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


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!

The Doctrine of Efficiency

The word doctrine, while having a very official and somewhat churchy ring to it, describes a fairly simple concept. A doctrine is a principle (or set of principles), which act as the foundation of one’s beliefs. A person (or a people’s) doctrine, describes what’s at one’s core – what he/she/they are really all about. The choices we make in life all spring up from our doctrine. Everyone has a guiding doctrine. I would argue that, because of technology’s advance into all aspects of our lives, the guiding doctrine of today’s world is increasingly becoming what I call the Doctrine of Efficiency.

One of the best examples of society’s persistent drive towards efficiency is the Internet itself. As it has evolved, the Internet has consistently moved in the direction of the increasing the efficiency of disseminating information. News and current events were communicated through a broad spectrum of print periodicals, available only through purchase or subscription. With the Internet, news from most, if not all sources is now available online. While some context is lost, and the barrier to reportingg false information has been lowered (vs. print media), the Internet delivers more news to more people in a format that is easily consumable. Another simple example is music. Purchasing a new album (Album? What’s an album???) from an artist on physical media (CD, Vinyl LP, etc.) was the primary means of distributing music prior to 2002. The Internet now makes the majority of mankind’s library of recorded music available via download. Consumers can now store hundreds of thousands of songs on single 3.5 inch hard drive. With physical media, a warehouse may be needed to store that much music. While the sound quality of downloaded music file may be slightly diminished when compared to the physical media version, digital downloads are a more efficient means of buying, storing, and consuming music.

The push towards greater efficiency (and the agreement to make certain trade-offs to achieve it) has been around since the founding of the first cities along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The unspoken principle (or doctrine) that drives this push is that getting the most possible output for the minimal required amount of input is always best. Few would argue that this is a sensible, pragmatic point of view. Every new innovation from Silicon Valley is based on this belief. It’s a guaranteed formula for financial success. It’s a core tenant of mass production, and capitalism.

The advent of the microprocessor and Moore’s Law has switched the push for efficiency into hyper-drive. In the past 5-10 years, we as a society have faced with a tidal wave of new services, gadgets, and technologies guaranteeing to let us do more with less required of us. By and large, we have signed up for this trade-off, choosing to go the route of increased efficiency. And when applied to the correct circumstances, the Doctrine of Efficiency works. When it comes to selecting a new water heater, it works. When it comes to selecting a new car, it (arguably) works. But does it work just as well in selecting friends? In selecting a mate?

With the increased spread of the digital world into previously “analog” portions of our lives, we cannot help but be pushed into looking at the world through the “least in for the most out” formula. More and more of our activities are taking place in online environments. More and more of our decisions are being made with the help of computer-based tools, be they search engines or recommendations from websites or social media. These digital tools are being designed with the Doctrine of Efficiency at their core. As we increasingly use tools that prioritize efficiency above all else, then we in turn may begin to prioritize efficiency over all other considerations. What might this look like in practice?

– The best friends for me are those people who visit the sites I visit, buy where I buy, and live where I live.
– The best answer to my question is at the top of the search results.
The best use of government education funding is to spend more on those students most likely to do well.

While all these points of view may win the efficiency prize, they may also severely limit ones perspective, and produce some downright scary outcomes. How could the Doctrine of Efficiency impact a person’s understanding of the Christian message? How does one evaluate the actions of God relative to the this doctrine? That question brings to mind this passage from Matthew (18:10-14):

10 “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven. [11] [a]

12 “What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? 13 And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. 14 In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.

Risking the loss of 99 sheep for the sake of a single sheep may not be an efficient use of resources, but it is an example of the love God has for us. If society values pragmatism and efficiency above all else, the God described in Matthew will increasingly look irrational and unrealistic. How can one be the Creator of all things and think like that?

As we increasingly look at the world through the eyes of data and analytics, our doctrine will determine how we interpret that data. It will also determine if we look beyond what’s on a spreadsheet to make decisions. The Doctrine of Efficiency, while sometimes helpful, is not the rule to live by.

Disagree? Sound off in the comments…