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

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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!

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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

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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!!!