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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What if Bull Connor had Big Data – A Future History

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I thought that since we are fast approaching the Martin Luther King Jr National Holiday (in the United States), it might be worth considering a key event of  Civil Rights Movement in a modern context – particularly in light of technology’s prominent role in our lives.

Simply put – how would a pivotal event in US history, such as the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott, (led in part by Dr King) be changed in light of today’s technology?

I was also drawn to this question because the non-violent American Civil Rights movement, which was initiated by and coalesced under the Black American Christian Church, was one of the preeminent Christian movements of the 20th century. From leaders like Dr. King, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, & Rev. Ralph Abernathy, to organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the modern Civil Rights movement simply would not have happened without the Black Christian Church.

If we want a recent example of the followers of Christ successfully provoking large-scale societal change, this is a good place to start.

Rosa Parks, who was chosen by boycott leaders to be the test case to challenge Montgomery’s system of racial segregation, was selected because of her “good standing in the community”. This was important because if, after being arrested, Mrs. Parks’ reputation could in any way be maligned, then her character would become the issue, and any challenge to Montgomery’s oppressive and unconstitutional laws would be drowned out.

In today’s world, any investigation of Mrs. Parks’ character would largely consist of her online activity. Every Facebook post, tweet, and Instagram picture would be scrutinized. Much of her digital behavior – the sites she visits, the apps on her phone, even her movements (thanks to her mobile phone metadata) would be scrutinized by the Montgomery Police Department as soon as she was arrested. If one post, tweet, or picture could be bent or twisted to make Rosa Parks’ character an issue, then the boycott would successfully be stymied. In today’s world, the bar for “good standing in the community” can be raised to a height few are capable of clearing.

From the start of the bus boycott on December 1, 1955, the black churches in Montgomery organized much of the logistics necessary to keep it going. This included things like managing a network of organized car pooling for thousands of participants, coordinating news updates to Montgomery’s black community, and accepting donations – which poured in from black churches across the country. All of these tasks would be made easier by today’s tech. Perhaps the Montgomery Improvement Association would develop a smartphone app, allowing participants to get the latest updates on the boycott, set-up ride sharing groups, and even enlist the support of others. Donations from other across the globe could be received through donations sent via text message.

Once the boycott was underway, its participants met swift, organized resistance from many Southern whites. The ranks of the pro-segregationist White Citizens Council began to grow as the Montgomery Bus Boycott wore on. The homes of Dr. King and Ralph Abernathy were firebombed, in addition to four black churches. Insurance companies canceled the insurance policies of black car owners who were believed to be giving rides to boycotters. Boycott participants were repeatedly attacked and beaten by local whites opposed to their cause. At the same time, J. Edgar Hoover, head of the Federal Bureau of Investigations, began his infamous surveillance of Dr. King, in order to find information that might discredit him and destroy the Movement.

Just as technology would increase the effectiveness of those supporting our hypothetical, 21st century bus boycott, it would also increase the effectiveness of those opposing it. The use of technology would make the efforts of white citizens and government officials substantially more efficient. White citizens could use smartphones to take pictures of people participating in car pools as they drove by, making them known to police and other protestors. Videos of boycott participants being beaten would be anonymously uploaded to YouTube – an effort to terrorize the black community into giving up. Money and words of support would flow into Montgomery’s White Citizens’ Council, sent from people across the world who supported the principles of white supremacy and segregation.

More importantly, those in local and federal government, who either opposed the idea of desegregation or just wanted to maintain the status quo, would be in particularly good position to take advantage of technology to advance their position. Phone records and metadata would quickly identify the leaders of the boycott and provide real-time updates of their whereabouts. Agreements with Internet Service Providers and mobile phone careers would give government officials, from J. Edgar Hoover all the way down to T.E. “Bull” Connor (the brutal commissioner in nearby Birmingham, AL),  direct insight into all communications passing between the leaders organizing the boycott.

Unlike the somewhat offsetting advantages that technology would offer both the boycott organizers and the White Citizens Council, the information advantage that government officials would have would be insurmountable.

In fact, it is fair to say that the information advantage government officials would have – thanks to today’s technology – would have given them the ability to shut down the Montgomery Bus Boycott in its earliest stages.

As a result, one of the biggest Christian movements in history would have never taken place.

So – what does this mean to us?

The quality of our freedom can only be judged by our ability to dissent.

Loud, obnoxious, nagging, persistent dissent…

True dissent – the kind that pricks the conscience, changes minds, and transforms society – must be all of these things. When viewed through the eyes of the Pharisees and the occupying Roman authorities, Christ and the early Christian Church were all those things. It was this kind of dissent that Martin Luther King Jr and the leaders of the non-violent Civil Rights movement attempted to emulate. As followers of Christ, we too should adopt this posture.

If Christians hold fast to the priorities Jesus spells out in the Sermon on the Mount, then the things we value should in many ways be contrary to those who don’t follow Jesus (think “salt of the Earth”). In order to advance the cause of Christ, we will need to speak out in support of our beliefs. This should lead us to be involved in some kind of dissent – taking a position that is supported by God’s Word, but is contrary to public opinion.

Therefore, followers of Christ must always protect our ability (and the ability of others) to freely protest, without interference from the majority or those in positions of power. Not for our own sakes, but for the sake of Christ.

The question we must all ask ourselves is this – do our digital tools still allow us to dissent in a meaningful way?

If we, like Dr King, are called to take to action in support of a position that is justified by Christ but is unpopular, will technology help or hinder our efforts?

Share your thoughts in the Comments!