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!

 

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Throwing It All Away

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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”.

How Technology & Convenience Cripple Worship

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I heard a sermon last week about the importance of justice to right worship of God. Reverend David Holder, preaching out of Micah 6, made the point that to worship God one must love justice. More importantly, he stressed that pursuing justice – the act of speaking up for the disadvantaged and exploited – is a requirement for worship that is acceptable to God. Indeed, the Scripture bears this out:

6 With what shall I come before the Lord
and bow down before the exalted God.
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?

7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

8 He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly[a] with your God.

– Micah 6:6-8

Here, the prophet Micah explains that after all that the Lord had delivered the children of Israel from (Ch 6, v1-5), the only proper response is to worship God by “acting justly and loving mercy”. In the next several verses, Micah goes on to indict the people of Israel for the systemic exploitation that had reached every part of society. He concludes that because of their idolatry and injustice, God will give the Israelites “over to ruin and your people to derision [of other nations]”.

So, right worship of God requires the pursuit of justice – got it.
What does that have to with convenience? Or technology?

Simply put, the pursuit of justice – especially for the sake of others – is anything but convenient. It requires leaving the comfort of your current circumstance, and opening yourself up to public ridicule. It also could entail possible reprisals from those who are exploiting the people you’re trying to protect. Pursuing justice means putting yourself out there – in a very inconvenient way.

Technology comes into the picture because, at this point, it’s all about convenience. Everything we use, from different social media to smartphones, are designed to cater to what we want. When we’re online, it’s always about the people, news, and things we are interested in. And if we come across something we don’t like, all it takes is one click and that person/topic/thing is banished from our presence.

While all of these new tools and conveniences are very enjoyable, it’s easy for us to grow accustomed to having the world our way. The more we get used to having things convenient to us, the more things we want that way. More importantly, the more conveniences we have, the less willing we are to give any of them up.

That’s where the problems start. If we aren’t willing to give up our convenience for the sake of pursuing justice, then we can’t give God the worship He requires. Justice costs. And the more accustomed we are to getting what we want, the less we’re willing to pay that price. The more time we spend in a virtual world built around our desires, the more we expect to have things our way – on and off-line.

That’s why many online protests have such high participation, but result in such little change. Changing the your avatar in order to “increasing awareness” of social injustice is convenient for you, but does little to challenge those who exploit the weak and vulnerable. The Arab Spring protests of 20** are looked at as a triumph of technology as a tool for protest and change. While technology, especially social media, was integral to the protestors’ ability to affect change, it wasn’t the only factor. Protestors backed up all those tweets and YouTube videos from the Arab Spring. People left their homes and put themselves in real danger in order to make their voices heard. Effective, but not very convenient.

We as Christians must be willing to shun at least some of the convenience that is saturating our lives via technology. This shouldn’t be for nostalgia’s sake or from self-flattering attempt at piety. It is a necessary step to prevent us from focusing on what we want all the time. This also will make it easier for us to put down our convenience for the sake of pursuing justice for others.

Isn’t that is the type of worship our God deserves?

Share your thoughts in the comments…

It’s Inevitable…

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It’s popular for people to say that spread of technology into every aspect of our lives is inevitable.
To quote robot collective The Borg, from the Star Trek – Next Generation TV series: “Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.”.

This idea of inevitability is especially heard during discussions of data collection and privacy. People who refrain from using a “free” app or social media platform because of privacy concerns can sometimes be met with the inevitability argument:

“What difference does it make if you join/use [fill in name of popular web service/app]? If your information isn’t all ready out there, it will be. There’s nothing you can do about. That’s the way things are.”

For those who hold this mindset, the game is over. The die is already cast. Someone somewhere decided that the devices we use will work a certain way – requiring that we use their services at a price they determine. That price, be it our personal data, our location, or the full content of our correspondence, is set in stone, and to believe otherwise is folly. To participate in the modern world (where everyone else is), this is the cover charge.

While we love technology here at bytesandbelief.com, I have to say that I’m frustrated with this point of view. First off, it suggests that the only options that are available are the ones that are presented to you. Most of us choose the technology solutions we have because they are either the easiest option, they are ones that our friends are using, or they are the only alternatives we’re aware of.

Secondly, the idea of inevitability is typically brought out to act as a lubricant – something that eases people into doing something they don’t fully understand or don’t want to do. As soon as something is framed with the argument of inevitability, most of us tend to throw up our hands, and fall in line with the rest of the crowd.

Don’t confuse what I’m saying in this post. There is great potential for good in technology – especially when it comes to the growth of God’s Kingdom (Ed Stetzer wrote a nice post last year on how tech can be used to expand God’s Kingdom. Read it here). The problem is that believers must understand that our priorities (Christ spells them out in the Sermon on the Mount) are different the rest of the world. Therefore we must make sure that our use of tools, including technology, is conformed to those priorities. The digital tools that are now part of everyday life can be used to help us address God-given priorities. That’s great. But these tools aren’t built exclusively for that purpose. In fact, they are typically  designed to appeal to the largest audience possible. They are designed to appeal to those on the broad road, not those going through “the narrow gate”. They can be used for Christian purposes, but these tools often appeal to worldly priorities such as self-centeredness, approval-seeking, control, and lust. If appealing of these priorities brings more users to technology, then rest assured that the design of future devices will move further in that direction.

Therefore, accepting technology unquestioningly because it is “inevitable” just isn’t a tenable viewpoint for followers of Christ. We should be willing to embrace technology on every level, but only after understanding how it helps us pursue the cause of Christ.

This will require more work and thought from us. It also may make us stand out from everyone else. But as the “salt of the earth”, isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?

Better Living/Design is a Moral Act

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This being graduation season, I can’t help but hark back to my graduation from engineering school (lo those many years ago). I remember thinking about which company I would go with for my first job out of college. Seeing that the economy was much different then than it is now, I was fortunate enough to have a few options to consider when it came to that first job. Key questions I asked myself were:

“What do I want to use my engineering skills for?
“What do I want my career to be about?”

While money was a significant part of my decision (I had been piecing together the stereo system I planned to buy for months), it wasn’t the biggest issue. I wanted to be able to look back at what I’ve done and feel like it mattered in some way. Most of all, I wanted what I designed to help people. I wanted to create tools that would make the lives of others easier. This sole factor ruled out certain employers and led me to choose my first place of employment as an engineer. While the outcome of my labors didn’t accomplish anything as noble as delivering water to the people of the Sudan, I was happy with what I was able to do.

In the past several weeks, I’ve had a chance to talk to a variety of engineers, web & software developers, and even some advanced Artificial Intelligence researchers. These are the people who, by and large, determine what technology impacts our lives and how that technology is used. The design choices they make everyday while creating new products directly impact the way we live our lives. In my conversations with these creators, there was one common thread that united them. When I asked, “What drives you to create/design/invent these products?”, all of these technologists gave answers that included a sentiment similar to mine:

“I just want to help people”
“I want to help people live a better life”

While the desire to “make something cool” is also a common motivation, the goal of helping others live a better life is part of the core that drives most people who create. And that, by the way, is a good thing.

While at first it may appear that a better life is something easy to define (less work, more free time, less pain, more pleasure), the definition becomes complicated fairly quickly. How should one live one’s life?

Is a life free of work better than a life filled with honest, purposeful labor?

Are daily tasks, such as cooking dinner or driving a car, mundane efforts that should be automated to free us?
Or are they areas of personal expression that make up part of our humanity?

Is the ability to live several decades beyond the normal human lifespan a worthwhile thing?
Or does it harm the normal cycle of birth, living, and death that is replicated everywhere in nature?

It is impossible to answer these questions without taking personal stance on how life should be lived. That stance, I would argue, is a moral stance. A personal statement defining what the inventor/designer believes is right and good. This stance determines what technologies get researched, what concepts move forward, what features are included, and what product gets released. When this product is released into the world, it performs two separate functions. Firstly, it (hopefully) functions as a tool for the end user, providing useful service or assistance. Secondly, the product serves as documentation of what the creator believes is valuable and important in this world.

A good example of this phenomenon is Henry Ford and the Model T. When the Model T was released in 1908, it was in many ways a personal statement of how Ford saw the world. While there were other vehicles available at the time, they cost much more than what most people could afford. Ford viewed the freedom and independence offered by personal transportation as a part of life that is important for all people. He specifically priced the Model T to be affordable for much of the working population. Ford also put little value on sentiment. He felt that what a person could do was more important than what that person’s title or education was. This was reflected in the Model T’s function-first design, which lacked ornamentation and was only available in black. The Model T was groundbreaking product that changed design, culture, and society in ways we are still feeling today. It was also a Henry Ford’s personal manifesto on wheels.

(BTW – I pulled these observations on Henry Ford and the Model T from PBS’s American Experience Series – The Titans, which is currently available online. I highly recommend checking it out.)

If designing products to make life better is a moral act, then that leaves both creators and consumers with a few key questions to ask:

1. Can engineers/designers/inventors who are Christian separate the things they create from what they believe? (Believe me – I’m asking myself this question just as much as I’m asking you, dear reader…)

2. What do current products such as the Jawbone UP (pictured), Gmail, and Twitter say about their creator’s beliefs? What moral decisions regarding “a better life” do these products communicate?

In my next post, I’ll take a critical look at some of the more popular technology products to see if we can discern what they say about their creators.

Any thoughts? Share them in the Comments…