If You Don’t Know, Now You Know: Drones in the USA and Mayor Bloomberg

As some of you watching the news may have heard, there’s increasing discussion around the use of unmanned aerial drones. These robotic flying machines are widely used outside of the US by our military for surveillance and reconnaissance missions, as well as offensive maneuvers. Drones are probably best known for their use during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. There are some US law enforcement agencies that are looking into using drones within the US on American citizens. This would allow police, FBI, or any other designated agency to monitor and follow any individual or group 24 hours a day. Equipped with the proper sensors, drones are capable of doing everything from catching speeders, to tracking the activity inside a person’s home, to monitoring an entire city with a single camera. And based on this report from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, drones are already being used by some police agencies in some states.

While some people might are concerned about the privacy implications of mechanized, round the clock government surveillance, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg isn’t one of them. In this article on the tech blog The Verge, writer Joshua Kopstein analyzes comments Bloomberg made during his most recent weekly radio address. During this address, Bloomberg seemed to have difficulty understanding why anyone would object to the use of drones (“What’s the difference whether the drone is up in the air or on the building?”). Beyond that Bloomberg goes on to say that the widespread use of pervasive surveillance technologies like drones is inevitable at this point. (“I just don’t see how you can stop them.”). Kopstein goes on to anaylze the questionable benefits of pervasive surveillance when used in other big cities. He also provides a description of the extensive surveillance tech already being used throughout NYC.

So is Bloomberg right? Is the use of surveillance technologies like drones inevitable at this point? What would be the spiritual impact on those people in leadership who would have access to such detailed knowledge about everyone around them?

Share your thoughts in the comments!!!

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Everything We Want. All the Time. Always.

After returning home from SxSW Interactive last week, I began thinking about some of the major themes I heard from this year’s speakers and panelists. Now with an event as large as SxSW, a person’s perspective will vary depending on what events and sessions he or she goes to. That being said, I think it’s fair to say that it is still possible to find a prevailing direction or theme that hangs in the air and touches all attendees. It is this overall theme that describes where the great minds presenting at SxSW think the world is headed. After some thought, I would say that the prevailing theme at this year’s festival was Big Data and Analytics. In non-nerd terms, the concept of Big Data and Analytics refers to the collection and analysis of massive amounts of data from a wide variety of sources. By studying this data, it is possible to identify patterns in human behavior and in turn, better predict what people will do or want. Assuming the best-case scenario, the proper use of Bid Data would result in products and services brought to you that are specifically tailor to your likes and dislikes, both online and in the real world, Features like Amazon.com’s “Products Recommend For You”, and Netflix’s “Recommended Movies” would play a major role in every aspect of your life. Big Data and analytics already play a big part of our lives. Most major retailers (Target, Walmart, etc.) use some form of analytics to tailor what products we see. Both major US political parties use analytics to maximize fundraising and predict voting patterns. Indeed, the 2012 re-election campaign of President Obama was a case study in the effective use of Big Data and analytics. If the speakers of SxSW are to be believed, the use of these tools will expand to all areas of our lives.

What would the widespread use of Big Data and analytics mean for our everyday lives? In the best-case scenario, it would mean each person see a world largely designed around them. Where ever you go, you will know what stores have exactly what you want, what places you would like, and what restaurants serve your favorite meals. You will be able to surround yourself at all times either with existing friends or people who you should like (based on your predicted preferences). There will be no need to settle for anything less than what you want. In fact, there’s a high likelihood that you will only see those things you DO want. Indeed, many of the day-to-day compromises and annoyances that are part of life will be eliminate.

Given that we seem to be moving in this direction, now would be a good time to ask a few questions about the impact this new world would have on humanity. Is the human race built for a world where we get everything we want? How will this new way of living impact our ability to live together? From a Christian standpoint, what does God’s Word have to say about humanity and its response to world largely devoid of challenges and compromise?

While not specifically delving into the details of Big Data, the New Testament does have something to say about this issue. In Romans, Paul speaks to the young Christian church in Rome. Here, Paul spell out the basics of the Christian faith, as neither he nor any of the Apostles had met with the members of this church before. Part of his letter addresses dealing with difficulty:

1 Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

Romans 5:1-5

Here, Paul points out that suffering, while painful, is necessary for personal growth (character) and spiritual maturity (hope). Without this disappointment, it is impossible for us to become the people God made us to be. Put differently, getting everything we want can be bad for our health. This same issue is addressed by the Apostle James:

 

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters,[a] whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

James 1:2-4

Like Paul, James stresses the important role that troubles play in the development of Christians. Our ability to become mature Christians (and better people) is linked to our exposure to problems and challenges. During tough times, we rely on our faith in God and our belief that He will deliver us from our current predicament. When He does deliver us, our belief in Him is strengthened, and we learn that through our faith in God, we can endure more than we could before.

How does all this tie to the Big Data/Analytics-driven world described at SxSW? One could argue that problems and challenges enter our lives only when we don’t get things our way. Difficulties enter our lives when we are forced to see things we had no desire to see, and experience things we didn’t want to experience. One of the primary drivers behind the use of Big Data and Analytics is to distill the all options in world around us to only the things that we want (and will likely buy).  If the world around us is tailored made for our enjoyment, we lose our chance become strong. It’s the equivalent of joining a gym with no weights or equipment. Humans only get stronger with resistance training.

What’s your take on Big Data and Analytics?
Sound off in the comments!!!

Innovation and Christianity

SONY DSCDuring my time at SxSW, a common theme throughout the conference was the need for two things – innovation and good design. Innovation is needed to create unique solutions to longstanding, complicated problems. Good design (be it for web sites, products, or software) is essential for the user adoption of any new tool. People generally are hesitant to adopt things that are hard to use. When we do use products that are onerous, the result is generally a high number of complaints and a low amount of productivity. Indeed – the ability for us to solve of many of the problems we face in the future is dependent on innovative minds and good design. With that in mind, it occurred to me that there is one group who should be particularly well-equipped to come up with innovative solutions that are expressed with well-thought out design – Christians. Now I know most people don’t associate a religion that goes back more than two millennia with cutting edge solutions. This is especially true with fact that many believe that to be a Christian requires a person to be anti-science or anti-technology. Let me explain…

New innovations, like a work of art, reflect the mindset of the person (or people) who created it. To be innovative and to produce well-designed products, it is necessary for the creator to have a certain perspective of the world around him. A certain mindset is required. In order to be a person who is innovative, one must be able to see unique connections between disparate things. One must also be able to understand how different things work, not so much on a technical level, but moreso in the sense of cause and effect. While a technical solution may not be transferable from one problem to another, the cause and effect relationship between things is frequently transferable from across many types of problems, regardless of the technology. While these skills are critical to innovation, I would propose that there is a perspective that is more important than both of these skills to having an innovative mindset. That perspective is optimism. Without optimism, I would argue that it is impossible to be innovative. One has to believe that the problems they are facing are solvable. In addition, they have to believe that THEY are capable of solving these problems. One must have an optimistic (not unrealistic) outlook towards mankind and the future. Without this, few concepts would every get off the drawing board. The Christian faith is hardwired for an optimistic outlook towards the future. It is key to the Christian outlook that we live in a fallen world, separated from God, and that mankind is incapable of rescuing himself from his condition. It is also fundamental to the Christian understanding that through Christ’s death on the cross, we are not bound by sin and salvation is available. In addition to salvation, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit means that God is actively building His kingdom on earth today. This is a cause for great optimism that should shape the world-view of every Christian.

Just as an optimistic mind is necessary for innovation, empathy is necessary for good design. A good design can be generally described as the successful solution to a problem face by an end user or group. In order to come up with a solution for someone, a designer needs to understand the problem. This is what the area of design research is all about. Taking the time find out as much as possible about the all factors associated with problem you design is trying to solve. In addition, design research should also focus on the end user. It should identify the problems, concerns, and priorities of the people who will be using the product or service being designed. While a solid understanding of both the design problem at hand and the end user are critical to good design, I would argue that empathy is the most important factor. Hours upon hours of field research mean little if the designer does not care about the end-users’ plight. There must be a genuine concern for the end-user, born out of an effort to see the world from their point of view. This kind of compassion for others is fundamental to the tenants of Christianity. This is clear in Scripture from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew Chapter 5 (“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…”) to the many examples of Jesus healing people, such as his encounter with the possessed man in Mark, Chapter 5 (“Jesus did not let him, but sad, ‘Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you’” – Mark 5:19).

So why isn’t the Church a hotbed of innovation?  Or are there key examples of innovation within the Christian community? Share your thoughts in the comments…

Big Data & Algorithms – What We Want or the End of Free Will?

SONY DSCOne of the biggest brain-busters when it comes to Christianity is the concept of free will. Do we make our own choices or are we simply following a script that God created for us? Put differently – if God created us, and controls all of the individual factors that determine our preferences, do individuals really have the freedom to make their own decisions?

Don’t worry – I won’t try to answer those age-old questions in this brief blog post. I do, however, think it is worth spending a few minutes discussing the ongoing recording and digitization of our lives and it’s impact on our ability to make our own choices.

As we’ve discussed in earlier posts (link), one of the most important developments in the past 5-7 years has been the mass collection of data about every aspect of our lives. From where we are, what we buy, and what we look at online, to who we talk to and what we say. Increasingly, someone somewhere is recording that data. While it can be argued that this development is either helpful or harmful, the fact that this data is being collected isn’t in dispute.

Given that fact, it’s reasonable to ask, what the heck are they using all this data for?

The answer to this question is fairly simple. The personal data collected is being used to create algorithms. An algorithm is a formula (or group of formulas) that are used to predict the outcome of something. By collecting and analyzing raw data (like your buying habits, what you view online, or how and when you talk to others), it is possible to identify patterns that can be predicted by algorithms. The more personal data these organizations can collect and analyze, the more accurate they will be. Algorithms can be used to t predict group behavior on both a large and small scale. And they’re getting pretty good at it. A February 12th article in the New York Times reported that Target’s algorithms for predicting shopper behavior are so accurate that they can determine not only if a woman is pregnant, but how far along she is in her pregnancy. In one particular example, a father became alarmed when his teenage daughter began receiving mailers from Target for baby products. Only after complaining to his local Target store and then having an extended discussion with his daughter did he learn that she was actually pregnant. In a separate article, the New York Times also reported that Netflix used similar algorithms when putting together their new TV series “House of Cards”. The online video rental company analyzed the movies and shows their subscribers streamed most often. What they found was:

1. A large percentage of their subscribers streamed movies by the director David Fincher.
2. The original British version of the series “House of Cards” was also streamed in large numbers.
3. Viewers of both of the above also tended to stream films featuring Kevin Spacey.

With this information, Netflix constructed an online series consisting of exactly these three elements. The analytics were right on the money. Netflix’s “House of Cards” went on to be the most streamed piece of content in the US, along with 40 other countries.

Indeed – the science of web analytics is advancing to the point where it can be used to predict the outcome of anything.

That brings us back to our discussion of free will.

As more aspects of our personal lives are recorded and analyzed, those collecting this data will develop algorithms that are more and more accurate to better predict our behavior. As years and years of data accumulate and good algorithms are proven correct over time, it is reasonable to assume that the decision makers who use these algorithms will begin to look at the predictions with increasing certainty.

Given that these algorithms will increasingly have direct control over what we see, hear, learn, and buy, they will directly impact on our lives. Even before we’re born (see: Target Baby), these algorithms will alter the life options we see based on the choices of people demographically similar to us. As we move through life, this digital characterization of who we are will become more detailed, further editing the options available to us.

Just as religious scholars have long questioned man’s relationship with God, we must ask ourselves about the impact of an algorithm driven world and our ability to make choices.

Specifically – will it be possible for individuals to make independent choices, to make choices based on their own desires, in a world where algorithms control all the options that are available?

Or, is it possible that with well-constructed algorithms, we can produce a new, better world where what we want can be mathematically determined before we know we want it?

One thing is for sure – given the pace that data is being collected and the improving accuracy of algorithms, we will all learn the answer soon enough…

Share your thoughts in the comments…

We’re Off to SxSW 2013!!!

sxsw promo_small

We here at bytesandbelief.com are heading to Austin, TX this weekend to cover the 2013 SxSW – Interactive Conference!!!

SxSW (pronounced South by Southwest) is not really a conference in the traditional sense. Divided into three parts (Interactive/Film/Music), it’s really part Consumer Electronics Show, part Sundance Film Festival, and part music festival. SxSW is really the place where web developers, hardware engineers, and start-ups go to introduce their newest products. Many popular apps and services, such as FourSquare and Twitter, were first introduced at SxSW.

It’s is also the place where leaders in the technology industry go to discuss their vision of the future. While the goal of most sessions is to inspire the next generation of developers, things that are discussed here will eventually impact the tools we ALL use. What’s discussed here will heavily influence how we as a society decide to integrate technology into our lives.

What do the thinkers behind the technology movement think?
That’s the question we hope to shed light on over the next several days.

Check the site frequently for updates!

Installing the Digital Veil

In the time of Jesus’ birth, the structure of worship was pretty straightforward. There was one channel through which the people of Israel worshipped God. The high priests were the sole path to get to God. Sacrificial offerings made for forgiveness of sin had to be done through the high priest. Prayer requests went through him. Worship couldn’t occur without him. If a person wished to have right relationship with God, it could not happen without a relationship with the high priest. The life, death, and resurrection of Christ turned this all on its head. By offering salvation to all through His sacrifice on the cross, Christ allowed direct access to God for all who believed. The veil was torn (Luke 23:44-46), and the middle-man role of the high priest was made irrelevant. Worshipers were freed from a dependency on the high priest to make sacrifices to God for forgiveness of sin. By being the perfect sacrifice, Jesus’ death on the cross paid that debt forever.

Needless to say – this was kind of a big deal. Calling it a revolution would be an understatement. It changed the religious power structure. Before Christ sacrifice on the cross, the priestly class had control the eternal lives of their followers. And with that power, they could dictate the behavior of their followers in this life. That type of centralized power in any human hands will lead to abuse. Not only did Christ free us from sin, He also freed us from this type of oppression on earth.

Fast forward to another revolution. The creation of the personal computer in late 1970s brought an entire new set of capabilities into the world. Personal computers took the ability to perform complex and specialized tasks and put it in the hands of average people. This was indeed one of the goals behind the creation of the PC. Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computer and father of the personal computer once said:

“At our computer club, we talked about it being a revolution. Computers were going to belong to everyone, and give us power, and free us from the people who owned computers and all that stuff.”

Through computer software, such as word processors, spreadsheets, and databases, individuals could now perform complex tasks with professional looking results. Before PCs, large companies or individuals with specialized training were the only ones capable of doing these tasks. Imaging trying to design and print stationary, or trying to re-touch and develop photos in the early 1970s. For the average person at that time, the only way to do this would be to hire expensive specialists. Now, one person can do all these things independently, with limited experience and cost. As computers became more sophisticated, the ability of the individual increased, and more specialized fields and professions were disrupted.

This brings us to where we are today, with the advent of cloud computing. Cloud computing, to describe it simply, is the storage of data, software, and processing power in centrally located server farms. Put another way, the cloud is computing power held in centralized locations. Individuals gain access to this computing power via simple, low power systems via the Internet. The computers used by individuals to access this power aren’t capable of doing much without being connected to the Cloud. Conversely, the ability for an individual to do anything sophisticated would be dependent on his or her status with the Cloud. For example, both Microsoft and Adobe have transformed their bread and butter software offerings (Microsoft Office and Adobe Creative Suite, including Photoshop, Illustrator, etc.) into cloud-based apps. Access to these programs is available through a monthly service fee. Additionally, everything you create with these programs is by default stored on their remote servers. While both companies still offer full, “ownable” versions of their software, Microsoft and Adobe have made it clear that this is not the future of their business. They are not alone in this view. Companies such as Google, Amazon, and Apple all are re-orienting the direction of their companies towards cloud based products and services, including data storage and software.

The rise of cloud computing, when juxtaposed with these two previous revolutions, raises some interesting questions that are worth considering. What does it mean for the people when increasingly everything they create begins its life online? What does it mean for the people where increasingly all the digital tools they need to earn a living are only available through cloud-based services? What does it mean for the people where increasingly all of the artifacts of their lives (things they’ve made, photos of family and friends, cherished written memories) exist only in a digital cloud?

An argument can be made that we will have installed a digital high priest – a middleman through whom we must go through to accomplish much of the needed things of everyday life. While that may not make much sense now (“Hey – I can walk away from Instagram. It’s not that big a deal…”), walking away might not be so easy in the not-to-distant future, as more and more of our lives move online. Prior to the life of Jesus Christ, the high priests could use eternal damnation to control the earthly behavior of the Israelites. In a future where much of what we are and do will be dependent on cloud-based data systems, wouldn’t the owners of the cloud have that same type of power?

What’s your opinion? Share it in the comments!!!