A Mote in Minerva’s Eye

Seeing without categorizing


Anita ColemanWhat new technologies can reveal about being the church
A close look at a new app called Periscope that invites users to experience “the world through someone else’s eyes”

by Anita Coleman

There’s a new app available, and it’s boasting that it will empower you to “explore the world through someone else’s eyes.” It’s called Periscope.

With this free iPhone and Android app, anybody, anywhere, can broadcast live video and interact in real time with their audience. The broadcaster can make the live stream public or private; watchers can comment, “heart” the live stream if they like the show, or call in if the broadcaster provides a phone number. The live video stream, called a scope, is automatically destroyed after 24 hours; broadcasters can save it for private use but there is no searchable archive like YouTube. Thus, Periscope is all about engagement and extends human interactions far beyond the immediate vicinity.

Even though Periscope was only released about five months ago it already has more than 10 million accounts. Thus, some consultants are advising churches to be on the forefront, leveraging Periscope for the kingdom with shows on church culture, Q&A with the pastor on sermons, campus tours which show how people dress and interact in church, and sneak previews of upcoming events.

As these tools proliferate, how do churches and techy disciples of Jesus decide which social media to use? I believe John’s poetic introduction of Jesus offers us a panoptic way to think about communication tools in general. “Life was in him, life that made sense of human existence” (John 1:4, Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God). Does the adoption and use of the communication technology give or drain life? Does it help us make sense of our life? How does it draw us closer to God, build Trinitarian-like relationships with others, and create a church which reflects Christ to the world, his kingdom at hand?

Growing uses of Periscope include promoting a brand, business, or event; expanding the reach of blogging or other creative works by providing a live video sneak preview; and inviting audiences into intimacy by livestreaming a daily walk. These uses are short-lived (“ephemera” as librarians call them) but they can be missional and evangelical too. Thus, it is worth exploring what a worship scope or a live stream video of discipleship moments might look like.

Scopes might also make church more truly a public good. A public good, as defined by economists, is something from which non-contributors cannot be excluded. Libraries and churches are examples of a public good, although churches are sometimes criticized as private clubs whose tax exemption privileges should be withdrawn. A worship scope, or a presbytery’s open space live streamed, makes these events immediately more accessible to a larger community.

Recently, the Rights Management team of Taylor Swift has been requesting Periscope to remove the live streaming of the video recordings of Swift’s concerts by her fans. Since scopes automatically disappear after 24 hours, Taylor’s decision to protect her copyright, rather than view her fan’s scopes as part of fair use, is disheartening and threatening. Some music bands (the Grateful Dead, for instance) allow their fans to make videos of their concerts and share publicly. Furthermore, copyright, the most important law that protects creative works is also meant to encourage intellectual and artistic creation, and it provides for fair use.

Intellectual property laws, however, have become draconian in recent years (e.g., Digital Millennium Copyright Act, US government patent ownership of the DNA of groups of people, etc.). There’s an important justice question here that also goes to the heart of our use of new communications technology: How just are current US intellectual property laws including copyright with regard to digital information, whose nature keeps changing?

Increasingly—from presbytery gathering packets to church newsletters, eblasts, photos, videos, podcasts—a wide variety of digital information is also being created and consumed in the church. Sanctuaries with big screens show worship musicians and the pastor as bigger than life; attention-getting animations prevent us from getting bored. And, yet all this technology often comes at a price, and most church leaders I know end up feeling stressed and drained. In fact, the concept of a digital Sabbath is fast gaining ground. Jesus’ warning about self-deception comes to mind here. Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ’Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt. 7: 21).

This means that we in the church face a real conundrum: we are called to seize opportunities that expand access to (and interaction with) the gospel, and technology like Periscope seems vital to this task. And yet, we are also called to apply a discerning (perhaps we should even say, skeptical?) eye to cultural trends, keeping our focus on Christ and not our own distracting performances.

Indeed our human appetites for innovation and consumption may lead us to self-deception. Use of information technology can be the will of human glory, inconsistent with the will of God. When McLuhan wrote a long time ago that “the medium is the message” he meant that our tools extend our normal human abilities; new communication tools from email to websites to Periscope and more yet to come extend capacity for seeing the world through someone’s else’s eyes, and for acting on it. The question is whose eyes are we looking through: God’s or the world’s?

Conversation starters
1. How likely are you or your church to use Periscope? Why or why not?
2. Do you use Facebook? Email? Twitter? Instagram? Snapchat? How do these technologies—through either your own use or the use of others—make you feel?
3. Do you think email and other technology saves time and gives life or has made you busier and more drained?
4. Jesus was a champion of the poor and the suffering. Whom do you champion? How have new communication technologies helped you champion them?
5. Would you describe yourself as a creator, curator, or consumer of digital information? Are these distinctions important to your faith life? Discuss.

Anita Coleman is a wife, mother, and writer who enjoys electronics, gardens, and books.