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!

Step Into a World…


Imagine we lived in a world that had never seen, heard of, or experience alcohol. Ever. Then imagine that something or someone enters the picture and introduces this world to alcohol. 

People slowly begin to try it, and they love it. It tastes great. It makes people feel good. It makes parties more fun.

As humanity learns how to make it, a huge industry is created. People find jobs. Economies grow. Everyone’s happy. 

With all this success, alcohol is viewed as the new wonder substance. It seems to make everything better. The success stories are all over the news and in every business magazine. Alcohol is the future. 

Since everything is going so well, humanity starts to use alcohol for EVERYTHING. To power cars, as a cleaning agent, to help school children with ADD, as a laxative, to help babies sleep – everything. The success stories continue. 

As the world economy becomes more dependent on the growing alcohol industry, stockholders push for more growth. This means finding new uses for alcohol. Pregnant women are told to drink it as a prenatal supplement. Doctors use it to treat heart attacks and cancer. 

At this point, serious problems start coming to the surface. Babies start being born with deformities. Alcoholism amongst 3rd graders becomes a growing problem. Forty percent of the drivers on the road are drunk, so traffic fatalities go through the roof. 

People start to protest. Some people conclude that alcohol is evil and we should eliminate it altogether. Other people say it’s a fundamental part of life and a pillar of the economy. To eliminate it would be insane. In fact, we haven’t even touched the surface of what alcohol can do. 

Who’s right? 

In the story above, there’s nothing wrong with alcohol. It IS a great social lubricant. It is part of the economy. And it does have many other important uses. 

But alcohol SHOULD NOT be given to children or pregnant mothers. Or to people who are, or will be driving. That is the WRONG way to use alcohol.

 With the introduction of alcohol to this imaginary world, the people learned that for some things alcohol, when used correctly, is great.

The people also needed to learn that there are some circumstances where alcohol should NEVER be used. It hurts not only the user, but the people around him or her.

 At this point, I would argue that our society is still in the first part of the previous story. The prevailing attitude is – “more technology is always better”, and it should be used everywhere, and for everything. We know all the upsides associated with new technologies, and the potential downsides are either not investigated or dismissed outright. The primary barometer of whether something is a good or bad use of technology is it’s financial success. If a new device or service is profitable or has a lot of users, then it is deemed an innovation, irrespective of its larger impact on society.

So – at what point will we reach the second part of the story?
In what areas should technology NOT be used?
How should we judge whether a new technology is truly an innovation or not? 

Please share your thoughts in the comments…