Reading technology as a driver of religious change among JWs

by slimboyfat 7 Replies latest watchtower beliefs

  • slimboyfat

    I wonder if JWs are currently undergoing a more significant transformation than generally appreciated. And I wonder if the drivers for that change are a combination of legal, economic, and technological factors.

    Legal challenges changed JWs stance of whether they are a "religion" with "ministers", in the 1950s, and stopped them charging for the literature in the 1990s. Economic challenges have produced all sorts of cutbacks in literature and branch facilities in recent years. These drivers of change are much discussed.

    But I want to focus on the impact of changing reading technology.

    Changing reading technology has long been analysed as an important factor in the development of early Christianity. Some have argued, for example, that books of the New Testament such as Luke, Acts and John are roughly the size of text that will comfortably fit on an average length scroll. So the technology of the time may have dictated the length of some NT writings.

    Christians adopted the Codex format very early and soon a number of long texts could be combined within a single Codex. This may have affected the formation of the canon as the four gospels, letter collections and so on could easily be brought together as larger units.

    Use of the Codex also served the function of distinguishing Christian texts from Jewish texts which continued to be transmitted on scrolls. Codices were also cheaper, easier to produce and transport. Some were made as rough private copies and others had a more professional finish. All this impacted the character and growth of early Christianity with social and economic implications.

    The history and course of early Christianity is closely bound up with the reading technology it employed.

    The same is true with modern day JWs/Bible Students in a number of significant respects. Therefore the recent move away from printed books and emphasis on tablets and ebooks may be highly significant and suggestive of further developments.

    The Bible Students took advantage of the favourable climate for religious magazine publishing the late nineteenth century. In fact they excelled as perhaps no other. They have also taken advantage of book technology in the promotion of their beliefs in Africa and elsewhere.

    When the organisation is viewed primarily as a publishing company then its claims of exclusivity at various stages of development are elucidated. For example many of the earliest disputes between Russell and his aqaintainces were essentially disagreements about who had rightful ownership of subscription lists, and editorial structure. Problems intimately tied to the religious publishing industry.

    Later when successor Rutherford expelled members such as William Schnell and Olin Moyle, often disagreements about book publishing and sales were at the root. For example a careful reading of "Thirty Years a Watchtower Slave" suggests that Schnell attempted to establish a book selling company that rivalled (in a small way) the Watchtower, and this lay at the heart of the disjuncture.

    Many of the exclusive claims of the Watchtower, even the doctrine of the "faithful slave" itself can be read simply as attempts to convince consumers of their published material not to give business to rival vendors.

    In more recent times the organisation has strongly discouraged JWs from researching and publishing their own material on Bible topics. Stoops (an American company that sells books and stationary and other items useful to JWs) and other fringe JW businesses have been tolerated if they don't infringe on the central area of competence of the WT producing religious material.

    Even when encouraging JWs to learn foreign languages to preach, the organisation has been wary about brothers promoting outside language learning aids and sought to fill the niche to some extent itself.

    But if JWs are moving out of print publishing, doesn't this perhaps change... everything? Not overnight and not consciously, but in fundamental and enduring ways,

    I guess, most fundamentally of all, if the Watchtower organisation no longer relies for its very survival upon consumers of their material exclusively purchasing their print material, might this alter their exclusivist claims? If other people selling religious books is no longer a threat to their core activity, might that change their rhetoric and approach long term. And I really mean long term, because old habits die hard and attitudes are deeply ingrained. But as new generations of leaders come and go, and there is no longer any organisational necessity to forbid outside publishing, might the prohibitions relax? The exclusivist claims recede?

    This is only one area in which changing reading technology may affect the structure and outlook of the organisation. It may also impact the sense of community and history, as physical libraries are downscaled or decommissioned. No longer will future JWs pick up old study books full of underlining and annotation. JW books won't be found in outside libraries and thrift stores.

    Long JW books used to be 400 pages upwards, and classic "small" books were 192 pages. The lengths (as for early Christians) was dictated by technology. This time the set up of the printing presses plus the general expectation of how long a "book" should be. As the WT moves away from physical publishing, the length of its "books", their format, character, and function may develop in subtle but significant new ways. Books that were once objects to be bought, stored, cherished and adored, are now downloaded, used and cross referenced for a limited time. This may change not only the physicality, but the actual content,

    Two things I notice about recent depictions of reading technology in the WT literature: 1) Kingdom Halls are depicted as full of brothers and sisters using tablets rather than physical magazines and books and 2) pictures of the new system still depict believers using traditional book format rather than new technology. I don't know whether this says more about the idealised, almost primitive conception of paradise, or the eagerness for brothers to adopt new technology in the present system.

    Compare the brother using a tablet in the KH on page 25 with books in the new system on page 13.

    In any case I reckon the change in reading technology and practice among JWs currently taking place is highly significant and may have long lansting and deep ramifications. The early Christian adoption of the Codex or book format had vast historical ramifications. And as a technology it endured for nearly 2000 years. The significance of moves away from published physical books among JWs must be viewed in that sort of context. We are only scratching the surface at the moment,

  • dropoffyourkeylee

    Interesting line of reasoning. I would agree, but I think it runs deeper than just the JWs. At least in the US, the print industry is diminishing all across the board. People just are not reading much printed page.

    Also, in many countries where the JWs are growing, African nations especially, electronic medium is a long long way from general use.

  • Finkelstein

    And I wonder if the drivers for that change are a combination of legal, economic, and technological factors.

    Its most to do with economics for its much cheaper for the WTS to transfer or present online informational data as a source than it is for the printed paper version and JWs have been told that.

    It must look funny at Kingdom Halls these days when a brother is giving a talk and he says " Would you all turn to 1 Corinthians 2:9 and follow along as I read " and everyone in the Hall starts tapping on their Tablets all at the same time.

  • shepherdless

    I agree it is a driver of significant change.

    My take on it is slightly different. Up until recently, Watchtower had an advantage over other fundamentalist Christians in that it had a highly successful business model based on its publishing business. Technology has destroyed that business, and now Watchtower now depends solely on donations from its own adherents.

    As a result, Watchtower is becoming just another fundamentalist religion, competing in a crowded field, where much of the competition have business models that still work (eg SDA with its food businesses and retirement homes, Catholics with their schools, hospitals, etc). Worse, Watchtower is at a disadvantage, because it is now managed by a committee of morons who can't make changes without a 2/3 majority, believe their own b.s., and seem to be just doubling down on what worked in the past.

    Will they become more accepting of outside literature? I can't see how they can survive as a high control group if they do. But not doing so also disadvantages them against the competition. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.

  • steve2

    Thoughtful OP, SBF. Well outlined reasoning and lots of supportive evidence alongside. I had not before made the connection between mid- to late 1800's in the USA being 'an age of the Bible tract' ( not your phrase but mine) that Russell and his early followers tapped into and perfected. They have piggy-backed and in some cases extended existing technology. My view is that as time has passed they are increasingly late to the party. Who would have anticipated the sudden worldwide lurch away from printed to electronic media? Their publishing empire virtually evaporated and they were economically forced to re-think their chief operations. Of course, this coincided with the outreaches of their western success coming to a state of dribbling growth with any signs of life trumpeted to help disguise stagnation

    As time passes, their on-the-hoof adaptations will be put to the test as never anticipated. The old world has ended, the new barely begins.

  • Vidiot


    The world is changing in a way they can't adapt to quickly enough.


  • slimboyfat

    shepherdless I agree a lot with what you say but I explain where I possibly differ on this thread:


    Watchtower had an advantage over other fundamentalist Christians in that it had a highly successful business model based on its publishing business.

    Totally agree.

    Technology has destroyed that business, and now Watchtower now depends solely on donations from its own adherents.

    No, technology didn't destroy their business. Their decision to drop charges for the literature in 1990 destroyed their business. It was an unforced error. There is no particular reason why they couldn't still be making good profits from book and magazine publishing to this day. They'd have to pay taxes perhaps, but they'd still be making a profit.

    Technology didn't destroy their business, their own stubbornness and refusal to pay taxes destroyed their publishing empire.

    Rather, technology has allowed the WT to move out of publishing and into tablets and downloads in an attempt to save their financial situation, as a result of their publishing business already having failed.

  • slimboyfat

    Incidentally I "like" the comments of other posters on this and the other thread. For some reason my "like" button isn't working. I hear it's the same for some other posters.

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