Religious Digital Creatives and Artificial Intelligence – An Interview with Professor Heidi Campbell

Heidi Campbell is Professor of Communication at Texas A&M University where she teaches in Telecommunications and Media Studies. Since 1997 she has studied religion and the internet and what impact new media technologies are having on religious communities. She has written on a variety of topics including religion online, new media ethics, technology and theology and religious community’s response to mass media in numerous anthologies and professional journals, as well as her own books, Exploring Religious Community Online (Peter Lang, 2005), When Religion Meets New Media (Routledge, 2010), and now Digital Creatives and the Rethinking of Religious Authority (Routledge, August 2020).   Thanks to AI&F Founding Member Shanen Boetcher and Professor Campbell for this interview!

 

Q (Shanen Boetcher): Dr. Campbell, you are the director of the Network for New Media, Religion and Digital Culture Studies at Texas A&M. Can you tell us why you created this network and describe its mission?

A: The Network for New Media, Religion and Digital Culture started in 2011 and we launched our website in 2012 with the aim of bringing together scholars and students who were studying religion on the internet. The field has become very interdisciplinary, so now we have people from media studies, religious studies, theology and many others. It was meant to be an online resource center and hub for people to connect over their research and find out about the latest studies being done. There are two main features of the website. The first is a scholars index where people can put their profile online and share what they’re working on, and then they can connect either through social media or through the website itself. The second is a database where our more than 800 members can post and share their research online. My entire research library is posted there.

 

Q: Your new book “Digital Creatives and the Rethinking of Religious Authority” focuses on a new type of worker you call “Religious Digital Creatives” (RDCs) and their relationship with religious authority. What types of technology workers are included in this category of RDCs?

A: Digital Creatives is a category that has been used for about a decade in marketing and advertising. It’s used to talk about people who do digital work, whether it’s producing content or platforms and technologies. Religious Digital Creatives (RDCs) are people who do this digital work with religious content. It can be anything from a webmaster or a blogger, to someone who designs apps, but they do it with a religious intent or purpose and often times with a certain religious, theological or missional agenda.

In my research I talk about three different categories of digital creatives. The first one is “Digital Entrepreneurs.”  Those are people that often have come from a tech background who have a commitment to a certain religion or a religious community or institution, but they don’t work for them directly. They work outside the religious organization and are often misunderstood by religious officials like priests or pastors. Sometimes there is a sense of competition or tension between religious entrepreneurs and religious officials.

The second category is “Digital Spokespersons”. We’re seeing that religious organizations are increasingly hiring digital media experts for different things, whether it’s to design the app for their community or to manage their social media. These people may have worked in media or as journalists and they’ve had to learn about social media or digital media on the job, so they are media experts but not necessarily digital media experts. They are charged with being the spokesperson or representing the digital profile of a religious organization. This gives them a lot of influence and authority. However, the people they work for don’t often see that work as authoritative; they just say “Oh well, you just do our website” and they don’t realize that in digital culture the website is who you are on line and becomes a kind of persona of who people think you are.

The third group I call “Digital Strategists”. These are people that have a religious vocation of some sort. It could be anyone from a nun or monk, to a pastor or someone who’s maybe in religious education. They have a recognized religious role in an organization and have seen that digital media can help them fulfill that role. These are not technology experts, but are able to embrace and use technology to amplify their work.

 

Q: Does Artificial Intelligence figure into the roles of RDCs?

A: I’m really interested in the idea of augmented reality where technologies allow us to extend our abilities. For example, the idea of a digital creative as an augmented person, human, or cyborg because they’re using technology to extend beyond their physical reach, to transcend time and space, and digital code that is embracing and embodying a post-human ethos.

 

Q: AI and Faith’s focus is on the ethics of Artificial Intelligence and the role that faith-oriented technical workers can play in shaping the direction of AI-based platforms and applications. What advice do you have for our members? 

A: The first thing is you have to find a common language and a common value with which you can start a conversation – whether it’s Google’s “Do no Harm” or the Golden Rule.

There has to be a utilitarian guide that helps define certain kinds of limits within which humans should behave and how technology allows us to live out that value. It should also help people understand how technology may impede our ability to live out that ethic. But I can appreciate that in the secular space this conversation is very, very difficult. It requires a willingness of people from a religious background to say, “OK, I’m going to step into this conversation, I can still live out my religious principles but I may have to use a different language and become aware of it.”

 

Q: What’s your next project?

A: I’m working on a book that’s going to be called “Digital Creators in the Church” aimed at pastors and religious practitioners and how they can include digital creatives in their work and how important they can be.

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