top of page

Grace & Gigabytes Blog

Perspectives on leadership, learning, and technology for a time of rapid change

Ryan's book cover.jpg
  • Writer's pictureRyan Panzer

I recently read Timothy Egan's "A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith." The travelogue depicts a multi-leveled journey. On one level, there is a physical trek through contemporary Europe. A a deeper level, there is a spiritual trek through Europe's Christian heritage. As Egan walks, he grapples with his own beliefs and faith commitments. Full of honesty and candor, Egan sets out to hear the voice of God amidst the frenetic pace of his experience. The book is captivating, raw, and poetic.


As he starts his walk from England to Italy on The Via Francigena, he encounters the first directive in The Rule of St. Benedict: "Listen." It is to be the watchword of his journey.


Again and again, Egan recalls the importance of listening to the Christian faith. Drawing upon the scriptures and the rules of St Benedict, the writings of the apostles and the teachings of Pope Francis, the book emphasizes how utterly essential listening is to a life of faith.


As I read Egan's memoir, I am struck by how he managed to re-connect to his faith. It was not through reason or logic as Augustine might instruct, nor through tradition, as some clerics might teach. He does not find his spiritual footing through attendance at mass or worship (in his memoir, he opts to skip such services when invited). Rather, the author found spiritual sustenance through silently walking the lonely passages of the Via Francigena. Clearly there is something to be said about how intentional, active listening makes us more likely to notice what God is up to in our midst.




Is it any wonder, then, that one's faith often feels contested in this digital age, a time defined by more noise, fewer conversations, and constant context switching?


Even when I try to be completely intentional about my listening, I am interrupted by texts and emails, Slack notifications and news alerts. I find it challenging to listen to members of my own family - let alone the voice of the divine!


But it's not just interruption that inhibits our willingness to listen.


It's that digital technology actively takes away opportunities to practice listening to one another. As digital tools for collaboration become more sophisticated and AI advances, I am able to work asynchronously and independently with increasing ease. The conversations and interactions I would have once required to solve a problem can now be solved through interaction with AI. The alignment I need with collaborators and co-workers can now be solved through updates and notifications on apps like Trello, JIRA, and Asana. Thus my week involves fewer actual discussions, fewer opportunities to listen.


Listening is also made more difficult by the expanding items on our to-do list. As AI and digital workplace tools make us more productive (at least in theory), we are expected to take on a more expansive set of commitments. If these tools reduce the weekly hours required for Project A from 40 to 20, then the supervisor will soon add Projects B and C to our list. And while these projects might not add more hours to our workweek, they will certainly add to our cognitive load. That's because a wider set of tasks on my list requires me to rapidly change contexts from one deliverable to the next. The pace of work in the digital age might not require us to work more hours. But it always requires us to pack more into the hours we work. This way of working depletes our capacity for focus and listening.


This isn't to say we shouldn't use AI or digital collaboration tools. These resources can remove much of the drudgery of our work lives, freeing us up to spend less time on mindless, rote tasks. If using an app like Monday.com or Confluence means I get back the hours I spend in tedious project update meetings I will gladly partake. If digital tools allow me to work remotely, to spend more time with family, than I'll gladly accept their requisite pings and dings. Simple unplugging is not the solution to the challenge of listening in contemporary culture.


Instead, we should return to Benedict's command to Listen.


I've heard it said that listening involves both "listening to respond" and "listening to understand." The former is a faster, more common form of listening, while the latter is more empathetic and relational. Yet I would suggest that these two levels of listening are not enough for what the life of faith demands.


Faith in a digital age is about listening to discern. That's the type of listening that Timothy Egan discovered while hiking the Via Francigena. And while most of us won't attempt a trans-continental pilgrimage, this type of listening afforded by the pilgrimage or other forms of contemplative practice can be a balm to the distracted souls of the digital age. Perhaps, then, growing in our faith isn't about believing more ardently, or praying more consistently, or attending church more regularly. Maybe its simply about learning how to listen.

Sam Bankman-Fried doesn't read.


Before his fraud trial, Bankman-Fried suggested that anyone who has written a book has "expletive upped," suggesting that they should have instead written a blog post. Perhaps the recently convicted king of crypto will change his mind on literacy as he awaits a maximum sentence of 110 years. And while the literary world enjoys a schadenfreude moment, it's worrisome that his sentiments are becoming increasingly widespread.


Americans are reading 20% fewer books than they read in the 1990s. They are also spending less time reading for pleasure. The average American reads just 16 minutes per day. By contrast, the average teen now spends 4.8 hours per day on social media, mostly on YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram. If Donald Trump captures the presidency this November, the country will be led by a non-reader who can't be troubled to read daily intelligence briefings, let alone books.




The decline of pleasure reading in our tech-shaped culture is a complex trend exacerbated by the explosion of algorithmic digital content, the constant acceleration of technology, and the proliferation of click-bait summaries in the news media. Too many of us lack the time, patience, and focus to read long-form writing.


Still, I was raised in an elementary school that taught that "readers are leaders" (or maybe it was the other way around). I developed a love of reading because I sensed how it contributed to an ongoing process of reflection and formation - and also because I earned a PizzaHut Personal Pan Pizza for each book report I completed. So with the conviction that focused, intentional reading advances the development of leadership skills, here are three book recommendations for harried, overworked, worried leaders who are navigating this tech-shaped culture.


Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology by Neil Postman


Neil Postman is best known for his 1985 work Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. While his 1985 book remains as relevant as ever, it analysis primarily focuses on the influence of entertainment.


"Technopoly" emerged eight years later, when Postman could see the emergence of electronic communication and personal computing. Postman argues that mankind has changed from a society that uses technology, to a society that is shaped by technology. For Postman, the invention of a hammer means that there is no such thing as "man with hammer." There is only "hammer man" - whose views of education, politics, and art are inextricably filtered through the unremovable lens of new technologies.


Technopoly is written with greater urgency and moral clarity than its predecessor. It is an essential read in a year where AI will continue its rapid advance, and where short form digital media will continue to redefine communication.


For the leader in a tech-shaped culture, Technopoly poses an urgent question: how might I protect communities and institutions from mindlessly succumbing to the worst impulses of this technological moment? Postman also challenges us to recognize that the answer to this question is far more complicated than simply deactivating one's Twitter profile.



Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley by Carolyn Chen


Technology is not the only juggernaut affecting meaning-making. While Postman writes about the influence of technology, sociologist Carolyn Chen writes about the pervasive influence of the workplace on knowledge, belief, and meaning. While the case studies reflect on religion and spirituality, the book revolves around the core question of how we derive meaning in a growth-obsessed culture.


By tracing the stories of once-religious tech workers who relocated to Silicon Valley, Chen demonstrates the encroachment of the workplace into spheres once occupied by tradition. The mechanisms of this encroachment are often described by Silicon Valley corporations as amenities, or enhancements to workplace culture. From meditation programs that teach "scientific Buddhism" to coaching offerings that promise "inner transformation," the tech industry has used these cultural offerings to displace the role once held by pastors, rabbis, and spiritual directors. Not every workplace has such amenities. But our work is increasingly becoming a personal quest for meaning and purpose.


When work becomes a spiritual journey, it comes to define our sense of purpose. We work harder, we produce more deliverables, we work longer hours. One wonders, while reading Chen's work, what will happen to the Google engineer or the Facebook account manager upon the next round of layoffs.


Chen beckons today's leader to consider how the drive to innovate replaces deeply held values and identities with the demands of late capitalism. It reminds today's leader that if we fail to define values and vision for our organizations, the marketplace will step in to do so on our behalf.

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doer


Our final recommendation is the fantastical story of how one particular narrative survived centuries of acceleration to sustain and inspire across the ages. In a world that is turning its back on literacy, Cloud Cuckoo Land mounts a vigorous defense of the long-form narrative.


Set in three different timelines (the Siege of Constantinople, a modern day library, and a futuristic space ship), Doer traces how an obscure Greek drama provides coherence and inspiration on a timeless scale.


Anthony Doer reminds us of the enduring connection between meaning making and stories. Though it is a long book, Cloud Cuckoo Land cautions us about a world in which there are no more stories - only fragments.

For the leader in a tech-shaped culture, Cloud Cuckoo Land invites us to reflect upon and to share the stories that are most significant in our own formation. For even when our work has been lost to the eons, our stories will remain.



--

@ryanpanzer is moving his social media activity from Twitter to GoodReads.

--













Happy New Year!


As we turn the page to another year, here are five resolutions that I hope the church can keep in the months ahead. Each of these resolutions addresses or aligns with the values that shape our tech-shaped culture (values that I wrote about in "Grace and Gigabytes").


Resolution 1: Preach More Lived Stories and Fewer Theological Abstractions


Secularization has accelerated. Church attendance has plummetted. Belief in the trasncendent, let alone the dogma of organized religion, is constantly contested. In this default context of fragmentation and disbelief, the church cannot afford to preach the language of abstraction.


What is abstraction?


Abstraction is a claim about God that is made without a supporting story, example, or illustration.


In the year ahead, let's resolve to tilt the balance in our preaching towards to the lived stories of God's work in our contexts. Let's resolve to proclaim so many lived stories in our context that we discern a common "watch word," or statement of how God shows up in the particulars of our time and place.



Resolution 2: Enrich In-Person Conversations through Digital Content


As we continue to move beyond the pandemic, live streaming has become less appealing as a regular worship habit. According to Gallup, only 5% of Americans are attending services remotely.


Still, digital ministry will continue to serve as the front door to visitors and guests, necessitating that we continue to offer online worship.


What will happen to digital ministry? We might shift to a content-supported model of digital ministry, in which we create and distribute digital content in service to furthering the dialogues started through our liturgies. We might move from events (streaming worship, for example) to posts and stories that enrich our understanding of a topic and expand our theological imagination. This is the model we've tested at Good Shepherd with "Conversation Sundays" - discussions that start in worship and are furthered through digital content in the week ahead.


Resolution 3: Make Space for AI Experimentation


AI is a once-in-a-generation technological leap. AI will shape our culture, and how our culture makes meaning, in ways that we can only begin to imagine. This new technology will inevitably change not just how we execute tasks but how we process information - how we come to learn something, how we come to believe in something.


It's no exaggeration. AI will change what it means to have faith.


The church cannot sit by idly and observe the AI disruption. We must be active experimenters. From creating digital content based on sermon manuscripts to writing newsletters with chatbots, from using ChatGPT to help us articulate personal faith stories to using text to image generators for our newsletter and website, we must resolve to voraciously experiment with these new tools.


Resolution 4: Teach Tech Sabbath as a Spiritual Practice


Just as AI has the potential to be used for purposeful ministry, it can also create a vicious cycle that further retrenches us in digital isolation. As AI creates better content it will command more of our focus. As it consumes more of our attention, we become more enmeshed in the content of our screens.


Tech Sabbath, whether practiced regularly for an hour or for an entire day of the week, is the defiant claim that these vicious cycles do not have ultimate power over my being. To practice a Tech Sabbath is to remember that we are created for much more than digital consumption.


Resolution 5: Model Gratitude as a Leadership Practice


I recently heard Professor Tom Thibodeau define servant leadership in three parts. Prof. Thibodeau suggested that the first job of a leader is to define reality. The second job of a leader is to say thank you. Everything in between is service.


We live in a world where gratitude is missing - or where it is so shallow and superficial that it loses all meaning. When our technology accelerates our communication, we tend to jettison that which is most essential: expressions of thanks, and articulations of our stories. Each is fundamental to the formation of trust. Yet both become increasingly absent the faster we move.


In the year ahead, let's resolve to model how to set aside the drive towards productivity to give meaningful thanks for the service we receive, and to give thanks for those who serve at our side.


In all contexts, in any forums, we are called to partake in the spiritual practice of gratitude in ways that are deep, meaningful, and enriching.


--

@ryanpanzer would like to wish everyone a Blessed 2024!

--

bottom of page