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13 April 2012

The medium is the message

The medium is the message

The Indian Premier League (IPL) 2012 opened with much anticipation and excitement last week. 

This is cricket tournament – but not as we know it. There are cheerleaders, ‘strategic time-outs’ (aka – extended commercial breaks) and a six-is-not-a-six, but a ‘DLF six’ (and well it should be; since DLF – an Indian property development company – reportedly paid $40 million for the privilege of being the tournament’s primary sponsor).

The teams (franchises, as they call themselves) are brought together in an American football style draught, where the big names are bought for huge sums of money.  Will you see Kevin Pietersen churning out runs for Surrey in the early English county season? No – he’s otherwise occupied, raking in a cool £750,000 for a month’s stint with the Delhi Daredevils.

Meanwhile, this week that ancient institution of cricket – the Wisden Almanac – was published in its 149th edition. Its editor Lawrence Booth has written about the challenges that the IPL, together with the increasing power of the Indian Board in the international cricketing community, hold for the game. The IPL, he argues, is a Pandora’s Box masquerading as a panacea: "The disintegration of India's feted batting lineup has coincided with the rise of a Twenty20-based nationalism, the growth of private marketeers and high level conflicts of interest. It is a perfect storm. And the global game sits steadily in the eye.”

There are two reasons why the IPL exists: the insatiable appetite for cricket in India, and the opportunity that this creates for the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) to make a huge profit. Sponsorship income and the sale of broadcasting rights will bring the BCCI an estimated $1.6 billion in the next 10 years.

But the spectacle, argues Booth, threatens the institutions of the game, and perhaps the game itself. The contest offers the superficial excitement of four-hits, six-hits, and quick wickets, but the games are tactically uncomplicated. More often than not, you know who will win by the end of the first few overs of the second innings. It is simultaneously far quicker than other formats (and far easier to televise), but ironically far more boring.

It’s reminiscent of Marshall McLuhan’s argument in the 1960s:

“The medium, or process of our time – electric technology – is reshaping and restructuring patterns of social interdependence and every aspect of our personal life. It is forcing us to reconsider and re-evaluate practically every thought, every action, and every institution formerly taken for granted. Everything is changing – you, your family, your neighbourhood, your education, your job, your government, your relation to "the others." And they're changing dramatically.”

Cricket is being reshaped dramatically by television, but television is a technology of the 20th century. Author Douglas Copeland, who has written a biography of McLuhan, has wondered what will come of the “fluid melting world of texting, email, YouTube, Google, smartphones and reality TV... What will be the psychic fallout of these technologies on our inner lives?”

And not just our inner lives, but our public lives – our lives together. Cricket was hard to televise, and therefore to monetise, so they changed it. The word ‘friend’ means something different after the advent of Facebook, and ‘follower’ means something different after the advent of Twitter.

In Desiring the Kingdom, theologian James KA Smith argues that the Christian community has been too ‘Cartesian’, giving attention to having the right concepts, and too little attention to how the world is full of “secular liturgies” – which are “fundamentally formative, and implicit in them is a vision of the Kingdom that needs to be discerned and evaluated. From the perspective of Christian faith, these secular liturgies will often constitute a mis-formation of our desires – aiming our hearts away from the Creator…” Our heads and hearts often follow our hands, not the other way round. Or as Jesus put it, if your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. 

Our information-rich age is shaping us, our institutions, our language, and our relationships - and not in ways which are consonant with Christian worship and community.

It needs saying… it’s just a shame that, at 168 characters, it’s too long to tweet.

Paul Bickley, Theos