Everlasting Life – Google Style…

Google announced the start-up of a new business/division called Calico this week. As is reported in this article from The Verge, Calico’s purpose is to study the aging process in an effort to find methods of “radical life extension”. Google founder and CEO Larry Paige, in his Google+ post announcing Calico, stated “Art (Levinson) and I are excited about tackling aging and illness.  These issues affect us all—from the decreased mobility and mental agility that comes with age, to life-threatening diseases that exact a terrible physical and emotional toll on individuals and families.”. Paige is a long-time fan of Ray Kurzweil, successful inventor, and longtime advocate for immortality through technology. Google has made donations to Kurzweil’s Singularity University, and has hired him as a consultant.

We at Bytes and Belief have discussed the concept of the Singularity, Ray Kurzweil, and transhumanism on this blog before. From a theological standpoint, one can argue that these ideas are the ultimate example of putting ones whole faith in technology. To trust technology with one’s very existence, both physically and existentially, is to literally go ALL in. What makes this story so important is that Google’s founders, who to some extent have been on board with the idea of techno-immortality, are now putting their money where their mouth is. And in the eyes of many, their involvement gives this whole movement more credibility and inches it closer to mainstream thought.

What does such a profound faith in man-made technology mean for Christianity? Is techno-immortality, or even “radical life extension” compatible with God’s Word?

I encourage all of you to read the post on The Verge and then share your thoughts in the comments!

Big Data and Trayvon Martin

Few things have divided this nation to the extent that the Trayvon Martin case has. While some believe racial profiling was the root cause of Trayvon’s death, others believe that race was not the reason Trayvon Martin caught George Zimmerman’s attention on the night of February 26, 2012. Despite these different viewpoints, there are some things we can all agree on. George Zimmerman, after observing some unknown set of characteristics about Trayvon Martin, made at two key decisions about Trayvon. George Zimmerman decided:

1. Who Trayvon was (a person who belongs vs. a person who doesn’t, youth with in hoodie, etc)
2. What Trayvon might do (passing through vs up to no good)

This set of characteristics was likely based on George’s past knowledge and experience with other people with similar characteristics (be they race-based or not). This set of characteristics probably included an analysis of Trayvon’s visible behavior at the time – how he walked, what he was looking at, etc. All of this data, both directly and indirectly tied to Trayvon, played a part in George Zimmerman’s decision to follow him. As we all know, Zimmerman’s decision was a key factor in the end result, which was Trayvon Martin’s death.

What does all of this have to do with Big Data?

We are in the early stages of Big Data – the mass storage and analysis of huge amounts of data for the purpose of correlating human behavior. Beyond simply using data to understand what people have done, statistical analysis of Big Data is being used to predict future behavior. We see evidence of this in things as simple as product recommendations on sites like Amazon.com, and movie recommendations from Netflix. Examples of predictive algorithms also exist in the physical world. Superstore retailer Target uses online customer identifiers and cash register information to link consumers web habits with what they buy in store. That information is used to determine what sales promotions and mailings each customer receives. To get a better idea of Target’s Big Data analytics abilities, read the NY Times article on “The Target Baby” (link). From online giants like Facebook & Google, down to brick and mortar bureaucracies like the NYC Housing authority, major companies and governments are collecting and analyzing large amounts of behavior data about all of us for the sake determine when, where, how, and to whom certain products and resources should (or shouldn’t) be offered. From their perspective, the more data they can collect, the more accurate their algorithms will be.

While the fact that these algorithms drive efficiency and productivity has been well documented, there is another outcome that is less obvious. All of us – each and every one of us, are increasingly being evaluated and judged by a set of behavioral characteristics.

Just like Trayvon Martin.

And in the eyes those looking at us, the data collected is complete enough to accurately sum up who we are.

While the output of these Big Data algorithms may not determine whether we get shot or not, their impact may be equally as life threatening. Algorithms will increasingly determine what services are available to us, what jobs we are considered for, and how we live in both the online and physical worlds.

There are already start-ups that use a person’s Facebook social graph to predict that person’s credit score.

The key question is does that split second decision – whether it’s coming from a person watching us walk down the street, or a complex algorithmic formula – accurately sum up who we are?

And what is the happens if I choose to believe these decisions made about me?

If, from our past choices and decisions, it is possible to predict and make decisions about what we will do, what does that mean about man’s ability to change?

If the (big) data tells me there is little chance for me to change, what is the likelihood that I will believe I can change?

If I believe what Big Data tells me I am (and what I will be), is there room in my life for the redeeming power of Christ?

Lots of questions – share your thoughts in the comments!!!

In the Senate Now – A National Photo ID Database

A post on popular tech blog, The Verge, discusses the Immigration Reform bill currently in the Senate. One of the provisions of this 800 page bill is the formation of a national photo ID database. This database would contain every image from driver’s licenses and government issued IDs from across the US. Homeland Security would maintain it. Employers would be required to cross reference (with Facial Recognition technology) any potential new hires with the database to confirm their identity and citizenship. This would essentially require that every adult in the US (who wants/needs to work) have their image registered with the government.

While these images already exist across multiple state governments and databases, the fact that they may be compiled under a single authority would put a considerable amount of power in a few choice hands. As we’ve brought up on the blog before, putting that much information in the hands of a single authority may be too tempting to avoid abuse.

More concerning is the compulsory nature of this database. Want to work but don’t have a driver’s license or government ID? No dice. Get in the database or else. And with such a complete record of the US adult population, one can easily see how use of a database would spread to banking, credit agencies, the healthcare system, etc.

Check out this important article here, and then share your thoughts in the comments.

A Real Page-Turner

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When I was about 7 years old,  I was enthralled with calculators. Even considering their relatively primitive state at that time, I was drawn to their glowing LED displays (they didn’t really have screens at that point). Having older sisters, I would “play” with their calculators frequently. I spent hours pouring over calculators in the Sears and JCPenny catalogs (the Amazon.com of their day). My mother however, brought my obsession with calculators to an abrupt halt. A veteran teacher, she had established a strict regimen of study at home to supplement what I was taught in school. My interest in calculators happened to coincide with introduction to multiplication tables. The fact I was at this critical point in my math education meant that calculators, in her mind, were verboten. My older siblings were told to keep their calculators out of my hands. My requests for my own calculator were denied. Confused, I asked my mother why I couldn’t even TOUCH a calculator any more, let alone play with one. Her response was clear and succinct:

“You need to learn your multiplication tables first. If you start using a calculator before you know them, you’ll become dependant on it. It will become a crutch.”

While that was a less than satisfying response at the time, I later became thankful for my Mom’s calculator ban. I also began to see how the wisdom of her words spanned well beyond the boundaries of elementary school mathematics. While the introduction of computing devices to the general public may have began with calculators, it later expanded to home computers, networking, and eventually the Internet. This growth has continued to the point where these technologies are involved in every aspect of our lives. This has largely been to our immediate benefit. We can get many formerly tedious tasks done quickly and efficiently. We have both access to more information, and the ability to retrieve it faster than ever before. While the expanse of these new technologies has touched many aspects our lives, there haven’t really been many boundaries placed on their usage. Simple tasks, like figuring how much is $5 in euros, or determining how many cups there are in 38 ounces, would have been a quick hand calculation in the past. Now that type of everyday math has been replaced by phone apps and websites. A person moving to a new city, in the past may have tried to learn a map of their new hometown. Now, that same person is more likely to rely on their smartphone or a GPS device to get around. Given that we’ve off-loaded much of our learned tasks and knowledge to these new technologies, have they become crutches? Are we missing out on unintended, yet still critical learning experiences?

The answer to this question is particularly important for the Christian Church.

Douglas Rushkoff, in his book “Present Shock” discusses the socio-cultural impact of the digital age on society. Among his observations, he asserts that the pervasive nature of technology has led to the collapse of the linear narrative (aka story-tellin) throughout society. The concept of things having a beginning, middle, and a resolution has been a fundamental part of how we view life for millennia. Beyond being the structure of every sitcom you’ve watched and every story you were told as a child, almost every system of belief, both secular and religious, is based on the linear narrative. The Bible, for example, begins with creation and ends with Christ’s return. Rushkoff asserts that these narratives only work when the listener is held captive by the storyteller. The system works when the listener has no alternative but to follow the story to its end. Technology however, provides so many other options and counter-narratives, it is impossible to get listeners to stick around for, or invest in a single story.

Time will tell if Rushkoff is right or not, but the critical nature of story, continuity, and context is a key element of correct interpretation and understanding of The Bible. Knowing that Isaiah came before Mark and the relationship between the two books is critical to grasping Christianity. Making the Bible indexable and searchable, as most Bible apps and web tools do, allows the user to quickly and efficiently get to any part of Scripture. It also has the unintended consequence of flattening the book’s content. The relationship between Genesis and Ephesians is obscured. The name of these books and the order in which they appear are reduced to tags, or elements of a database query. In contrast, a person flipping through a physical Bible looking for Matthew 25 would also gain additional, unintended insight. They would learn that the Bible is divided into an Old and New Testament. They would see that Genesis chronologically comes before Ephesians. They would see that Isaiah comes before Mark. These basic lessons are the critical first steps in learning the fundamentals of the faith. They are obscured when a person’s exposure to the Bible is limited to digital sources.

While these tools may be helpful in the hands of an experienced Sunday School Teacher, or a mature Christian, who keeps them out of the hands of young believers who still learning the fundamentals of the faith?

How does the Church make sure technology is an aide for its members and not a crutch?

Please share your thoughts in the comments…

The Hunger

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Have you ever gone grocery shopping when you’re hungry? While that is typical rookie mistake for the uninitiated, I still slip up and do it once and awhile. More than once, I’ve come home with more food than I originally planned (typically food of the dessert variety) because I went to the store on an empty stomach. People can make bad decisions when they put more emphasis on satisfying the needs of the moment, instead of considering the larger implications of our actions.

One of the most famous Biblical examples of poor decisions made under duress is the story of Esau and Jacob in Genesis Chapter 25 (v 21-34). Esau and Jacob were the sons of Issac and Rebekah, and grandsons of Abraham. While Esau was the oldest and his father’s favorite, God told Rebekah that Esau would eventually serve his younger brother Jacob. Evidence of this comes to light in verses 29-30:

29 Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished. 30 He said to Jacob, “Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!” (That is why he was also called Edom.[f])
31 Jacob replied, “First sell me your birthright.”

Jacob’s demand, in addition to seeming a bit out of place, was also way out of proportion to Esau’s request. A birthright was the material inheritance handed down to sons by their parents. This inheritance would be divided among the sons, with the eldest son receiving a double portion. That’s a lot to ask for a bowl of stew. What was Esau’s response?

32 “Look, I am about to die,” Esau said. “What good is the birthright to me?”        33 But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob.

34 Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and some lentil stew. He ate and drank, and then got up and left. So Esau despised his birthright.

Esau, racked with hunger and apparently not focused on the big picture, signs away his birthright to his brother. Many years later, Jacob received not only his brother’s inheritance, but the paternal blessing of his father Issac, after another bit of trickery (Genesis 27). This blessing is also typically reserved for the eldest son. In the end, Esau does serve Jacob, and Jacob goes on to become the father of the twelve tribes of Israel.

Based on a momentary desire, Esau gave away something of great value for something of little value. Instead of recognizing Jacob’s outrageous request for what it was and demanding new terms (BTW – Why didn’t Esau just get his own stew?), he accepted the offer – a choice he later regretted.

Just because Esau didn’t treat his birthright with care didn’t mean that it wasn’t worth caring for.

While it may be very easy for us to dismiss Esau as a bonehead, we should all consider the lesson this story illustrates and try to apply it to our own lives. In fact, I would assert that most of us exhibit an Esauian level of bone-headedness on a regular basis. And just as with Esau, the time may come when this behavior may be something we regret.

Anyone who has signed up for a new cloud service, bought a new phone app, or loaded new software on a computer is familiar with the installation ritual. We download the app, click on an icon, and the software install program asks us some basic set-up questions. At this point, we are eager to have our new app or game up and running so it can change our lives (if only for a moment or two).

Right before we can get to our anxiously awaited app/web service/software, we are confronted with – “IT”.

You know what “IT” is. It’s black, white, and covered with tiny print. It also requires prodigious amounts of scrolling to get through.

It’s the Terms of Service agreement (TOS). Every software company uses these TOS agreements to define the rights you have (and give up) when it comes to your use of their product. The relationship the software company has with you, the software you purchased, and your data, is defined in this document. TOSs are lengthy, and like most legal documents, are hard for the average person to understand. They also tend to be written with a bias in favor of the author. The terms and conditions described in these documents range from the reasonable, such as not making illegal copies of the software, to the outrageous, such as signing over your immortal soul. These documents are written to give the company as many rights as possible. TOS agreements are also legally binding.

Knowing this I, like most people, simply click the “OK” button in order to get to my bowl of stew. We sign away an unknown number of rights to get to the fun part. We do it to get to a new app, or to get access to the social network that all of our friends are on. Sometimes, we are pressured to click OK because we need this software for our jobs. Other times, we click OK in order to get a service we want for free (like email or office-type apps). Most of the time we click OK because it’s just easier to do that than to take the time to figure out what all that crap means.

We let the real (or more often, self-imposed) need in the moment push us into make choices that we may regret in the future. Choices that result in us giving up our rights to the things we create, and our right to privacy. Like Esau, we do have alternatives. We could seek out open-source software alternatives. We could reject apps that don’t respect our privacy. We could even choosing to PAY (!) for some web services on the condition that our data STAYS ours. Unfortunately, most of us simply click “OK” and take the easy way out.

The good news is that we all don’t have to wind up like Esau. There are helpful online resources available, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s TOSBack 2 mailing list, which tracks the changes in the TOS agreements for some of the most popular web services and notifies you when they change. There’s also a website called Terms of Service – Didn’t Read (http://tosdr.org/) which acts as review site for the TOS agreements of major software or web tools. They explain these agreements in layman’s terms, and grade each on their scale of acceptability.

Use these tools and support these organizations. And don’t be like Esau. Your information IS valuable. Treat it that way.

Please share your thoughts in the comments…

Early Adopter

I very recently watched the documentary film “Transcendent Man”, which is loosely covers the life and beliefs of famous inventor, author and technologist Ray Kurzweil. Kurzweil has been on numerous talk shows and news programs to discuss his vision of the future and where technology is headed. The film is a mix of interviews with Kurzweil, where he gives his thoughts about how technological advances in the next 7-10 years will change how we think, how we learn, how we live, even how we die. In the near future, according to Kurzweil, human will be able to upgrade their ability to learn and remember things as simple as upgrading a computer. Physical illness will be overcome through microscopic robots who will flow in our bloodstreams, fixing our bodies from the inside out. When (or if?) our physical bodies wear out, our consciousness will simply be uploaded to a waiting synthetic host form. We will literally be able to live forever. The film also includes interviews with people who both agree and disagree with Kurzweil’s vision of the future. One of his proponents, Peter Diamandis, TED presenter, noted visionary, and founder of the X Prize Foundation, goes a step further. Diamandis says, “We will become god-like – I know people don’t like to hear that…”. Kurzweil even hints at a similar belief at the end of the film. After describing the exponential expansion of mankind’s knowledge that will occur after the Singularity, Kurzweil ends the film by saying, “So does God exist? No, not yet…”.  Kind of makes you look at Genesis 11 in a new light, doesn’t it?

Kurzweil’s statements are in line with transhumanism, which is the belief that humans can/should be augmented with technology to the point where we eventually supersede our organic bodies. While that may seem like far-off crazy talk to some, the questions transhumanism tries to answer are real.  And we will need answers for them faster than we think. Brain-controlled robotic limbs, data recording implants, and drug-delivering robots that live in your eye are already a reality. I also think its fair to say that within the past 5-7 years, the trajectory of technology development has been increasingly the direction of integrating technology closer and closer to our physical bodies. Google Glasses is a prime example of that. Wearable computing is considered by many to be the next major step in technology after the smartphone. It’s not that big a step from wearable computers to computer implants.

There is no question that technology will eventually give us the ability to greatly augment our human bodies beyond their original design. This movement however, raises several important questions. While technology may eventually be able to increase our ability to think, learn, and remember, it won’t be able to change our irrational elements, like jealousy, insecurity, and pride. These are key parts of what makes us human (and less that God). If we are given God-like abilities in one aspect, but still have human fallibility in another, we may be setting ourselves up for trouble. I liken it to a six-year old boy with a chainsaw. While he may be strong enough to pick it up and start it, and smart enough to see how cool it is, it’s likely that either he or someone around him is going to get hurt if he starts using it.

I once read an article in a car magazine about a car enthusiast (polite speak for car nut), who put the huge V8 engine from a Mustang GT into a tiny Mazda Miata. To give you an idea of how tough this is, the engine from the Mustang is more than twice the size of the standard Miata engine. This is a modification of epic proportions. Once the retrofit was done, the reviewers of this car magazine drove the car and gave their thoughts. Each reviewer loved the straight-line speed of the jacked-up Miata. It blew everything off the road. Smiles were wide on everyone who sat in the driver’s seat. But the reviewers also made some other observations. In order to make the large engine fit, the mechanics had to remove much of the firewall insulation separating the engine from the passenger compartment. That meant the floorboards on the inside of the car stayed extremely hot. The heavier engine in the front of the car also meant that the Miata was wildly out of balance. This made handling the car through turns nearly impossible. While the Miata with the powerful Mustang engine was incredibly fast, the rest of it’s design was not capable of handling what came along with so much power.  Miatas are designed to be sprightly and quick. Miatas are meant to fun to drive on twisty roads. Mustangs are high output track stars, whose virtues are proven in 0-60 sprints and ¼ mile times. The two vehicles are designed to with two different purposes in mind. By stuffing a Mustang V8 into it, the Miata could no longer fulfill the purpose it was originally designed for. In a similar fashion, augmenting human capabilities with computerized implants (to the level suggested by transhumanists) may result in the same problem. New beings that are too powerful to be human, but not capable of being the “gods” envisioned by the inventors of these technologies.

Regardless of our level preparedness for their arrival, these implant technologies are being developed right now. How do you think we should use these new products? Are you a transhumanist?

Share your thoughts in the comments!

Drone Update: Public Sounds Off About Drones at FAA Session

Tech blog The Verge posted this article yesterday regarding the FAA’s Public Engagement Sessions concerning the use of drones (or to use their term –  Unmanned Aerial Systems) inside the US. The purpose of this session was to get feedback from the public at large regarding the use of UAS’s within the borders of the United States. What did “We the People” have to say? Opinions ranged from the highly pessimistic “this is the end of privacy in America”, to the (mistaken) assertion that owning a drone is a constitutional right protected by the Second Amendment. More disconcerting was the fact that these FAA public meetings seemed to take place with little advanced notice. Additionally, it is unclear how the public’s feedback will in any be taken into account as they work to create regulations around drone use in the US.

Going back to the question mentioned in last week post on this topic, I am left with the same theological question – what will be the impact on our leaders who will be equipped with this level of detailed information about the people they serve? The ability to essentially be where any other person is – instantly, is extremely powerful. The temptation to abuse such overwhelming control over others seems like it would be exceptionally hard for any person to resist.

(BTW – the post doesn’t mention any of the potential checks and balances that would be in place limiting the use of drones on US citizens).

Are new technologies (like drones, pervasive data collection, etc.) pushing the boundaries of humanity’s ability to handle them properly without abusing them?

Share your thoughts in the comments…

Our Need for The (Data) Feed

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Another one of common theme from last month’s SxSW Festival was the self-driving car – specifically the work Google is doing. There seems to be a large amount of pent-up anticipation in the geek community for an automobile that will take it’s passengers from here to there with the least amount of human intervention possible. One of the primary arguments I’ve heard for this technology is “Think of all the other things you can do with that time! You can answer emails, keep in touch with friends on Facebook, follow the news on Twitter…”. Now as I mentioned before, I’m a person who likes cars and enjoys driving, so this concept is a bit foreign to me. There was a time when driving was an activity meant to be enjoyed in and of itself. Things like mobile phones were a distraction from that activity. But as technology has advanced, and as we now have placed increased importance on what takes place online, the priorities have reversed. The connection to the online world, or the Data Feed, is now the primary activity, and driving (for many) is the distraction. This is exemplified by the large numbers of people who either talk on the phone (sans a hands-free device) or text while driving. This is despite the nearly universal acceptance of the fact that this is dangerous behavior. And it is not only driving that is an annoyance blocking us from our latest tweet or email. About a week ago, there was a report from several news outlets saying that the FAA was considering lifting it’s ban on the use of certain electronics during take-off and landing on commercial flights. The current policy is extremely unpopular with travelers, who have found the 10-20 minutes of disconnection from their data feed during takeoff too much to bear. A large percentage of commercial flights are equipped with wifi, so passenger can re-connect to the Internet as soon as the flight reaches altitude.

The question for up for discussion in this post is why has uninterrupted connection to the data feed become so critical? Why is it so important that we maintain this data line to the outside world, to the point we are willing to put our lives (and the lives of others) at risk?

In his book “Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now”, media theorist Doug Rushkoff proposes an answer to this question. He believes that our need to constantly be connected is a futile quest for “digital omnipotence” – a desire to be all-knowing, via our devices. He claims this is futile because the best thing all of our gadgets can provide is a report of “what just happened” as opposed to reporting what’s happening in the moment. This is due to both the communication delay inherent in our technologies and our brain’s limited ability to process information. While his position may seem extreme at first, a quick review of the history of mobile communications tends to support his point. The first step on the mobile communications ladder was the pager. The pager was a simple device that, while not allowing you to directly communicate with a person, would tell you someone was trying to contact you. The user could then get to the nearest phone and call the number on the pager’s display. This was followed by the simple cellular telephone, which allowed us to speak directly with others whenever we wanted, wherever we were. This ability to reach someone, however, was limited to instances when both individuals were in an atmosphere where they could speak freely (for example, a meeting with your boss isn’t the best time to take a call from a recruiter about a new position). We needed phones capable of letting us communicate with others in circumstances when verbal communication wasn’t possible. This led to phones capable of messaging and email. With the arrival of these phones, terms such as “crackberry” (a reference to the addictive behavior exhibited by users of Blackberry messaging phones) entered our lexicon. Having found a way to give ourselves constant access to individuals, the next logical step was to find a way to gain constant access to information. To address that need, the smartphone was born. Its ability to provide full Internet access, as well as specialized apps, can keep us awash in a constant stream of information (as long as there’s signal). The progression from 2.5G to 3 & 4G, to LTE wireless data networks was all an effort to get more data to us faster.

What’s the next step in our telecom evolution? It very well may be wearable computing, such as the much-publicized Google Glass. Google Glass is a device  which mounts to a user’s eyeglasses, and places a small, transparent display in the user’s field of vision. This display will be able to both keep the wearer informed with the latest updates from his or her data feed, as well as provide information about the users immediate surroundings (via a small, outward-facing camera). Each step in the evolution of these devices has been an attempt to bring the data closer to the user – to minimize the time it takes for us to digest the data coming in. With each attempt at minimizing this time, we get tantalizingly closer to knowing whatever we want to know, the instant we want to know it.

So is Rushkoff right? Is this desire for a constant flow of data, delivered at ever-faster speeds, ultimately a desire to be omnipotent? To be like God?

Or are we simply reading too much into our desire to be more productive?

Share your thoughts in the comments…

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!!!

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!!!