The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture

Rarely do I find myself reading a book and marveling, "This is the perfect book at the perfect time." Shane Hipps' The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture is this book for me. This helpful work describes in detail how electronic culture (particularly digital communications technology and the Internet) shapes human minds, culture, and the Church.

If you've visited this blog recently, you'll know we've been grappling with changing culture, social media, smart phones, all these and more. We're wrestling with how these present the Church with challenges and opportunities that are simultaneously dizzying, disorienting, and exhilarating. Hipps does a masterful job alerting us to the contours and shifting sands of this ever-changing postmodern landscape. He uses the brilliant insights of Marshall McLuhan to help us see not only the tools of the latest technology, but also their hidden power to create culture and shape communities. McLuhan, some may remember, was the media ecologist of the 1960s best known for his famous quote: "The medium is the message." Hipps takes issue with the old evangelical saw "The methods may change but the message remains the same." Hogwash, says Hipps. The methods of communication, whether the printed page, radio, TV, or the Internet, powerfully convey their own message and have the ability--in themselves--to transform the way we think, feel, communicate, and "do Church." No medium, in other words, is neutral. Hipps then launches us on a breathtaking gallop through McLuhan's thought, giving us tools to scrutinize new technologies and observe how the Church and Christianity have been profoundly shaped by the advent of new media, moving from oral to written to visual modes of communication.

In particular, Hipps reminds us that all media is an extension of either a human body part or capacity. For example, the printed page (and later the television) is an extension of the eye. The radio is an extension of the ear, and so forth. Hipps then shows us how each medium makes an earlier technology obsolete (telephones replace telegraphs, email replaces snail mail, etc). He demonstrates how if a certain medium is pushed to its extreme, it will reverse in the opposite direction (cars, which made transportation faster, can get caught in traffic jams, which slow down transportation). Finally, the author shows us how each medium retrieves some earlier experience or medium from the past (texting, for example, retrieves the telegraph). These four observations form a grid for us to critique the gifts and dangers of emerging media. Hipps applies these insights to church leadership and structure, as well as worship styles. This entire discussion serves as a helpful outline for the move from modernity to post-modernity.

I'm not one for hyperbole, but I have to say it: this is a brilliant book. Clear, concise, crisp prose makes its 165 pages a quick read. The analogies and illustrations are spot-on. Relevant, prophetic, breathtaking--a must-read for our church leadership and anyone interested in discerning what may be the new shape of church in the 21st century. Visit the author's website at for more!


Wendy Redal said...

Carl, thanks for the comprehensive and stimulating review. We may have to make this our next book group selection -- we are in a group of 10 mostly First Pres people that meet monthly to discuss something we've read together; have been doing so for about 12 years now. I'm wondering if you yourself might not have an eventual book in you, revolving around these subjects...??

Carl Hofmann said...

Wendy, as for an eventual book, we'll just have to see. Thanks for the suggestion! Consider also reading Hipps' "Flickering Pixels" which is more targeted toward issues of faith and digital technology. Blessings!