COMMENTARY: Institution must recognize importance of technology

Throughout the 2013 Season, select speakers at Chautauqua Institution — specifically chaplains in residence — have cast technological innovation in a pessimistic light. But it is not the criticism of smartphones and video games that is problematic. Rather, it is the sheer lack of a response to this criticism which serves as a reminder: The Institution has historically offered very little programming on technology and culture.

The mission statement of the Institution asserts that its programming is dedicated to the exploration of “the important religious, social and political issues of our times.” However, since 2005 — the year the Xbox 360 and YouTube both launched — there have been 81 themed weeks at Chautauqua Institution; of those, only four have been loosely devoted to life in the digital age.

Week Two of the 2013 Season, “The Next Greatest Generation,” featured only one prominent figure from the tech world: Megan Smith, vice president of Google[x]. And of all the morning lecture and Interfaith Lecture Series speakers this season, only one — Chris Stedman, humanist chaplain at Harvard University — is part of Generation Y, or those born from the early 1980s through the 1990s.

In her sermon at the July 31 morning worship service, Bishop Vashti McKenzie argued that video games are to blame for the world’s inhumanity. She criticized four video games rated “Mature,” the most recent being released nearly eight years ago.

“Maybe because we failed to wean our children from the breast milk of video games like ‘Crime Life: Gang Wars,’ ‘Narc,’ ‘Resident Evil 4’ or ‘Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas,’ “ she said, “where a young person gains respect in a gang through murder and mayhem, theft and wreaking as much havoc as they can.”

McKenzie’s larger argument was that many Christians “have lost their ability to feel the suffering of Jesus,” for which she ascribed blame to video games.

Given the population on the grounds, one can surmise that few of those attending McKenzie’s sermon have been exposed to the games she cited. According to sample data gathered by the Institution’s Department of Marketing and Communications, approximately 76 percent of those on the grounds during the 2012 Season were older than 55. And since 2010, the largest age group on the grounds has been 66 to 75-year-olds. Moreover, 26 to 35-year-olds accounted only for approximately 4 percent of those on the grounds during the 2012 Season.

Few Chautauquans would accept McKenzie’s claims if they knew there was no empirical evidence to conclude that video games influence real-world violence. However, there is no such dialogue at the Institution, because there is so little programming to inform the discussion.

At the Aug. 18 morning worship service, Bishop John Chane spent nearly 15 minutes reflecting on advancements in technology in the last 50 years. However, his thesis was that technology — specifically smartphones — is ultimately leading to the “depersonalization of human relationships.”

Chane said this leads to “dehumanizing” and “predatory” behavior, such as bullying and “sexting.”

Antagonistic behavior and sexual expression are, good or bad, aspects of human nature. This does not mean they should be excused; rather, they are human issues and must be addressed as such. For example, while cyberbullying remains a pervasive concern today, demonizing technology fails to recognize the root of the problem. The same logic applies to scapegoating video games for gun violence.

Paul Raushenbush, senior religion editor for The Huffington Post — who was on the grounds for the retirement roast of Joan Brown Campbell earlier this season — said it is impractical to address any contemporary issue without considering its technological implications.

“It’s not an option to say, ‘I wish the Internet was not here,’ ” Raushenbush said. “If that’s your approach, you’re going to lose. Meaning, you’re going to go extinct.”

Raushenbush, an ordained Baptist minister, said there is danger in celebrating “old-school values” without recognizing that such values can apply to “new things,” such as the Internet.

“I think that the Internet could be one of the best things that ever happened to religion,” he said. “But it won’t happen without people being intentional about it — and that’s the reason education is so important.”

And education can take many forms. Beyond the 10:45 a.m. and 2 p.m. lecture platforms, Special Studies classes are a great place to integrate Chautauquans with new forms of technology.

In the 2013 Season, there were classes on technology offered in almost every Special Studies category. In Business & Finance, there was “Mastering LinkedIn for Business Growth”; in Handcrafts & Hobbies, Chautauquans could explore smartphone photography with “iPhone-O-Graphy”; and in Special Interests, one could learn about robot technology in “Robots: Our Brave New World.”

While diversifying the population on the grounds may be a decades-long effort, an initiative to diversify programming could happen during this off-season. Technology is about information and communication. It goes back to the pillars of the Institution.

Take the Department of Religion’s Abrahamic Program for Young Adults. The idea behind the program is that if those on the grounds are better educated in Islam and Judaism, they will be less likely to pass false judgment about these religions. And it is this same Chautauquan logic that must be applied to technology.

Anthony Dominic is a senior at Kent State University, majoring in magazine journalism and minoring in political science. He served as copy editor for The Chautauquan Daily this season.

There are 2 comments

  1. Lisa Mertz

    Of course, Dr. Otis Moss III, who was the Chaplain for week 2, uses technology to its fullest advantage, streaming is weekly church services (http://www.tucc.org), encouraging his congregation to access Bible apps on their iPads, and doing extensive outreach with social media (https://twitter.com/om3). Last year, he spoke on 7/31/12 on the topic: “God, Google and iPods: Digital Faith and Analog Religion.”

    1. Jane A. Gross

      The Institution should consider that this piece includes the answer to why Chautauqua doesn’t appeal to younger audiences – the material is often irrelevant, or at least distressingly incomplete, as presented. Beyond that, people under 50 often take notes on iPads or some equivalent. As it stands now, usher come around and tell you to turn off your equipment because it “glows” and annoys some of the old-timers. So Chautauqua’s message is all about catering to elderly luddites. That’s a strong message about what sort of audience they really want, or are really willing to embrace.

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