The Practice of Remembering the Future
By Scott Nelson
The Golden Arches may look the same, but the international fast food giant McDonald’s has undergone significant changes in the last few years. At the time of this writing, a prominent banner on its corporate website states, “Your favorite McDonald’s meal now comes with complimentary Wi-Fi. Get some work done, check email, connect with friends . . . for free!” Just below this banner the promotion continues: “Grab a McCafé Latte and log on . . . it’s on us! Just one more thing to love about McDonald’s.”
The McCafé menu, featuring items such as hot or iced mochas and lattes, cappuccino, coffee, frappes and fruit smoothies, was introduced on May 5, 2009. Free Wi-Fi was added to 11,500 of McDonald’s 14,000 locations in the United States just seven months later. Many of its restaurants have been subsequently remodeled so that the atmospheres are more inviting and comfortable. The corporation is hoping that clientele will extend the duration of their time spent at the local stores. “We don’t mind at all if people step in take advantage of the Wi-Fi and linger a bit,” Chief Information Officer David Grooms was quoted in the Huffington Post as saying. “We’re not just about hamburgers. We are about convenience and all kinds of value.”
New spaces, Wi-Fi and gourmet coffee (Starbucks snobs will likely debate the “gourmet” label) make a trifecta of change for McDonald’s. When such a large and pervasive company undergoes such a significant change, it is necessary to ask why. The answer is most likely that these days people believe they cannot live by cheap hamburgers and fries alone. No, many people have developed an appetite for digitally mediated connections, popularly known as social media.
This new appetite is seemingly insatiable, demanding access to the Internet and other social media in as many places, ways and forms as possible. A recent commercial for a new Windows phone demonstrates how pervasive the appetite has become: a variety of people use their phones to access social media while going to the bathroom, while playing catch with a child, while riding a rollercoaster, during a romantic embrace. In each occasion the individual’s desire to remain connected online causes a disconnect with the other people in the scene. Windows offers as its solution to this disconnect a fast phone that can “get you in and out and back to life.”
As scholars such as Yochai Benkler, Howard Rheingold and Clay Shirky have noted, increased access to new technologies often results in culture-changing phenomena. Sam Han observes, for instance, that as of 2007 two billion people use mobile phones, one billion people access the Internet (a 225% increase from the year 2000), and the average person now spends over thirty-one hours a month using computers, leading him to assert that “instantaneity” has become a “key feature of liquid modernity.” Time has been removed as an important factor in many human events, resulting in the displacement of “the traditional tri-partite (past, present, future) understanding of time for an always present tense.”
There is nothing inherently wrong with digitally mediated information, communication, or entertainment. Indeed, new technologies are bringing new abilities and freedoms to individuals and communities throughout the world, which will surely help bring about human flourishing. New technologies do, however, often have unintended consequences—one of which seems to be a devaluation of the past and the future in favor of the here, the now, the immediate.
This new focus upon the present represents a challenge to Christian living that many local churches will likely need to address. The Christian life is informed by a deep memory of what God has done in the past and an expectant hope for what God will do in the future. Johann Baptist Metz calls this aspect of Christian living a “dangerous memory” of what God has done; it forces Christians into action in the present to try to bring about the desired future of God’s kingdom. I like to call it the practice of remembering the future, by which I mean living in the present, in light of the future we believe is coming, because of the works of God in the past.
Like McDonald’s, churches will likely continue to incorporate new technologies into their daily patterns and rhythms so as to better accomplish their God-given callings. Let us hope that these incorporations will contribute to the success of the church as it has for McDonald’s. Let us also hope, however, that these same churches will not get so caught up in the present that they forget where they have come from and where they are going.