Beta faith and Theology After Google

March 16, 2010

design / emergent / theology

I’m a big fan of the Homebrewed Christianity podcast. I just got my first iPod for Christmas, and have been catching up on old and new episodes of this podcast, and some others, since then. In light of that, I listened to the Beta Faith episode in the airport the other day, waiting to return from a trip to Minneapolis (which I’ll blog about later).

This, of course, was right after the Theology After Google conference, which I’ve read was a fantastic time. In light of all this, it’s worth mentioning that I’m not so much reflecting on the event, though I’ve enjoyed reading about it before and after it occurred, but instead am reflecting upon the concept, especially as it was discussed in the podcast episode I mentioned above.

The concept is a fabulous thing. It reflects the reality that folks outside the ivory towers of academia can be as knowledgeable of theological issues as they want to be, and that they often have no reason to trust the ivory towers to make their theological decisions. Anyone can be a theologian, to whatever extent they’d like to be. Florin Paladie has a blog series on this reality that begins here. The podcast also reflects upon these issues.

This is all great. The podcast continues by examining the concept of beta faith; whether our faith is always being programmed (the new way of understanding beta is exemplified by the fact that Gmail was in beta for some four years), whether our ways of doing church are always being programmed, and whether God is always being programmed. This, also, is all great. I love these questions, and it helps that Florin and Philip Clayton both have experience in programming that helps them reflect upon them.

Spencer Burke is also involved in the episode’s conversation, and the folks talking examine issues of what a theologian’s task is in a time like this. They talk of the similarities that beta and open source software have with these new methods. There are ideas of “creating space” and “hosting” the creation of theology, and of co-creating with other folks, and with God. The episode also discusses the conference itself, and reflects upon the fact that speakers will have the Twitter feed on a screen behind them.

Now. I mention all of these things, both to briefly summarize the podcast episode to get you to listen to it, and also to provide context for what I think is missing.

The concept, as it is presented, makes everyone a “programmer” or “engineer” of theology, to the extent that they’d like to be. The concept needs designers. Visual designers and user experience designers are asking the kind of questions that these folks need to ask, and dealing with the kind of experiences that these folks need to deal with. I’m confident that Spencer, Florin, and Philip were looking for this kind of language without mentioning it, and that it can be incredibly helpful as we move forward in this conversation.

Designers are the folks who create space for experiences to occur, and to host those experiences in ways that are pleasant to use and make people want to use them. In a business sense, designers are the ones who are able to move the focus that programmers and marketing folks often have on making themselves look awesome to the focus that makes users comfortable and helps them see themselves as being awesome1.

In a very specific example of the need for user experience to make users comfortable, the design community erupted in the aftermath of the Web 2.0 Expo NYC this past November. I was at this event. The eruption occurred because of a presentation by Danah Boyd, a researcher at Microsoft who gave one of the keynotes. She wasn’t well advised of the setting of her talk; it went much more badly than she had hoped, and was dramatically worsened by the Twitter backstream, which showed things folks were saying about her without allowing her to see them. Danah reflected upon the experience, and there are deep insights there and in the comments.

Part of the reason I bring this up is that I often see parallels between the issues and conversations within Emergent and the issues and conversations within the web design and development community. The Web 2.0 Expo situation was created by two characteristics of web 2.0 folks: 1) they have a genuine desire for people to communicate with each other, and a realization that everyone has valuable knowledge that they can teach and learn from everyone else, and 2) they are easily distracted by shiny things. We like the excitement of beta software, untested technologies, and taking things as far as we can.

Emergent shares both of these characteristics, among others. At times, they have very real human costs. A Twitter backstream is a very simplistic example, but a very real one – the speaker herself was ignored for the benefit of the community, which went on without her. This is a real human cost. At other times, especially when they are combined with a deep concern for the experiences of all the people involved, these characteristics have incredibly beautiful effects. This is one of the reasons we all are a part of Emergent, and it is also one of the reasons that many of us are involved in web 2.0 things.

So this is my request: while we are thinking about the language of beta, the experience of programmers, and what theology looks like after Google, let’s learn the language of design – the language of created spaces for beautiful user experiences, the desire to curate these spaces so that everyone can move within them, and ways to intentionally design for generative community.

  1. If you have half an hour, it is more than worth your while to watch this video from Kathy Sierra, one of the best user experience thinkers in the world today. []