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!!!

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”.

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.

Why?

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.

You Talking to Me???

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I was talking to my wife after leaving church last Easter. We were out of town, so we visited a church that was recommended to us. After the service, my wife and I introduced ourselves to the pastor and offered greetings on behalf of our home Church. I also told him about the book that I was working on.

When we left, I mentioned to my wife how I thought the conversation didn’t go very well.

“What do you mean?”, she asked.
“I just felt like (the church’s pastor) didn’t really connect with what I was saying. And when I asked him questions, he really didn’t respond”, I answered.
“Well, I noticed you really didn’t show much interest in him. You only talked about what you want to talk about. You didn’t talk to him. You ‘processed’ him”.

When I thought about how I behaved, I saw my wife was correct. My efforts to get to know the pastor were overshadowed by my desire to get him interested in my book. Instead of getting to know the man, I worked to get to what I wanted out of the conversation.

From that moment on, I’ve started to pay more attention, not only to how I talk to people, but the nature of conversations in general. What I’ve noticed is that more and more discussion seem to be transactional. More and more conversations seem to go something like this:

“Hey Bill! How’s the children’s ministry going?”
“Hi Tom. It’s going OK. We’ve got a couple of events coming up.”
“Have you completed the quarterly update? I’m collecting them from all the ministry leaders.”
“Not yet. I should have it finished by Wednesday. Can I email it to you?”
“That’s fine Bill. Have a blessed week.”

Now some of you might see this and think that this is normal discussion between two people after church.
What I’ve noticed is how amazingly similar in-person conversations like this are to an email, IM, or text message. First, the minimal greeting, followed by the real purpose of the exchange (getting the question answered). The information is exchanged, and then the conversation ends. I found this pattern in my emails and text messages as well. I’ve experienced these types of stunted dialogs with people in all types of settings. I’ve also had others tell me they’ve noticed a similar pattern in their regular exchanges.

We are increasingly engaging in conversations that are more like police interrogations. The cause? I have a theory.

Technology has allowed us to connect with infinitely more people. Could it be that now that we have so many more people to talk to, the way we talk to each other has changed?

Because the speed of our communication has changed, with emails, texts, and IMs being delivered instantly, our expectations for a response have sped up as well. And since we all have more people to talk to, we have to be more efficient (aka faster) in the conversations we do.

In other words, efficient communication technologies encourage efficient conversations.
If this is the case, then it would make sense that our conversations would more become transactional. There’s no time for anything else.

So what’s wrong with efficient conversations with others?

The problem is that Christ-like love and relationship aren’t efficient.

They are sloppy, unpredictable, and confusing. And most of all, relationships are inconvenient. They frequently don’t fit nicely into your schedule. You can bet that the next time your neighbor needs to talk to you about a painful experience, it won’t be a convenient time for you.
If we are to love people as Christ loved them, then our priorities must change. Our top concern when engaging others can no longer be getting what we need. To love others as Christ did, we must put the needs of others above our own. Paul exemplified this in 1 Corinthians 11. There he instructs mature Christians to sacrifice their freedom to eat whatever they want for the sake of believers who were new to the faith. This was an issue because some believed that eating meat from animals sacrificed to non-existent gods somehow endangered one’s salvation. Paul encouraged the mature Christians to put the needs of others first. Acts of like this demonstrate a sacrificial love. They are necessary if we are to build strong relationships. They are necessary if we are to love others as Christ commands.

In the same way, we must re-order our priorities when we interact with each other. Make whatever exchange we have – a face-to-face conversation, an email, even a text – about the other person first.

Start with a salutation. Follow up with a QUESTION about the other person. Actually LISTEN to the answer. Offer to help if you can. CARE. That kind of sacrifice is necessary for strong relationships.

Loving people isn’t efficient, but its necessary if we want to worship God.
Technology has given us the ability to connect with each other, but each of us must choose to use it in a way that builds Christ-like relationships.

Have you noticed similar behavior in your conversations? Share your thoughts in the comments!

AT&T Survey Uncovers How Believers Use Technology

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 Although smartphones have been around for what-seems-like forever, we are only now starting to get a clearer picture of how people live with their devices. This is particularly true when it comes to people of faith. Specifically, how do people use their devices as part of their worship?

We’ve previously explored this topic and the impact of our behavior here at bytesandbelief.com (read our post, “The Social Hour” here), but now we’ve got some data. The Pittsburg Courier recently published some survey results that are part of AT&T’s Inspired Mobility campaign.

While Inspired Mobility looks like it might be designed to encourage more believers to adopt AT&T’s services, it also provides some interesting insight into how people of faith use technology. Some interest numbers in the article:

  • 57% of blacks use mobile devices to connect to faith and inspiration sites and groups. That compares to 46% of Hispanics, 38% of Asians and 37% of whites.
  • Across all groups, 72% of those who use mobility to connect with their faith report using social media to do so, with Facebook and YouTube used most.

The kicker for me was the number around use of technology DURING worship. According to the survey, 44% of 25-34 year olds said they used their mobile device to engage in activities unrelated to the service they were attending.

Does the use of technology – social media in particular – enhance or take away from worship services? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Check out the full Pittsburg Courier article HERE
Read the AT&T Inspired Mobility blog HERE