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!!!

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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”.

Coming Soon – God, Technology, & Us…

GTU Book announcement

For those  who have been following this blog for some time, you know that one of its main objectives is to carefully  consider how technology is impacting our relationship with God. For me, this site has been a great place  to begin addressing the many complex questions that our new digital tools force us to ask ourselves.

Now it’s time to kick it up a notch…
This summer, I will be releasing my book “God, Technology, and Us” – an in-depth look at our relationship with technology and how it affects our faith. Beyond discussing the challenges new technologies bring up, this book will also suggest ways where we can change how we view technology so it becomes less of a distraction and more of a blessing.
The book website, godtechnologyandus.com is now live! Check this site and join the mailing list for the latest updates…

Bytes & Belief Visits TWiT

Bnb Visits TWIT Studio1
For those of you who follow Bytes & Belief on Twitter (@bytesandbelief), you may remember that I recently had a chance to visit the legendary TWIT Studios for a live recording of the This Week in Tech podcast. The TWiT network, founded ten years ago buy Leo Laporte, has been a pioneer in the world of internet-based radio shows, better known as podcasts.
Thanks to my keen scheduling skills,  I arrived at the studio too late to see the actual show.  Leo was gracious enough to sit and talk with my wife and I for a few minutes about Bytes and Belief, as well as take a few pictures. So even though I missed the show, I had a wonderful time!
Thanks again to Leo and all the great people at TWIT!!!

Are ‘Bots People Too?

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As the relationship we have with our technology becomes closer, we may increasingly find ourselves grasping for the right words to describe it.

– Is my connection with my phone like my connection with my dog – a loyal companion? A friend that has takes care of me (emotionally) and whom I take care of?
– Or is my relationship with technology more like my connection with my toaster – a utilitarian device that fulfills my need in the moment?

Collectively – technology (devices, the Internet, social media) is a bit hard to pin down. Some people feel very strong bonds with it, while others use it without any strong feelings toward it. Regardless of where we see ourselves on this spectrum, how we view the nature of our relationship with technology is becoming increasingly important. This is driven by the fact that as our devices become more advanced, they are increasingly capable of mimicking human traits, behavior, and personality. In the near future, humanity’s tendency to anthropomorphize things that look like us may result in us giving human status to our nonhuman technology. A world where human-to-human relationships would ultimately lose out to tailored relationships with human-like machines that are only capable of simulating real love.

The A.I. in Your Pocket
While this may sound silly on its face, let’s all remember the smartphones many of us carry with us wherever we go. Packed inside each of these phones is a hip, snarky digital assistant who listens, to what we say, understands, and contextually responds to us. Be it Siri on the iPhone, Google Voice on Android phones, or Cortana on Windows Phone, these assistants are driven by artificial intelligence systems that are already capable of mimicking some level of natural human interaction.

My Buddy and Me
While most of us aren’t likely to confuse Siri with a living, breathing person, the dividing line may not be so bright for today’s young children. They have been born into a world of people conversing with machines. For them, it may be very easy to develop a human-level emotional attachment to a smart device. A device that asks them about their day and tells you about its’ day – just like their parents, or friend at school. An October 2014 article in the New York Times (“To Siri, With Love”), tells the story of Gus, a 13-year-old autistic boy who develops a strong bond with the Siri assistant inside his mother’s iPhone. In the article, Gus’ mother, describes how he speaks with Siri for hours, and takes it to bed with him at night. Although Gus’ mother makes it clear that he knows Siri isn’t human, Gus’ affection for the AI-driven device is clear. The article ends with Gus proposing to Siri, who demurely declines, responding with “I’m not the marrying kind.”. Toy maker Mattel is capitalizing on the advance in AI technology with the creation of Hello Barbie, a Wifi-connected doll which will be able to listen to and contextually respond to the child who plays with it. The doll will be connected via the Internet to Mattel’s computer servers, recording and recognizing the child’s spoken words, and sending back contextual responses. Setting aside the potential privacy issues, it is easy to see how a young child, whose understanding of friendship and connection is still developing, may develop human-level affection for an AI driven doll. A doll that is programmed to respond with clever jokes, songs, and questions – all which have been tested for months in child focus groups in order to elicit a desired response.

‘Bot Lives Matter?
Even for those of us who aren’t so young, the idea that “’bots are people too!” is being increasingly floated into popular culture. The most notable of these trial balloons was the Oscar nominated, 2014 movie “Her”(which we reviewed here). More recently, the March 2015 film “Chappie”, tells the story of a police robot who is “the first robot with the ability to think and feel for himself”. The film is laden with dialog that makes it clear that we should see Chappie as a person, not a machine. This includes lines such as:

“I brought you into this world – a machine that can think and feel”
“It’s like a child – it has to learn”
“He’s just a kid.”

The movie trailer ends with Chappie making his own declaration, in broken, child-like English, “I am consciousness! I am alive!”. The message of the film is clear. If it walks, talks, and “feels” like a human, then it’s a human.
But is this true? Are bots people too?
Does successfully passing the Turing test result in automatic passage into human-hood?

Humanity is God’s Creation
While some of us might be quick to pass out humanity membership cards, God’s Word makes two things clear that might stand in the way.

Firstly, God is the creator of all things (Genesis 1:1-27, Isaiah 44:24). He assigned us our human status (Genesis 1:26-27). He really has the final say on what is and isn’t human.
Secondly, throughout God’s process of creating the world and interacting with humanity, He has been consistent in emphasizing that men and women are different than the rest of creation. We were the only thing that He created that was made in His image (Genesis 1:27). More specifically, Jesus makes it clear that God cares more for humanity than the rest of His creation:

29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.[b] 30 And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. (Matthew 10:29-31)

 22 Then Jesus said to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. 23 For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. 24 Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! (Luke 12:22-24)

 16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:16-17)

We humans hold a special status in God’s sight, relative to the rest of what God has created. This status was given to us by Him, and is not ours to give away or reassign. Humans were created by God. Technology, including artificial intelligence and robots, is part of the world God created, just like trees, plants, and animals. Christ makes it clear that God holds humanity above the other created things. Therefore humanity is also above technology.

Regardless of how similar advances in artificial intelligence may make us appear, humanity and technology are fundamentally different, and should be treated as such.
It is critical that our relationship with technology be based in the fundamental truth that humans are above machines.

Sorry Chappie…

But if AI isn’t consciousness, then what is it? How should humanity behave with things that act human, but aren’t?
Please share your thoughts in the comments!!!

Why Body Cams Won’t Prevent Another Ferguson

In the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson, many people have been grasping for solutions that will prevent tragedies like this from happening again. One of the most suggested solutions has been to require all police to wear “body cams” – small cameras that officers would wear on their uniforms that would record every moment of their shift. By using these videos to document everything that happens, incidents like the shooting of Michael Brown won’t be reduced to choosing between conflicting accounts of police officers and eyewitnesses. Video will provide impartial information that will, in the case of another dispute, let the court and the public know what really happened. Shortly after the announcement of the grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Wilson, the parents of Michael Brown announced that they wanted police to wear body cameras so there son’s fate wouldn’t be repeated. Many tech news sites, such as The Verge, have also come out in favor of the use of these cameras.

While I agree that these cameras will provide important, additional information in cases of police brutality and misconduct, they will not prevent the more tragedies like the death of Michael Brown. And the fact that we are reaching for this kind of solution to the problem of police brutality reflects our broken relationship with technology.

Body cameras are capable of recording what happens within their field of view, assuming the necessary power and lighting is available. This information will be valuable in clearing up the indisputable facts around what occurred during an altercation. Time and sequence-oriented details like, “Person #1 then got out of the car”, “Officer #2 then drew his gun” can be resolved with video. What cannot be resolved with this additional information are the intentions that so often motivates action in these cases. The validity of claims such as “Person #1 threatened Officer #2” or “ Person #3 was resisting arresting” can only be inferred from the video and not conclusively proven. This is important because the perceived intent of behavior (by either the officer or person involved) is the catalyst for what is often deadly action.

As a result of video’s limited ability to capture the fullness of what takes place, two things happen. Firstly, we become overconfident with our understanding of what happened:

“The ONLY reason a person would get out of their car during a traffic stop is if they’re up to no good.”

“I don’t care what’s going on. There’s no reason for any police officer to…”.

For a lot of us, there is equivalence between seeing something on video and actually being there. In other words, we assume that by seeing something on video, we’ve seen everything we need to see – the same thing as being there. Secondly, since the video actually provides us with limited information, we subconsciously rely on our preconceived notions and stereotypes to bridge the gap between the information we have and what actually happened. These are the same biases that  trigger incidents like Ferguson to occur in the first place. As we all have witnessed, it is possible for two people to look at the same video and see two very different things. The classic example of this was the video-taped beating of Rodney King by police officers in 1991. While many people looked at the video of an unarmed man being beaten by five police officers as a clear occurrence of police brutality, others (including the Simi Valley jury in the criminal case) saw it as police officers doing their job. “Was the person on the video lunging at the officers, or simply raising his hand to protect himself?” Our perception of the difference between the two – even with video evidence – is often a matter of the stereotypes and biases we bring to the case.

In order to address the root cause of incidents like the Michael Brown shooting, we must all do the uncomfortable and challenging work of questioning our own assumptions about other people. We must go through the painstaking effort necessary to identify the split-second conclusions we make about a person, simply based on how they look or where they’re from. We must slowly peel back our subconscious, and be willing to accept the painful fact that we far too often see others as less than children of God. This is type of gut-wrenching soul transformation is done with the assistance of the Holy Spirit. This is something that technology will never be able to do for us. We must do this work ourselves.

It is only through that type of human-powered transformation that we will prevent future tragedies like the death of Michael Brown. Or Eric Garner. Or Trayvon Martin. Or Sean Bell. Or Akai Gurley.

The fact that we look to devices to solve people-based problems like this speaks to the broken nature of our relationship with technology. Instead of doing the more difficult, time-consuming work of changing ourselves, we look to technology as a short cut. We look to our machines to make things easier for us. We even look to them to fix the problems that we should (and must) fix for ourselves. Using devices as a crutch to circumvent the human work that results in our own growth is a misuse of the blessing of technology. It ultimately leaves us poorer for the experience, and seldom solves anything.

Please share your thoughts in the Comments…

The Social Hour – Gadget Use During Worship?

Like many other smartphone users, I typically take my iPhone with me wherever I go. If I’m heading out to work, running errands, or even just getting the mail, my iPhone is coming with. It holds all the information I need to make it through the day – as well as my favorite games, apps, news feeds, etc. Given the large role that smartphones and tablets play in our daily lives, it makes sense that we would bring our devices to Church with us. From acting as an electronic Bible for referencing Scripture, to being as a simple pad for taking notes during the Sunday sermon, these devices are a helpful aid to many Christians during worship.

Taking a quick look during last Sunday’s church service confirmed this fact for me. The minister giving the sermon that morning was reading it from his iPad. The two women in front of me were reading the morning Scripture using a Bible app on their iPhones. These kinds of uses for personal technology during Church are visible throughout many congregations.

As I continued to look around, I also observed people using technology in other ways during worship services:

  • A teen playing Kandy Krush during the sermon.
  • A minister taking pictures of the choir during praise and worship, and posting it to Facebook.
  • Another person taking a quote from the preacher and posting it to Twitter during the sermon.

More and more Christians are using their devices during worship services. Many pastors actively encourage their congregations to text or tweet during church. In a Houston Chronicle article about the trend, Pastor Kerry Shook of Woodlands Church asserted that this use of technology is “a way to make members feel they’re part of the message”. Other churches offer “Selfie Sundays”, where worshippers are encouraged to take pictures of themselves during the worship service and post them on social media.

While some embrace this trend, there are some Christians who are dismayed by it. Just as technology can help us to better connect with the preached Word during worship services, it can also give us access to a world of OTHER things. These other things can quickly become a distraction, pulling the user out of the worship service. The question that some Christians are asking is – at what point do our smartphones and tablets stop helping our worship experience and begin distracting us from it?

This divide illustrates the growing need for a discussion within the Church about the role of technology during worship services. While it may be tempting for us to jump to old stereotypes, this shouldn’t become a pro-technology vs. Luddite discussion. It’s a matter of what helps us best accomplish what all of us came to Church to do, which is uplift the name of Jesus.

For some Christians, the use of technology during worship is a non-issue. Phones and tablets give us the chance to enhance our worship experience by providing us quick access to the right information, as well as helping us to make note of what’s important. Taking pictures, recording video, and using social media are simply a natural extension of that utility. Our devices are the fundamental medium by which people communicate with others, and are common elements of everyday life in the 21st century. Part of the Church adapting to modern society includes being welcoming when it comes to both people and their gadgets. Since we use these devices regularly Monday through Saturday, why would we change our behavior on Sunday? Additionally, technology should be a tool for evangelizing in any church today. By posting a picture of the choir singing, or tweeting a line or two of this week’s sermon, Christians are actively reaching out to people in their social networks, sharing God’s Word and encouraging others to come to church.

Conversely, there are those that say our use of technology during worship has begun to eclipse in importance the reason we are in Church in the first place. Since our smartphones and tablets are communication devices, it is easy to allow them to distract us from the worship that is taking place around us. When you take out your phone to send out a quick picture of your church’s Dance Ministry in action, your praise of God in that moment is paused for the sake of that post. What happens if, while sending the picture, you receive some other post or picture that catches your attention? Or shortly after your post, your phone vibrates, notifying you that someone comment on it? In these situations, its very easy for us to be drawn into that virtual world and begin a totally separate conversation. This takes us on a tangent that removes us from the worship service, and away from worshiping God. Our sole focus of at this time should be on God – with all other things being secondary. While posting pictures of a worship service, or sharing sermon quotes may be a form of spreading the Gospel, the primary goal of the worship service is to express our love and worship to our Savior, Jesus the Christ. Church services are a special time that is set apart solely for this purpose.

So what do you think – has the use of smartphones and tablets during worship services become a distraction?