So you see the possibilities, right? Build an ark, build it to these specifications. That’s technology used to preserve the biodiversity of the world. You get to Babel, you get to Nimrod and it says, “Let us build a tower to elevate ourselves.” It’s interesting, that word “tower.” It makes me think of platform, right? That’s how you build a tower. You build it one story at a time. What do we call things like Facebook? What do we call Twitter? All these are platforms. So the question isn’t, necessarily, “Is a platform inherently bad?” but the question is, “who or what is that platform designed to elevate?” The folks at Babel wanted to elevate themselves. We’re asked and invited to increase our friends, increase our followers, to elevate ourselves through these new technologies.
I guess the moral of the story is that technology is not evil but Satan is in the business of corrupting God’s good gifts to us. And that temptation to elevate ourselves is ever with us, isn’t it?
Listen to Warren Cole Smith’s full interview with Craig Detweiler on Listening In.