Theology and design in the age of Google

March 23, 2010

design / emergent / theology

Recently, I reflected upon the concept of Theology After Google, to which a conference, a great podcast episode, and lots of blog posts have been skillfully devoted. My idea was that, along with applying the learnings and theories and metaphors of beta software, programming, and social networking to our theological thinking as these things have done, we also need to consider the learnings of visual and user experience design.1

There were a few comments and Tweets that indicate that folks are at least somewhat interested in this, and I’ve spent a great deal of time learning and thinking about the ways in which design affects other disciplines – both in a professional sense as I relate to technology and marketing folks on a daily basis, and in a theological and spiritual sense as I care about the ways in which we think and talk about God, the kingdom of God, and the church and its mission in the world; so I want to start some thinking about this.

This conversation as a whole started when folks sought to learn from the language of programming and the language of social networking as we do theology, do church and community, and seek justice, among other things. As we’ve looked at these symbols, we have (rightly, I think) been looking at Google as an archetype of the kind of thinking we are seeing and how it applies to the things we do, so I think it’s appropriate to start this conversation about design along those lines, as well. There’s enough in that conversation for several posts, hopefully from others as well as me.

Folks in these talks are considering the things that Google does really well, and the ways in which it has changed and is changing culture. However skilled Google is at certain things (engineering, finding and organizing information, and serving monstrous amounts of data, among other things), it is notoriously bad at allowing design to influence the way it does things.2 If you’re curious about when this will begin to hurt, consider the failures of Wave and Buzz.

These are two products that were created to solve problems, but it turns out that no one has the problems they were trying to solve. This is bad design, and it is bad design thinking. Though Android is experiencing a bit more success than Wave or Buzz, it, too, suffers from bad design and you can see it when you observe how the users of the phones, the operating systems, and the apps feel compared to users of the iPhone, iPhone OS, and its apps (from an objective business standpoint, also observe that Android phones are often buy-one-get-one-free these days).

It’s really easy for those of us in the web 2.0 world to succumb to the hype and excitement of products like these that are not designed well, thinking that they’ll revolutionize email, for example. The products are shiny, we know they’re created by really talented folks, and we know they have cool videos that people have created to describe them. But this isn’t enough. They’re not serving people, they’re not helping to shape the narratives that folks live within, and they’re not helping people solve problems.3

It is here that we can begin a designer’s theological method. When we create theology, we can ask ourselves: does it serve people, help shape the narratives they live within and tell the narratives of God, and does it help people solve problems that they really have? Said another way, does it preach the good news to the poor,4 release the oppressed, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor?5

I think the folks who have started this conversation about Theology After Google want theology to be this way and they’ve been clear about this. I want to be a part of imagining how theology looks in this age, and I think it’s essential to include and further develop both of these metaphors, and probably several other ones.6 Again, this is only (what I hope will be) the start of this conversation, even as we’ve also only begun to look at theology from the perspective of programming, engineering, and beta.

  1. If you are curious about why I feel strongly about this, I’ll start by stating that I have a degree in Biblical studies, and another one in Interactive Media, and am constantly observing and seeking ways in which the two have things to say to one another and can be linked as essential parts of a holistic way of life for me. []
  2. A quick summary of the linked post is this: Google’s lead Visual Designer left Google for Twitter, after realizing that he couldn’t use design to shape the company and solve big problems when it was necessary to do analytical tests to decide between 41 shades of blue. []
  3. That’s not to say that Apple, for example, is interested in serving people. But clearly the company is shaping narratives and helping people to solve problems, though people are more than capable of creating new ones from the remnants of the solved ones. []
  4. When we were in Minneapolis recently, we heard a talk that said, “If you share the gospel with someone and they don’t hear it as good news, you’re doing it wrong.” That speaker, who does a great deal of work both among the poor and oppressed in Africa and among the addicted and broken in suburbia, for example, said that he’s a Christian because he wants to give food and water to the hungry and thirsty, come alongside folks to break their addictions, and tell everyone that God loves them. []
  5. Luke 4 and Isaiah 61 []
  6. The design metaphor needs to further develop to deal with simplicity, complexity, and of course the links between design and consumerism, for example. []