Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Holding Companies Accountable

August 10, 2019

Thanks to Ken for this excellent editorial from the Wall Street Journal.

At issue is how to deal with companies like YouTube or Google who censor not based on offensive content (profanity, nudity, etc.) but based on ideological bent.  This is not the first time I’ve brought up this issue.  Conservative or traditional voices are increasingly being muzzled online.  The awkwardness is that conservatives often do not decry this very strongly because of their strong commitment to minimizing government interference.  Since these entities aren’t the government, they are free to print or publish what they want.

Is that really the case?  Dennis Prager in this editorial answers no, it isn’t the case, and we need to hold these companies accountable for who and what they are in reality, rather than in theory.  Definitely worth the read, even if you have to subscribe to the WSJ in order to access it!

FOMO and Pulling Triggers

August 3, 2019

After several weeks of preparation and contemplation, I just deleted my Facebook account.

Of course, few actions are immediately irreversible in the technology world.  I have 30 days to change my mind and reactivate my account (and access all of my posts, pictures, and other tidbits accumulated over the last 12 years).  But once that window passes – and I trust it will pass without inordinate temptation – I’d have to start from scratch with a new account.  Theoretically at least, Facebook will delete all of my data and information.  I downloaded a copy of it a few weeks ago in case I want to peruse it one day.

Not checking Facebook multiple times a day over the past month has been an amazingly simple experience.  Once I deleted all my friends, there was no content to tempt me back.  Facebook was, in the final analysis for me, not so much an avenue for self-expression as it was a means of lurking on the lives of others.  I doubt I’m unique in this, but I’m willing to admit it for what it was.

In our age of acronyms this is known as FOMO – fear of missing out.  What if everyone else has discovered something wonderful and I’m out of the loop?  What if I miss out on the latest meme?  What if I’m not on the cutting edge of current water cooler conversation?  What if, what if, what if…..

Having crested mid-life, FOMO has a diminishing pull on me.  All well and good because  having crested middle age I’m now largely irrelevant to the culture around me.  Old enough not to be swayed by the myriad  cries of the masses virtually or otherwise, to  be skeptical of the swaying needle of cultural opinion or fashion or celebrity or other metrics.   When I honestly admitted that lurking on the lives of people through Facebook I’m barely connected to otherwise in life was unhealthy for any number of reasons, cutting the cord was easy.  Being willing to admit that 99% of the people I was friends with on Facebook hardly fit that title by any reasonable definition was harder.

It’s like the much-maligned band Nickelback and their single Photograph.  I’ve thought for years it was simply a nostalgic trip down memory lane, when actually it’s a recognition that such strolls have to come to an end some day.  It’s not healthy or accurate to perpetuate the state of a relationship years or decades ago through a social media outlet if that’s the only connection that remains.  People I’ve worked with across multiple organizations and vocations, people I’ve gone to school with in various places across the decades, people associated with other groups or times of life – if  my only connection to them is watching what they post and liking it or visa versa, this isn’t really a relationship.  It becomes an obsession with the past rather than the present, an attempt to maintain the illusion of something deeper which died a long time ago, and barring some miracle of the Holy Spirit’s strange connectivity, will never live again.

Some of those Facebook friends I’ll keep touch with in other ways, but the vast majority I won’t.  That’s OK.  It’s not that I wish them ill, think any less of them, or  otherwise don’t care about them.  But I need to acknowledge that what Facebook helps create is the illusion that those relationships are still alive and active and to some degree unchanged.  As though liking a post or a photo  of someone I haven’t otherwise communicate with in 20 years is the same as the old  water cooler discussions or the old late night camaraderie.  It isn’t.  Those things have passed on.

That can be hard to acknowledge if there aren’t a set of new relationships to replace these old ones.  It can force us to acknowledge our actual isolation in the here and now.  But such honesty might also spur us to greater efforts to build new relationships.  When I first began serving as a pastor in this part of the world, I was told about a program specifically designed for new pastors  in the area to connect with one another and begin to build relationships with people right here rather than rely exclusively on past relationships (or even current but geographically distant ones) through social media.  That was a dozen years ago.  The program long ago died off, but the need it sought to address back  then is only more real now.

I don’t think social media is bad, per se.  There are unhealthy aspects to it, but there are also beautiful blessings it provides.  As with most tools, it’s how we use them that matters, and recognizing that technological tools also seek to use us.  I can pick up a hammer to hang a picture on the wall and put the hammer down and it won’t pursue me.  Social media can and does pursue.  In the last month since I quit checking Facebook I’ve started getting texts and e-mails from Facebook telling me that there are new posts and messages that I should check in and see.  Unlike a hammer, social media needs me every bit as much – or more likely more –  than I need it.  And when that’s the case we need to carefully discern what we’re providing compared to what we’re receiving.  Concerns about privacy and data breaches are as common as the air we breathe, and perhaps that’s the point – we get used to the idea that we don’t really have privacy, that we aren’t entitled not to be commercially objectified or exploited 24/7.

How people calculate these balances will differ.  For my, psychologically and emotionally it’s time to pull the trigger on Facebook.  I’ve realized I’m not missing out on anything, or perhaps more accurately, I’m still missing out on the same things whether I’m on Facebook or not.

Walking the Walk

May 3, 2019

Many people  are upset about Facebook’s recent changes.  In addition to banning individuals it considers to be dangerous (and what exactly are the criteria for being labeled dangerous, and who gets to decide them and determine who meets the criteria?), Facebook will ban other users from linking to external sites (such as Infowars) it deems inappropriate.  Repeated attempts by a Facebook user to link to banned sites could or will result in that Facebook user being banned from Facebook as well.

You might think that this is all a good idea or not.  You may like Infowars or you might not.  At the end of the day this is a good reminder that Facebook is not a government entity or some other sort of entity that is required to do things the way we think it should.  It is a business with owners and a Board of Directors and investors.  They are convinced that implementing these sorts of policies will not hurt Facebook’s business.  If they thought it would, they probably wouldn’t do it.  For all the talk about community and connectivity, at the end of the day money talks.

So here’s what to do if you’re upset.  It’s what you should probably do if you’re not upset either, because while you may agree with banning these particular people and sites, one day you may find that other people and sites are banned that you don’t see as problematic.  Pendulums have this nasty habit of swinging back and forth.  Or  even if the pendulum doesn’t swing back, what kind of community and connectivity do you have if you only ever see and hear things that you agree with or that reflect one particular ideological direction?  Are you comfortable cutting everyone out of your life who doesn’t agree with your political or social or religious views?  Many people may be, but should you?

So, here’s what you do.

Go through all those Facebook friends.  Those who are actually friends and you actually keep in touch with, message them and request direct contact information.  E-mails or phone numbers or addresses.   Instagram or  other platform usernames (though these will be less useful  as inevitably, if Facebook succeeds, other platforms will follow suit).  Figure out how to stay in touch one on one without an inbetween entity.

And when you have all that data, then get rid of Facebook.  If you want to send a message, send it this way, but deleting your account.  If enough users were to do this, I’m sure Facebook would notice and perhaps even rethink its policies.  Facebook is a company focused on making money.  As such it is free to do what it wants or thinks is best in this regards within the limits of the law.  But consumers are free to respond to those changes and indicate if they approve of them or not.

Back in the 80’s Coca Cola decided it would change the recipe for Coca Cola to make it sweeter, more like Pepsi.  I and millions of other Coca Cola lovers objected, loudly.  We refused to buy the new product, and raised a pretty big stink about it.  Coca Cola eventually re-introduced the original recipe as Coca Cola Classic.  Companies can make mistakes just like people can.  Sometimes those mistakes can be moved past, other times they can’t.  The question is ultimately what are you going to do about it, personally?  Are you willing to quit using Facebook?  Sure, it will be inconvenient to some extent.  Are you willing to suffer a little for something you believe is right?

More importantly, are you willing to take a risk to find out if it really is inconvenient or painful to live without it?

 

 

 

Not An Influencer

April 27, 2019

I’ve begun unfriending people on Facebook.

It’s not that I desire to be unfriendly, but I’ve decided that in the coming weeks I’m going to gradually whittle away the people I’m friends with in anticipation of finally eliminating my account completely.

I can’t say it is an easy process.

I joined in 2008, and to give up on something after a decade isn’t easy in and of itself.  And of course everything about social media is oriented towards gaining friends and followers, not eliminating them.  And for years I thought that an expanding number of friends on Facebook (even a meager number by many standards!) was a sign of my role of influence and importance to these people.  But I’m no social media influencer by a long shot.  (In case you’re not aware, influencer is the term some people use of themselves and others because of a particularly large number of social media contacts and corresponding leverage for advertising or activism).  Social media functions by playing on our needs and desires for approval and status, things I’ve fought against all my life but sometimes not very successfully.

Going through my list of friends I’ve begun be eliminating those whose accounts are inactive – a sign that they’ve already gone down the road I’m starting on and are farther along than I am.  It’s also a demonstration that the connections created by social media are hardly very strong – I  didn’t even realize that half a dozen or so of my friends have deactivated their accounts.

The second group I’ve begun eliminating are connections from high school.  I’ll save the friends I was closest to till the end, but the reality is that the connection we had once has severely decayed over time.  I haven’t seen most of them in close to ten years.  One or two I’ve seen more recently, but our connection – if it’s going to remain – won’t be because of Facebook.

I’m amazed and depressed by how difficult clicking Unfriend can be.  Our desire for approval and acceptance and admiration (or is it just my desire) is strong, and admitting that those things – if they’re there at all – are so weak and insignificant as to be of truly no meaning is not easy or pleasant.  It’s getting easier though, and now that I’ve begun the process I don’t think it will be as complicated as I thought to complete it.

It just makes me wonder where I’ll look for affirmation and approval next.  Hopefully more in Christ, and less in myself and others.  I don’t say that as a word of judgment against those of you who continue on Facebook or other social media.  But  rather as a word of judgment on myself.  And maybe only a word of caution to others.

 

The Times They Are A-Changin’

April 24, 2019

And not for the better, in case you were wondering.

A too-brief article about a too-large subject – the impact of technology on human beings and human society and culture.  Much is at stake when technology is less about helping you do what you need to and more about trying to ensure you stay connected as long and regularly as possible.

Listening Matters

April 10, 2019

My family arrived to Lenten soup dinner tonight with tales of anger.  The weekly home-school park gathering was disrupted by a woman screaming at the kids from the other side of the park.  She was apparently irate that the kids were sitting on a low-hanging tree branch.  She screamed that they should get down, that somebody could get hurt, that their mothers surely must not be paying attention.  The moms were paying attention just a few feet away.  The kids were confused, the moms were a bit shocked, and the woman wandered away when nobody immediately met her demands.

One of the mothers went after the woman to talk with her, and ensure that the woman did in fact realize that the mothers were present and monitoring the situation.  The woman had no interest in listening – outright refused to actually talk.  Apparently she had wanted to scream her demands, not engage in an actual discussion.

Listening is getting harder, and rarer.

I was reminded of this by the above anecdote, and like many people in such a situation I clucked my tongue at the woman’s absurdity and inability to engage in actual dialogue or conversation about an issue.

But the below issue demonstrates that I – and perhaps you as well, dear reader – can be just as guilty of not wanting to listen, particularly when we think we know what we’re going to hear or not hear.

Currently there is a bill with bi-partisan support making its way through Congress.  I know.  Shocking, isn’t it?  The bill would ban the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) from developing a free e-filing program for itself.  The ban is heavily opposed by big business.  Specifically, big businesses in the business of tax preparation, like H&R Block and Intuit.  These companies have spent millions of dollars trying to ensure that the IRS doesn’t develop any such program as it could hurt the business of private tax preparation services and software.  These companies argue that they already allow people to use their products for free if they are below a certain income level.  And while 70% of Americans would qualify for their free e-filing services, only 3% of these eligible Americans use them.  Presumably another, higher percentage of these eligible Americans end up purchasing services that the companies upsell.

So far, no big deal.  But then I spy this article about liberal firebrand Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez complaining about this very issue, and suggesting that the IRS could – and should – provide auto-completed tax documentation free of charge.  The great majority of Americans have simple enough tax returns that the essential data could be auto-filled by the IRS, verified by citizens and then submitted electronically.  Other countries apparently do this already.

I was tempted to skip the article.  After all, I disagree with most everything I’ve heard this person say so far.   I don’t know the larger context of her comments, but at least in this limited sense, until I see a counterargument, I think it’s good that she’s raising the issue.  Since the IRS isn’t going to go away anytime soon, and since any changes to the tax codes result in more confusion, it would be nice to see the IRS develop a system that could help eliminate the headache for many Americans.

I also, however, don’t believe the IRS is capable of developing this kind of system, and that’s pretty depressing.

But the important thing is to keep listening.  Even to people you disagree with.  Disagree with ideas, not with people.  And by all means, look for  opportunities to be reminded that even people we disagree with (rather than ideas!) can sometimes say things we resonate with.  That’s an important thing to remember as more and more people become more and more comfortable with just screaming their demands or objections from a distance.

 

 

Inevitable?

December 23, 2018

A humorous little imagining regarding how to utilize virtual reality (VR) as an alternative to Christian worship.  Think that this is outrageous?  Don’t.  I have no doubt somebody will try this.  I also don’t presume it will be very popular.  I don’t think people who are not willing to go to church in the first place will be willing to spend time on this instead.  Although perhaps those who prefer watching religious networks rather than going to church might.  Hmmm…

People  have been trying to integrate technology and church for years.  When I was nearly done with seminary, there was a pitch from someone putting together an online Christian community (including worship) so that non-Christians could peer into the lives and experiences of Christians.  Predictably, it wasn’t very successful.  Meaning, not at all successful and short-lived.  Others continue to try and figure out how to do this.  The logic is flawless – meet tech-obsessed and isolated people where they like to hang out – online.  But traditionally, something gets lost in the translation.  While technology can augment our human connections and interactions, it can’t replace them.  Attempts to do so inevitably fail, and people become more isolated, not less.

I don’t fault people for trying, but I don’t predict it will ever be very successful.  Even if it is attractive on many levels.  What would you add or eliminate from your Sunday worship if you could just press a button or wave your hand?  Now, why should you not have the option to do that?

 

Automated Vehicle Ethics

October 24, 2018

I’ve blogged before on the push for automated vehicles – self-driving cars.  While it seems an inevitable application of technology – and may in fact be safer in the long run, it’s still going to take some considerable work to figure out the nuances of it.  There’s the technology aspect, as well as the necessity to direct vehicles in how to behave if they think an accident is unavoidable.  How do  you teach a car to make an ethical decision?

Traditionally, this is talked about in terms of the Trolley Problem, a philosophical scenario developed in 1967 by philosopher Philippa Foot.  It’s a fascinating little thought experiment.  But the first problem is nobody has a good solution for it.  And the second problem is that it’s going to be difficult to program a car how based on it.

The third problem is the assumption that, in a split second reaction time, there can be a pre-defined way of solving the problem.  After all, it’s hard enough to solve given a few moments (or years) to contemplate it.  Save more or fewer lives?  Save more important people or less important people?  Save younger people or older people?  And how do you define and quantify more, fewer, more important, less important, young and old?

I’m not sure how I would react in a split second decision.  Reflexes and some sort of sub-conscious thought no-doubt kick in.  But would I regret my decision after the fact?  Would I castigate myself for what I viewed as an incorrect choice after the fact?  Would I be willing to sue myself to that extent?

I’m not sure I could answer these questions in advance (hence the compelling nature of the philosophical scenario), let alone in a moment of instinctual thought and action.  I pray I am never in such a situation, where such a decision needs to be made.  There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong decision, at least not in any sort of unquestionable and always-and-forever sort of sense.  I can say with a far greater certainty about who I wouldn’t intentionally set out to hurt, but in the midst of a split second decision between two equally undesirable choices?  That’s hard.

At the very least I feel bad for self-driving cars.  Just another reason I will likely never own one.

 

I, For One, Welcome Our Future Robot Overlords

July 6, 2018

The hugely successful Terminator movie franchise was centered around machines gaining consciousness and waging war against their human creators.  Implicit in this is that machines had the ability to wage war against humans.  It wasn’t simply outthinking us (an area we kept the edge on them with) but the ability to hunt us down.  Machines were aware and mobile.

We’ve long had a tense relationship with automated technology.  But not until recently has it seemed possible that we might actually be able to create artificial intelligence (AI).  I do worry about those implications.  But I worry about them more as we simultaneously improve the mobility of machines.  Maybe you’ve seen some of the strides (ha!) that have been made in this area.  Robots capable of running and jumping like humans.  Robots capable of jumping like very athletic and trained humans.

And now, robots capable of flying themselves.

Well, you can just rock me to sleep tonight.

Things Geeks Fight About

December 6, 2017

I tend to believe what this guy says, in contrast to whatever amazing stories you might have read on the Internet.  The difficulty with being clever is that you aren’t always sure when the time is right for cleverness.