Takeaways from the BibleTech 2019 Conference in Seattle

Takeaways from the BibleTech 2019 Conference in Seattle

The largest maker of Bible interpretive and study software in the country, Faithlife, hosts an annual conference in Seattle called BibleTech.  Faithlife employs dozens of Biblical scholars and technology professionals at its headquarters campus in Bellingham, Washington, to marry Bible translation and analysis with digital tools and libraries of supporting materials.

BibleTech attracts several hundred attendees over the course of two days (GeekWire coverage here).  The conference offers a technical track for Biblical scholars and technologists and a more general track for discussing trends in Bible publication, translation, and review.

I attended four of the general track sessions and one part of the technical track on the first day, April 11, and came away with several key insights that I had not previously considered.   Since I did not attend most of the technical sessions, it is not clear to me the extent to which Biblical analysis is presently using machine learning or other AI-powered techniques to update previously human insight.  Such potential applications are worth further inquiry.

I was not able to attend the one session specifically dedicated to ethical issues around AI, presented by Jason Thacker of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Church.  The day before, the ERLC’s Evangelical Statement of AI Principles for which he was principal drafter, was issued (see more here).

My first insight was that digitization of the Bible has moved far beyond simply presenting a Kindle type screen version.  Instead, Bible study software exists across a wide spectrum of sophistication, ranging from deep-in-the-Hebrew-and-Greek for academic scholars to interpretive helps for teachers and preachers, to various comparative texts and tools like concordances, maps, and other atlas-like secondary sources for the average student.   I knew from attending the American Association of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature conferences with my Ph.D. New Testament scholarly spouse that there is a vast community of Biblical scholars from both the faith and secular academic communities working at an extremely granular level with Biblical texts and their source documents.  I was unaware of the variety of digital aids easily accessible to non-academic, non-ancient languages-literate readers of the Bible.

Second, new open source approaches to translating the Bible into the thousand-plus remaining untranslated languages through online communities and with new software language tools, are fundamentally altering the longstanding controls over the text.  These controls have long been exerted through scholarly committees and the copyrighting of translations.  New open source communities are up-ending this process, greatly speeding up the availability of translations, but at a cost in scholarly oversight.

These new approaches are also opening the way for highly contextualized Bibles – portions of the Biblical text highly tailored for a particular cultural setting or person predilection.  Thomas Jefferson would have been right at home with such contextualization, as his own selections literally cut-and-pasted into his “Jefferson Bible” on display at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History demonstrate.

Third, leading-edge thinkers in Bible publication are considering the effect of social media on attention spans and new scholarship demonstrating how few Americans read at a sophisticated level or for detail.  Publishers are rethinking how to present the written word in formatting and context that resembles the direction which many secondary and college texts have taken:  short sentences, plain English, abundant diagrams – kind of a Dorling-Kindersley approach to Bible publication, and audible versions.   One speaker made the point that we are moving toward the return of an oral society, but without the long term, naturally honed listening skills that made a pre-printing press audience attentive to and equipped to better remember the spoken word.

To the extent readers and publishers of the Bible are returning to the spoken word, they are not unlike Big Technology’s effort to transform the search function through the medium of personal digital assistants.  In the March issue of Wired, author James Vlahos summarizes some of the key points of his new book Talk To Me in an article entitled  “Amazon Alexa and the search for the one perfect answer”.  When search results are provided through an oral digital assistant, they must necessarily be severely limited, hence “the one perfect answer.”   Already, he reports, 50% of Google searches come with a “one-shot” answer in a box at the top of the screen.  Providing a single answer rather than thousands of ranked responses is likely to fundamentally change the user’s relationship to information, further reducing analytical function in favor of ready, brief and unnuanced response.

Of course, many lay readers of the Bible and not a few Biblical scholars have long believed it is providing “one perfect answer”.  But now the Word of Google is attempting the same.  Unfortunately, Google’s Word is unlikely to be subjected to the same extraordinary scrutiny that is apparent in the increasingly technologically powered world of Biblical scholarship.

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