New Rule #2: Computers Aren’t People, But Do They Represent Them


Let’s start off with what we mean when we say “computer”…

When we use the term “computer”, we don’t always mean physical computer hardware. We often use that term when referring to software, apps, kiosks, websites, operating systems, or social media. For the sake of this discussion, a “computer” is any hardware and software working together to address a user/customer need. Since we are all users or customers at some point, we can relate to the benefits these tools provide. In fact, we have been conditioned to believe that our digital tools are designed to “meet our needs”. While this may be true in part, it’s important to consider how software/hardware/apps are developed.

Let’s start with the obvious. These tools are created by for-profit businesses. They have to make money. Secondly, most of these tools (at least the most popular ones) are offered to consumers at no cost. As we discussed last week, data and attention are the new currency. Therefore, companies must design these free digital tools to collect data, attention, or both from their users in order to be profitable. While services and apps like Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp offer valuable utility for the people who rely on them, they exist on our computers and phones to ensure revenue flow for their creators.

Some of the debate around privacy has been obscured by how we view the digital technology we use. When people learn that a free email service or social media site is scanning the content of their email, or monitoring their behavior, some respond with:

“Hey – it’s not like it’s a person looking through my email or watching me. It’s a computer.”

The implication is that if a person were looking through our personal data, he or she would have an understanding of what we’ve done and would judge us. We might be embarrassed because of what that person might have seen. However, we view the “computer “ as an impartial machine, looking for one thing and incapable of moral judgment. While computers may be single-minded, they are far from impartial. They will always represent the best interests of the people that wrote their instructions. And right now, the people who are writing the instructions that direct our digital tools are most keenly interested in collecting data about us. While the data they collect is primarily looked at in aggregate, it can be drilled down to the individual. Even if the data is “anonymized”, modern data analytics are capable of revealing so much about our behavior & personality that our names are ultimately irrelevant.

Which matters more – the fact that Google knows where I was Friday night? Or that Google understands the behavioral triggers that motivate me to go to the places I go?

We do not need to be concerned about computers morally “judging” the things we choose to do as a person might (“Michael is a bad person for going to a casino”). However, we do need to be aware that people ARE using computers to empirically judge our future behavior with the data they collect (“Data correlations show with 85% certainty that people like Michael who go to casinos are more likely to get divorced, not vote, and default on bank loans.”).

Therefore, whenever we come face to face with an app, or use social media, we should reconsider what we are interacting with. Today, any computer that runs on software should be considered a service representative for the company that designed it. A representative who will ultimately act in the best interest of its creator. Therefore, be aware of what you do with it and how you use it.

To learn more about how Christians can better live with technology, check out my book, “God, Technology, & Us” – available now.

Got a different take? Share your thoughts in the comments!

New Rule #1: Data & Attention are the New Currency

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How much is your attention worth?

Well, as the person who wrote this post hoping that you might read it – it’s pretty valuable to me. And I’m not alone.

The Internet is the most efficient, far-reaching delivery system ever known. The combination of the Internet & smartphones has now made it possible to communicate a message to anyone, anywhere, 24 hours a day. Food companies, Car manufacturers, mega-corporations, small businesses, and governments – all are trying to get their message to you, all day long. The key to success for any product, movement, or idea is its ability to beat out the competition for a fraction of your focused attention. In such a competitive market, anyone who can successfully deliver your “eye balls”, or claim a certain percentage of your “mind-share” holds an extremely valuable chip. That person or company can use your attention for his own purposes, or sell it to the highest bidder.

Although there were no computers in his day, Paul knew the value of attention. In Chapter 3 of Colossians, Paul makes the point:

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.

He understood that our attention is finite, so what we do with it matters. He understood that where you spend your attention shapes how you see the world and what you value. If we spend our time focused on the latest Twitter fight, online meme, or Facebook rant, we won’t be focused on Christ, who is our life. Therefore, Christians should be very careful where they “spend” their attention, because where we place our focus ultimately determines what we fill our thoughts with. And if we aren’t filling our thoughts with Christ and “things above”, then we open ourselves up to things that will ultimate pull us away from Christ (Colossians 3:5-10).

While it might feel like it costs you nothing to give away, your attention has real monetary and spiritual value. Be careful whom you give it to.

Just as the Internet has made everyone reachable, technology has increasingly made everything we do measurable. Where we go, what we buy, who we talk to, and even what we say can all be quantified. While all these data points might seem random, when analyzed over time by powerful computers, patterns immerge. And analyzing data that quantifies what we do makes our habits evident – and predictable. For those who collect large quantities of this data, they hold the keys to predicting much of our future behavior. The ability to predict what people will do with reasonable accuracy is very valuable to organizations big and small, because if you can predict behavior, you can control outcomes. No one knows what combination of different data sets might yield highly accurate predictive correlations of people’s behavior. As a result, there is a rush of corporations, governments, and organizations that are collecting seemingly “worthless” data about everything we do, (often without our knowledge). Once you do find a large set of relevant data, it can be sold again and again for everything from predicting traffic patterns to predicting election results.

Your data is the building block of predictive analytics, and can directly shape your physical reality. Therefore it is highly valuable.

So – just like the cash  (you still have cash!!??!?) and credit cards in your wallet, pay attention to what you do with your attention and data. It’s the new currency.

See you next week for Rule #2!!!

New Rules for the 21st Century – A Blog Series


When I showed up for the Fall semester of my freshman year in college, it would have been safe to say that I was a fish out of water.

Growing up in Detroit, Michigan did little to prepare me for life at Prairie View A&M University – a small school located in rural southeast Texas. When I arrived on campus, I was greeted by my two roommates – Ronnie & Rose. Both were sophomores, and had lived in Texas for much of their lives. During that first semester, Ronnie and Rose took me under their wing, and showed me how to get along in world full of new rules. Life in Prairie View, Texas was NOT like life in Detroit. They explained to me what was different, and helped me adapt my thinking to fit my new environment. They also handed out a good amount of freshman hazing (“Crab!”). Their guidance was critical in helping me thrive and succeed at PV.

When it comes to our technology-driven world, many of us can feel like awkward freshman noobs. Since technology changes so quickly, it’s easy for people to be unclear and confused by the way things work. Please understand – I’m not talking about not knowing how to use the latest app, or exhibiting proper Twitter etiquette. I’m talking about understanding the unwritten rules that define what’s important in our digital culture. It’s these rules that ultimately affect the choices people make. Understanding these new rules will make it easier to answer questions like:

– Why does it seem like everything (movies, music, information) is moving to “the Cloud”?

– Why is FOMO (fear of missing out) a thing?

– Why are presidential candidates taking debate questions from YouTube stars?

All of these questions point to cultural realities that are a result of what I call “21st Century New Rules”. These new rules are a result of the massive role that digital technology now plays in all of our lives. And just like on a college campus – the sooner you get a grasp on these unwritten rules, the better you’ll understand what’s happening around you.

So – to help us all better navigate this new terrain, I would like to welcome you to a new Bytes & Belief series – New Rules for the 21st Century

In this four part series, I will try to describe a set of new rules that Christians can use to navigate the complexities of today’s digital living. These rules are meant to make plain certain realities that are a result of cultural shifts brought about by our pervasive use of digital technology.

Now – if some of these rules seem self-evident to you, please be patient with the rest of us. Like most cultural changes, they aren’t announced. They just happen. Also keep this in mind – while it’s easy for people to follow along with trends, it’s a lot harder to understand the forces behind these them. We’ll try to address both in this series.

Join us next week for Rule #1…

Do you have your own rules for digital living? Share them in the comments!!!

What if Bull Connor had Big Data – A Future History

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I thought that since we are fast approaching the Martin Luther King Jr National Holiday (in the United States), it might be worth considering a key event of  Civil Rights Movement in a modern context – particularly in light of technology’s prominent role in our lives.

Simply put – how would a pivotal event in US history, such as the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott, (led in part by Dr King) be changed in light of today’s technology?

I was also drawn to this question because the non-violent American Civil Rights movement, which was initiated by and coalesced under the Black American Christian Church, was one of the preeminent Christian movements of the 20th century. From leaders like Dr. King, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, & Rev. Ralph Abernathy, to organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the modern Civil Rights movement simply would not have happened without the Black Christian Church.

If we want a recent example of the followers of Christ successfully provoking large-scale societal change, this is a good place to start.

Rosa Parks, who was chosen by boycott leaders to be the test case to challenge Montgomery’s system of racial segregation, was selected because of her “good standing in the community”. This was important because if, after being arrested, Mrs. Parks’ reputation could in any way be maligned, then her character would become the issue, and any challenge to Montgomery’s oppressive and unconstitutional laws would be drowned out.

In today’s world, any investigation of Mrs. Parks’ character would largely consist of her online activity. Every Facebook post, tweet, and Instagram picture would be scrutinized. Much of her digital behavior – the sites she visits, the apps on her phone, even her movements (thanks to her mobile phone metadata) would be scrutinized by the Montgomery Police Department as soon as she was arrested. If one post, tweet, or picture could be bent or twisted to make Rosa Parks’ character an issue, then the boycott would successfully be stymied. In today’s world, the bar for “good standing in the community” can be raised to a height few are capable of clearing.

From the start of the bus boycott on December 1, 1955, the black churches in Montgomery organized much of the logistics necessary to keep it going. This included things like managing a network of organized car pooling for thousands of participants, coordinating news updates to Montgomery’s black community, and accepting donations – which poured in from black churches across the country. All of these tasks would be made easier by today’s tech. Perhaps the Montgomery Improvement Association would develop a smartphone app, allowing participants to get the latest updates on the boycott, set-up ride sharing groups, and even enlist the support of others. Donations from other across the globe could be received through donations sent via text message.

Once the boycott was underway, its participants met swift, organized resistance from many Southern whites. The ranks of the pro-segregationist White Citizens Council began to grow as the Montgomery Bus Boycott wore on. The homes of Dr. King and Ralph Abernathy were firebombed, in addition to four black churches. Insurance companies canceled the insurance policies of black car owners who were believed to be giving rides to boycotters. Boycott participants were repeatedly attacked and beaten by local whites opposed to their cause. At the same time, J. Edgar Hoover, head of the Federal Bureau of Investigations, began his infamous surveillance of Dr. King, in order to find information that might discredit him and destroy the Movement.

Just as technology would increase the effectiveness of those supporting our hypothetical, 21st century bus boycott, it would also increase the effectiveness of those opposing it. The use of technology would make the efforts of white citizens and government officials substantially more efficient. White citizens could use smartphones to take pictures of people participating in car pools as they drove by, making them known to police and other protestors. Videos of boycott participants being beaten would be anonymously uploaded to YouTube – an effort to terrorize the black community into giving up. Money and words of support would flow into Montgomery’s White Citizens’ Council, sent from people across the world who supported the principles of white supremacy and segregation.

More importantly, those in local and federal government, who either opposed the idea of desegregation or just wanted to maintain the status quo, would be in particularly good position to take advantage of technology to advance their position. Phone records and metadata would quickly identify the leaders of the boycott and provide real-time updates of their whereabouts. Agreements with Internet Service Providers and mobile phone careers would give government officials, from J. Edgar Hoover all the way down to T.E. “Bull” Connor (the brutal commissioner in nearby Birmingham, AL),  direct insight into all communications passing between the leaders organizing the boycott.

Unlike the somewhat offsetting advantages that technology would offer both the boycott organizers and the White Citizens Council, the information advantage that government officials would have would be insurmountable.

In fact, it is fair to say that the information advantage government officials would have – thanks to today’s technology – would have given them the ability to shut down the Montgomery Bus Boycott in its earliest stages.

As a result, one of the biggest Christian movements in history would have never taken place.

So – what does this mean to us?

The quality of our freedom can only be judged by our ability to dissent.

Loud, obnoxious, nagging, persistent dissent…

True dissent – the kind that pricks the conscience, changes minds, and transforms society – must be all of these things. When viewed through the eyes of the Pharisees and the occupying Roman authorities, Christ and the early Christian Church were all those things. It was this kind of dissent that Martin Luther King Jr and the leaders of the non-violent Civil Rights movement attempted to emulate. As followers of Christ, we too should adopt this posture.

If Christians hold fast to the priorities Jesus spells out in the Sermon on the Mount, then the things we value should in many ways be contrary to those who don’t follow Jesus (think “salt of the Earth”). In order to advance the cause of Christ, we will need to speak out in support of our beliefs. This should lead us to be involved in some kind of dissent – taking a position that is supported by God’s Word, but is contrary to public opinion.

Therefore, followers of Christ must always protect our ability (and the ability of others) to freely protest, without interference from the majority or those in positions of power. Not for our own sakes, but for the sake of Christ.

The question we must all ask ourselves is this – do our digital tools still allow us to dissent in a meaningful way?

If we, like Dr King, are called to take to action in support of a position that is justified by Christ but is unpopular, will technology help or hinder our efforts?

Share your thoughts in the Comments!


Tonight’s The Night – The “God, Technology, & Us Launch” Party & Benefit!!!

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Alvin & Friends Restaurant – Site of the “God, Technology & Us” Book Launch Party!

It’s been almost two years worth of work. Now it’s time to celebrate! The launch party for “God, Technology, & Us” will take place tonight at Alvin & Friends Restaurant in New Rochelle, NY. Doors open at 6:30pm.

For those who can’t make it, the event will be live-streamed via Periscope. Download the app at the App Store or Google Play Store and follow @bytesandbelief so you can get the notice when the stream goes live (about 7:30pm EST). More the just a party,  a portion of the proceeds from this event will be donate to Isaiah’s Room, a food and clothing pantry that serves the people of New Rochelle, NY.

It’s funny. When I started writing this book, I never really thought about having an event like this. In fact, when the book was finished, I actually had to be convinced to have a launch party. I’m not that big on things like this and planned to just go out to nice dinner to “celebrate” the release of the book. Then I thought about all of the people who helped me during the writing and editing process. I also thought about how my wife, family, and friends patiently listened as I talked on and on about some point I was trying to make in the book. (It’s amazing how when you’re so focused on a single topic, EVERYTHING seems to be related to it). I know I must have been a bit trying for them to hear me drone on and on – asking them for opinions and suggestions.

Therefore, I decided to have the party. Not to pat myself on the back, but to use  as a way to thank all the people who supported me through the creation of “God, Technology, & Us”.

Hope to see you there!!!

Throwing It All Away


First off, I should begin this post off with an admission.
The above title is merely a thinly veiled attempt to satisfy my desire to reference a Phil Collins song in a blog post.

Whew!!! Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I would like to draw your attention to an article written by Dan Gillmor over at Medium. The post, “Why I’m Saying Goodbye to Apple, Google, & Microsoft”, documents Dan’s journey across different computing platforms, and why ultimately he decided to go with Linux route. While many of us base our computer (and smartphone) choice on more common considerations, like price, design, and convenience, we would all do well to pay more attention to Gillmor’s concerns. Namely, Gilmore speaks to the erosion of choice, privacy, and expression that has taken place within our digital tools as large companies have expanded their influence in the tech world. It’s great that Google provides such a broad expanses of useful services, but they simultaneously limit users options to use their tools with other offerings. They also create a “choke point” for the user – a gate through which the user must pass through in order to do almost anything with their data. It wasn’t always like this. At the beginning of the computer revolution, the primary objective of bringing computers to the masses was to free individuals from such gate-keepers. Computers were meant to empower the individual to do and make things that once were only possible through large companies. And for a while, computers did just that. As Gillmor points out in his post, the proverbial Empire has struck back. We have largely traded in the freedom that computers once brought us for the convenience that all-encompassing services, much like what Apple and Google provide. We put our full faith in these companies, in the hope that they will not abuse their position as sole keeper of our data and primary curator of what we see and access on the Internet.

While this is the compromise most of us have made, Gillmor has chosen the other route. He has made the conscious choice to “trust communities instead of corporations”. By this, Gillmor means that he has decided to go with open source platforms, such as Linux (for his computer) and the lesser-known CyanogenMod OS (an open-source variation of Android) for his smartphone. These operating systems are open-source, meaning that they are created, updated, and maintained by a volunteer community of software developers and enthusiasts. While these OSes may be off the beaten path, and may require a bit more effort than the easily accessible alternatives from major corporations, they do offer freedom of choice and control to the end user. Users have more control of who has access to their data and what details of their online activity gets shared.

Gillmor’s position declaration of independence from Big Tech isn’t unheard of. There is a nascent, but growing chorus of voices who are questioning our single-source dependence on large companies for our computing needs. Indeed – if we now live in the Information Age, and data is its currency, is it wise for us to hand all of our data over to one entity? Shouldn’t we work to maintain ultimate control of our own valuable resources?

Christians should be especially concerned about this, since we are “a peculiar people” (1 Peter 2:9), whose motivations come from our Creator (Colossians 3:1-4). That means what we want often differs from the desires of the rest of society. If our choices – what we can and can’t do – become limited to what is deemed best for “most people”, it is only a matter of time until our digital tools begin to impinge on our ability to be the “salt of the earth” Jesus asks us to be.

For more on how this topic applies to Christians, check out the previous Bytes & Belief post, “Installing the Digital Veil”.

Stop Googling & Talk: Sherry Turkle’s NYT Essay

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Those of you who have frequented this blog before should be familiar with the name Sherry Turkle. She is a clinical psychologist and MIT professor. She is also one of the premiere voices in the discussion of technology’s affect on communication and relationships. Last weekend, the New York Times published her essay, “Stop Googling. Let’s Talk”. This informative essay, like her game-changing book Alone Together, speaks to our tendency to use technology as a means of satisfying our desire to feel close to others, without actually providing genuine relationship.

A recurring theme that occurs in this essay is the difference in perception within the families Turkle interviewed during her research. The parents interviewed were worried about their children spending too much time on their devices. They were concerned their children will grow up without the skills needed to hold face-to-face conversations, interpret non-verbal cues, as well as express empathy. Their children however, complained that they had to repeatedly ask for the undivided attention of their technology-distracted parents. Turkle’s work seems to say that all of us are riding a tech-fueled wave that is pushing us toward our devices and away from each other.

Sherry Turkle remains one of, if not the leading voice, on the impact of technology on human relationships. Her work should be required reading for every Christian – both layperson and leader.


Because as Christians, we can’t love other people as God commands if we create barriers to relationship. Or worse yet, we can’t love people if we create pseudo-relationships, with controlled closeness and limited vulnerability. But, as Sherry Turkle points out, much of our current use of technology is doing just that. We all must begin reclaiming face-to-face conversation and solitude in order to preserve true relationships. I would add that Christians must also reconsider what technology is for – and how it can best be used to fulfill our God-given purpose.

The New York Times essay discussed in this post is adapted from Sherry Turkle’s forthcoming book – Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. So as soon as you’re finished reading this, pick-up a copy.