You know the eerie feeling that someone is watching or listening to you? Maybe it’s the specific ad you get on social media after a conversation with your roommate or spouse, or how your mapping app, like Waze, seems to recommend your favorite coffee drink at the exact moment you yawn. We live in a hyper-connected world and share some of the most intimate details of our lives more openly online than we would with a flesh-and-blood human being.
We have all come to rely on and trust technology in ways we never thought possible. But that trust is starting to wane in light of major privacy issues and the ways that we are being shaped by the tools we use. According to a new study from Pew Research Center, Americans now have less faith in technology companies than the church.
Trading privacy for technology
Privacy is highly contested in the public square right now. Just mentioning it elicits a number of reactions from both the left and the right. From pallet platforms at the Iowa State Fair to the bully pulpit at America’s residence, we are seeing a number of calls for the technology sector to be regulated, change, or outright broken up. We are growing more and more convinced that we are being tracked and listened to without our knowledge. And we might be onto something.
Just last week, Bloomberg broke the story that Facebook has been outsourcing voice recordings for transcription and labeling, as they seek to improve their artificial intelligence (AI) systems. But this outsourcing of data isn’t unique to Facebook. It is a common practice among many technology companies. The issue lies in the fact that users were not aware this was taking place. It is being captured on TVs, smart home devices, and other social media apps. Most current forms of AI require some level of training by humans in order to perform at the levels we are growing accustomed to. This is often described as “ghost work,” because it is behind the scenes and goes on without our knowledge. Much of this information is found or vaguely mentioned in those lengthy terms and conditions that no one actually reads.
The reality is that privacy barely exists in today’s society. Increasingly, everything we do and say is being tracked, analyzed, and sold in order to promote what Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism.” She explains in her most recent book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, that companies collect a massive amount of behavioral and personal data about us and, in turn, are able to predict with amazing accuracy what we will buy, where we will go, and what we will do. These predictive insights are then sold to marketers who pay a premium to get their goods or services before our eyes and ears at just the right time. The more accurate the predictions, the bigger the reward. Zuboff shows that these companies do provide us with premium low-cost or free services like social media and email services, but argues that the trade off is always tilted in the company’s favor. Surveillance capitalism has allowed these companies to become some of the largest and wealthiest in the history of civilization.
Have we taken the time to think about what we are trading for all of these technical innovations and the benefits we receive from these premium services? Have we accepted this exchange without thinking about the nature of privacy? We often just click “accept” on the terms of services as quick as possible so we can start using our new gadgets and services. We care more about what we might look like when we are older than we do about how much will be publicly known about us when we finally do go gray.
Living wisely in a connected age
Zuboff lays out three timeless questions for us to ponder as we think about the nature of privacy and surveillance capitalism: 1) Who knows what? 2) Who decides? and 3) Who decides who decides? These questions get to the core of the problems we’re facing and can allow us to have an open dialogue about these pressing issues.
As Christians, we can no longer passively accept the golden age of innovation. Instead, we need to evaluate the real-world impact of technology on each of us and the way companies have turned data capture and predictive analysis into big business. How do we live faithfully and with wisdom as we use these tools and services? And what should we do about privacy in our families and churches?
Before signing up for a new service or purchasing a new gadget, we should ask honestly how they will encourage us to love God and love our neighbor better (Matt. 22:37-39).
The hard, yet necessary thing to do is to engage these questions directly. One place to start is by answering Zuboff’s three questions. We should seek to know what is being shared and tracked, who decides these things, and who decides who will make the decisions. Rather than letting privacy be a partisan or generational issue, we all need to collectively think about the world that we want to live in and how far into our lives we want technology to reach. Before signing up for a new service or purchasing a new gadget, we should ask honestly how they will encourage us to love God and love our neighbor better (Matt. 22:37-39).
As individuals, families, and churches, it is our duty to think wisely about the tools that we allow into our lives and the things that we have come to depend on. While we may not start reading the privacy policies and terms of conditions on what we use, I pray that we’ll pause and reflect on how we have come to rely on technology in ways that benefit companies and marketers more than our individual lives and communities. In addition, we need to take responsibility for the tools we’re using and not rely solely on our public officials to solve these privacy problems. As Christians, let’s be the ones that engage our digital age with wisdom, winsomeness, and hope, recognizing the need to enter into informed discussions about how others are shaping us through technology.