COMMENTARY: The day the buzz died

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News Culture

c. 2013 Religion News Service

NEW YORK (RNS) I have noticed something eerie recently.

I walk past Best Buy on Fifth Avenue and feel no urge to go inside to explore the latest tech gear. That’s so different from just a few years ago.

Same with the Apple store at Grand Central Terminal. When Apple recently introduced new iPhones, I felt no interest in specs or designs, and certainly no desire to buy one.

Neither can I summon any interest in Microsoft’s precarious fate, or the management dramas at pillars like Hewlett-Packard and Yahoo, or Twitter’s impending IPO.

Much of what passes for startup creativity now seems inconsequential. So do social media.

I feel some things deeply, such as politics, family, my writing, my clients, working smarter, justice. But I have little energy left for what’s emerging from the free-lunch world of Silicon Valley.

Apparently I am not alone. It’s not because a bunch of us have gotten middle-aged and grumpy, but because magic-gizmo technology is losing its luster as a bearer of excitement and delight. Technology is bringing us what we need — tools to do our work, manage our lives and institutions, and communicate with others — but it is the actual pursuits of life that occupy us.

That’s why consumers are slow to upgrade their smartphones and largely shrug at marginally faster computers, wearable computing, super-sized television monitors, phablets and tablets, and location-based applications.

If these advances help us make progress in life, then bring it on. But if that gleam is just hype for flimsy ideas, who needs it?

I want real progress: Progress in teaching children. Progress in sharing the wealth. Progress in bridges and highways. Progress in justice. Progress in mission and ministry.

This isn’t a rant against technology. My work depends on technology. I encourage church clients to ramp up their use of technology in data management and communications. But I am no longer particularly curious about the tools I use. I just want them to work, because I have work to do. Fascination, emotional identification, wow-factors are coming from elsewhere.

Something similar happened to automobiles three decades ago, then to network television and suburban housing. Call it “the day the buzz died.” The hype wears off, and if there is value left, it lies in practical usefulness, not dream fulfillment.

In my world, churches have been in Best Buy’s position for many years, though slow to realize it. Two successive generations have felt no desire to come inside our sanctuaries on Sunday. They care nothing about our management dramas, changing specs and designs, breathless marketing and ivied traditions.

We need to understand this not as betrayal, but as post-buzz maturity. People still need God — more than ever, in my opinion — and they still need to deal with loss, personal flaws, loneliness and hunger for meaning.

That work, however, has little to do with mastering religion, polishing yesterday or chasing the “Wow!” of religious exotica. It is about seeking purpose, seeking spiritual sustenance and finding meaningful community.

In software, they use the term “bloatware” to describe products that do more than needs doing, that have so many menus and options that simple actions like writing an article get swamped.

Many technology firms and churches, like automakers and entertainment providers before them, have gotten lost in bloatware. They got mesmerized by their own wizardry and appetites, and stopped seeing what it is people actually want to do.

(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)