By / Jan 4

2020 was a year that not only challenged the fortitude of our families but also the fabric of our nation. Last year we saw many complex ethical issues arise from our use of technology in society and as individuals. From the debates over the proper use of social media in society to the adoption of invasive technologies like facial recognition that pushed the bounds of our concepts of personal privacy, many of the ethical challenges exposed in 2020 will flow into 2021 as our society debates how to respond to these developments and how to pursue the common good together as a very diverse community.

Here are three areas of ethical concern with technology that we will need to watch for if we hope to navigate 2021 well.

Content moderation and Section 230

Some of the most talked about ethical issues in technology, even as 2021 is just getting started, are the debates over online content moderation, the role of social media in our public discourse, and the merits of Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. If you are unfamiliar with Section 230 and the debates surrounding the statute, it essentially functions as legal protection for online platforms and companies so they are not liable for the information posted to their platforms by third party users.

In exchange for these protections, internet companies and platforms are to enact “good faith” protections and are encouraged to remove content that is “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable.” But what exactly does “good faith” and “otherwise objectionable” mean in this context of the raging debates over the role of social media today? 

This question is at the heart of the debate over Section 230’s usefulness today. Some argue that platforms like Facebook, Google, Twitter, and others must do more to combat the spread of misinformation, disinformation, and fake news online. As platforms have engaged in labeling misleading content and removing posts that violate their community policies, many argue that these companies simply aren’t doing enough.

But on the other side of the aisle, some argue that these 230 protections are being used as a cover to censor certain content online—often in a partisan manner, being inconsistently applied (especially on the international stage), and may amount to violations of users’ free speech. They argue that 230 must be repealed or modified substantially in order to combat bias against certain types of political, social, or religious views.

As technology policy expert and ERLC Research Fellow Klon Kitchen aptly states, “All of these perspectives are enabled by vagaries surrounding the text of the law, the intent behind it, and the relative values and risks posed by large Internet platforms.” Regardless of where one lands in this debate, we will likely see inflamed conversations over this statute and the extent to which it should be maintained if at all.

Facial recognition surveillance

In what may feel like a Hollywood thriller plot, facial recognition surveillance technology is being deployed around our nation and the world, often without us realizing or even understanding how these tools work. Last January, Kashmir Hill of the New York Times broke a story about a little known facial recognition startup called Clearview AI that set off a firestorm over the use of these tools in surveillance, policing, and security. Thousands of police units across the country were testing or implementing facial recognition in the hopes of providing better identification of suspects and to keep our communities safer.

But for all of their potential benefits, these tools also have a flip side with extremely complex ethical considerations and dangers, especially when used in volatile police situations. Many of these algorithmic identification tools were also shown to misidentify people with darker skin more often than others because the systems were not trained properly or had inherent weaknesses in their design or data sets.

Throughout 2020, municipalities and state governments completely banned or substantially limited the use of facial recognition in their communities over the potential misuses as well as the racial divisions in our nation. The tools were thought to be too powerful, overly relied upon which could lead to false arrests or worse, or too invasive into the private lives of citizens. In 2021, we will likely see this trend of legislation on facial recognition systems continue as well as increased pressure on the federal government to weigh in on how these tools should be and can be used, especially in policing and government.

Outside of policing, there is likely to be substantial debate over how these tools are used in public areas and businesses as our society begins to open back up after the COVID-19 vaccines are more widely available. The potential for these tools to be used in identification, health screening, and more will lead to renewed debate over the ethical bounds at stake and the potential for real-life harm to those in our communities.

Right to privacy?

Outside of the growing concerns with surveillance technologies like facial recognition, there is considerable debate about the nature and extent of digital privacy in our technological society. Last year, the California Consumer Privacy Act’s (CCPA) regulations went into effect, and we also saw the continued influence of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) from the European Union throughout the world. These pieces of legislation have challenged how many people think about the nature of privacy and have also raised a number of ethical concerns regarding what is known about us online, who knows it, how it is used, and what we can do with that data. Nearly every device and technology today captures some level of data on users in order to provide a personalized or curated experience, but this data capture has come under scrutiny recently across the political spectrum.

Today, some are asking if personal privacy is simply an outdated or unneeded concept or if we as citizens actually have an actual right to privacy? If we have a right to privacy, where is that right derived, and how does it align with our other rights to life and liberty? Are we to pursue moral autonomy, or is privacy actually grounded in human dignity? Many questions remain about how we should view privacy as a society and to what extent we should expect it in today’s digital world. As COVID-19 challenged many of our expectations concerning privacy, there will likely be a renewed focus on the role of technology in our lives and the extent to which the government has a role in these debates.

It is far too easy to take a myopic view of technology and the ethical issues surrounding its use in our lives. Technology is not a subset of issues that only technologists and policy makers should engage. These tools undergird nearly every area of our lives in the 21st century, and Christians, of all people, should contribute to the ongoing dialogue over these important issues because of our understanding of human dignity grounded in the imago Dei (Gen. 1:26-28).

Thankfully 2020 brought some of these issues to the forefront of our public consciousness. While 2021 will likely have a plethora of things to engage with, we should address the pressing ethical challenges that technology poses in order to present a worldview that is able to address these monumental challenges to our daily lives.

By / Dec 14

In recent months, a new social media platform gained growing popularity in light of controversies over content moderation and fact-checking on traditional social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. Parler was launched in August of 2018 by John Matze, Jared Thomson, and Rebekah Mercer. While it still has a smaller user base than most social platforms at just over 2.8 million people, the app saw a surge in downloads following the November 2020 presidential election and has become extremely popular in certain circles of our society. It became the #1 downloaded application on Apple and Google devices soon after the 2020 presidential election, with over 4 million downloads in just the first two weeks of November, according to tracking by Sensor Tower.

Here is what you should know about this social media application and why it matters in our public discourse.

What is Parler?

Parler, named after the French word meaning to speak, is described as a “free speech” alternative to traditional social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. The company’s website describes the platform as a way to “speak freely and express yourself openly, without fear of being ‘deplatformed’ for your views.” Parler intentionally positions itself as the “world’s town square,” and CEO John Matze said of the app, “If you can say it on the street of New York, you can say it on Parler.”

Parler is a microblogging social service, very similar to Twitter, where users are encouraged to share articles, thoughts, videos, and more. The platform states that “people are entitled to security, privacy, and freedom of expression.” This emphasis on privacy is seen in the ways that Parler will keep your data confidential and won’t sell your data to third parties services, which is a complaint about the nature of other platforms and their business models based on ad revenue. Currently, Parler does not have advertisers on the platform, but they have plans to allow advertisers to target influencers instead of regular users.

Posts on the platform are called “parleys,” and the feed is broken up into two sections namely parleys and affiliate content, which functions like a news feed of content providers for the platforms. To share content from someone else, a user can “echo” a certain post or piece of content.

The platform also has a “Parler citizen verification,” where users can be verified by the service in order to cut down on fake accounts and ones run by bots. Users that submit their photo ID and a selfie are eligible for verification. Once verified, users will see a red badge on their avatar indicating that they are a Parler citizen. Parler also has a “verified influencer” status for those with large followings who might be easily impersonated, very similar to the “blue check” icon on Twitter.

Does Parler censor or moderate content?

The company claims that it does not censor speech or content, yet it does have certain community standards much like other platforms, even if those standards are intentionally set low. The community standards are broken into two principles: 

  1. Parler will not knowingly allow itself to be used as a tool for crime, civil torts, or other unlawful acts.
  2. Posting spam and using bots are nuisances and are not conducive to productive and polite discourse.

Outside of these two community standard principles, Parler does have a more detailed account of the type of actions that fall under the principles. The platform is intentionally designed in order to give users some tools to deal with spam, harassment, or objectionable content including “the ability to mute or block other members, or to mute or block all comments containing terms of the member’s choice.”

Overall, Parler is designed to be an alternative platform for those who do not agree with the community standards and policies of other social platforms. The company states that “while the First Amendment does not apply to private companies such as Parler, our mission is to create a social platform in the spirit of the First Amendment.” This is an important point in the debate over content moderation on other platforms though because as the company points out, the First Amendment does not apply to private companies but was written to reflect the relationship between individuals and the state. 

Why is Parler controversial?

As the platform has gained prominence in certain segments of American life, Parler has expanded its user base in large part as a reaction to the content moderation policies on other platforms. Because it has promised to allow and highlight content that other services deem misinformation, contested claims, and at times hate speech, Parler has been characterized by what it allows its users to post without fear of removal or moderation.

Relying on users to moderate or curate their own feeds, Parler seeks to abdicate themselves of any responsibility of what is posted on their platform. The application has also become incredibly partisan, with a large number of users joining the platform after the 2020 presidential election amidst the growing distrust in the ways that other social media label controversial content, misinformation, and fake news.

Currently, Parler has a large number of users from one side of the political spectrum, which can at times lead to a siloing effect where a user only sees one side of an argument. This was one of the issues of traditional social media that Parler set out to overcome with its lax moderation policies in the first place.

Is it a safe platform?

Parler states that any user under 18 must have parental permission to gain access to the application, and all users under 13 are banned. But the service does not currently have an age verification system. Users can also change settings on their account to keep “sensitive” or “Not Safe for Work” content from showing in their feeds automatically. The Washington Post also reports that Parler does not currently have a robust system for detecting child pornography before it is viewed or potentially flagged and reported by users. A company spokesman has said, “If somebody does something illegal, we’re relying on the reporting system. We’re not hunting.”

Given its lack of robust content moderation policies, Parler has drawn a considerable number of users from Twitter and other platforms who decry that their views were censored or their accounts banned. Many conservative elected officials and news organizations have joined the platform, which hopes to attain a critical mass of users large enough to sustain the platform moving forward. Parler currently does not have the amount of brands or companies that other platforms have, which can be needed for a platform to flourish as an information source and connectivity tool for users.

Parler banned pornography on the platform but in recent months changed its content moderation policies to allow for pornography on the platform. This aligns it more with Twitter’s policy allowing this graphic content online. Parler’s approach to moderation can be seen in recent comments by COO Jeffrey Wernick to the Post in response to allegations of the proliferation of pornography on the site. Wernick responded that he had little knowledge of that type of content on the platform, adding, “I don’t look for that content, so why should I know it exists?” He later added that he would look into the issue.

Since the shifts in policy in recent months, Parler has suffered from issues surrounding the proliferation of pornography and spam, which should come as no surprise as the pornography industry has been using innovative technology from the early days of the internet. Parler states that it allows anything on its platform that the First Amendment allows. The United States Surpreme Court has declared that pornography is constitutionally protected free speech.

It should be noted that Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube ban all pornographic imagery and videos from their platforms. Facebook and Instagram use automated systems to scan photos as they are posted and also rely on a robust reporting system for users to flag content that may violate the company’s community standards. While Twitter’s policies allow for pornography, it does employ automated systems to cut down on rapid posting and other spam-related uploads as well as the use of human moderators to cut down on abuse from users and bots.

Should social media companies be able to censor speech and enforce content moderation policies on users?

This is at the heart of the debate over free speech and social media, especially centering around Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which is a part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Section 230 has been called the law that gave us the modern internet. The law allowed a more open and free market of ideas and for the creation of user-generated content sites.

As the ERLC wrote in 2019, many social conservatives, worried about the spread of pornography, lobbied Congress to pass the the Communications Decency Act, which penalized the online transmission of indecent content and protected companies from being sued for removing such offensive content. Section 230 was written with the intention of encouraging internet companies to develop content moderation standards and to protect them against liability for removing content in order to have safer environments online, especially for minors. This liability protection led to the development of community standards and ways to validate information posted without the company being liable for user-generated content.

Controversy over the limits of Section 230 and ways to update the law have been center stage in American public life for the last few years, especially as the Trump administration issued an Executive Order on the prevention of online censorship. Both sides of the political aisle are debating if it should simply be updated or if the statute should be removed completely.

By / Oct 6

The last few weeks have seen the reopening of school districts across the country. Teachers are adapting to the current pandemic in a number of ways with some teaching in person, others online, and some doing both. This has, understandably, created a new source of anxiety for both students and teachers. Students have to contend with Zoom fatigue in addition to struggling through long division. Online teachers are in the unenviable position of attempting to replicate the community of a classroom from the confines of a screen with tiny little Zoom boxes and weak internet connections. In this current moment, Christian parents should consider how they can serve their teachers as they adapt to the new situations of online learning. Here are three practical ways: 

Remain flexible 

If the last several months have revealed anything, it is the truth that there are many things beyond our control. Every day brings some new catastrophe or unexpected challenge. And online education is no different. Not long after schools resumed near me, teachers started their day to discover that Zoom was down worldwide because of server problems. Immediately, an entire day’s scheduled meetings and plans had to be reworked. 

In some ways, the pandemic has just affirmed the truth of Scripture: we are not in control. In response, we can cling more tightly to our plans and our belief that we are the masters of our fate, or we can accept that there is much outside our control and trust the one who sets planets in motion and hung the stars. In the midst of a season that seems intent on inducing worry and anxiety, the same voice that calmed the waves offers us the promise of peace (Mark 4:39). 

Show your support 

With many teachers teaching online or in new hybrid options, it is very likely that parents may not ever get to meet their teacher in person as they normally would. And with so much of instruction occurring in asynchronous formats, it can be easier than ever to forget the effort that many teachers have put in to redesigning their classroom, curriculum, and even teaching style. This is especially true when every day brings a new cause for anxiety: Should we wear a mask when we leave the house for groceries or have them delivered? Will my wife lose her job because she was deemed unessential? Who is in charge of childcare this week while we work from home? In this moment of continual anxiety and fear, it would be easy, and understandable, that we would forget about what we cannot see in front of us, or about the person on the other side of the screen.

Christians should make a special effort to remember and praise the work of their children’s teachers during these times. Teachers are often facing the same existential crises in their own families, all while seeking to love and serve a Zoom screen filled with kids who are facing a new challenge of their own. So look for ways to serve and care for the teachers in your life. A well-timed email, a note sent in the mail, or brief video chat just to let them know that you see and appreciate all that they are doing can be a welcome reprieve for a teacher. We know that our words have the power to build up and encourage (Prov. 18:21), so we should seek ways to offer a word of hope, encouragement, and life to those who have devoted their lives to teaching the next generation.

Extend grace

It is inevitable that no matter how much planning occurs on the part of administrators, teachers, parents, or students, there will be confusion and problems. An assignment will be given the wrong due date. An online password will be mistyped. A Zoom link won’t work. If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that problems will arise. 

This time of learning from home offers a unique opportunity for parents to help their children learn not just how to read, write, or solve equations, but how to grow in love, joy, patience, and kindness (Gal. 5:22-23). 

However, Christians should be the first to extend grace to teachers in this season. When so much is beyond our control, Christians have the opportunity to meet these problems with the grace and forgiveness that we have received (Luke 7:47). It is precisely because Christians recognize that we are interacting with humans created in God’s image on the other side of our screens or emails that we extend that grace. So as you type that email to correct your teacher or prepare that post for Facebook about the school administrator, remember that they are also struggling with the new reality and often doing the best that they can with circumstances beyond their control. Just as you would want grace for yourself, extend it to teachers. 

And it is not just for the sake of the teacher, but for those little eyes and ears that are watching you. The students who see a parent lose it over a Zoom meeting or a problem with online learning are receiving an education in how Christians respond to problems, but not in how to extend grace to those around them. This time of learning from home offers a unique opportunity for parents to help their children learn not just how to read, write, or solve equations, but how to grow in love, joy, patience, and kindness (Gal. 5:22-23). 

When the school year ends, students and teachers will likely breathe a sigh of relief that they endure this challenging season. However, Christians should make special effort to serve their teachers during this time. In a time when it would be easy to retreat into survival mode and think only of what is best for ourselves, we ought to consider how we can encourage and pray for teachers. As the pandemic and school year ends, may this be a season when we have all learned how to recognize new ways to serve others. 

By / Sep 28

I am online for my courses this semester. Baylor has done a remarkable job getting as many courses taught in person as possible, but there was actually an increasing demand for online courses over the summer, too, due to health concerns or location (I have a student taking one of my courses from China, for example). As of February 2020, I would have assumed that online teaching was by definition an inferior mode of delivery. But now I am not so sure. Done well, I believe it can equal or even surpass some aspects of in-person teaching.

1. Student participation: The biggest surprise to me has been how easy it is to foster student participation. On Zoom, the handy names feature means that, as long as students don’t log in as a Marvel character (“Black Widow”), I can easily call on them at any time from day one of the semester. I have tried to establish the expectation that I will be calling on students as much as looking for volunteers for answers, and that has gone better than in most of my in-person classes. When I go back to in-person, I need to do a better job of getting name tags/plates for all the students in order to replicate what happens automatically for instructors on Zoom.

2. Student conversations: A related surprise is how easy it is to foster individual conversations with students after class. Most of the time I end class by saying, “If you have an individual question, just stay on the call.” Sure enough, at least one or two students do. I normally stay after class for 10-15 minutes just to talk with students. This typically wouldn’t happen as much in person because I or the students are usually dashing off somewhere else, or the students might find it a little more daunting to approach me after class in person.

3. Student engagement and retention: In my introductory American history class, I have recorded lectures which students watch on their own, and they take quizzes over the lectures and readings for each day. For in-person classes, I obviously did my lectures live, which is better, not least because it allows for questions and more give-and-take. But I really like them taking short quizzes over the material for each day. I suspect I am already getting more consistent engagement and retention of the course material.

The full-blown bad and ugly may still be on the horizon. But the primary challenge I have found is that students have a host of potential problems (or claimed problems) with technology that are entirely out of my control. It’s on them to have a good internet connection, so some students go in and out during class, and surely do not get as much out of the meeting. Others have webcams malfunction so I can’t see if they’re really there. And I believe that it is easier for the students to go AWOL on attendance or assignments when everything’s online, in spite of my (usual) efforts to contact them when they show signs of struggle or absence.

4. Personal learning: One of my chief takeaways from online teaching, though, is that I am just glad to know how to do it. I feel like I have learned more as a teacher this year than maybe since my first year of teaching. I always want to be the sort of person who is willing to try new things, professionally and technologically. This year forced many of us to do that in some really stretching ways, and I for one will be a better teacher for it.

A form of this article originally appeared in Kidd’s newsletter

By / Jul 13

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Gerald Seib writes that America, in one of the most tumultuous years in its history, is suffering from a “goodwill deficit.” This is, he says, “a growing tendency to see those with whom you disagree as not merely wrong, but evil. There is a diminishing willingness to believe that the person on the other side of the debate—any debate—is well intentioned.”

You’ve probably experienced this as you scroll your social media timeline or even in conversations (probably text or Zoom these days) with friends. There is a temptation for us to think that the “other side” is not just crazy, but dangerous. And every day there is ample evidence to suggest that perhaps this thesis is right. Daily, our news intake is curated in such a way that we get fresh reminders of the extremes from either the left or the right. 

I happen to be conservative, so my bent leads me to view liberals with suspicion and my own “side” as perfectly reasonable. It’s harder to see the darker impulses when it is wrapped in political philosophy I tend to affirm. But this kind of bias—this wanting to believe the best about my team and believe the worst about the other team—doesn’t just affect our politics. It seems to be affecting the way we see others who disagree with us theologically, or perhaps those who belong to other tribes. 

What’s more, our sources of information and the communications platforms we use often incentivize this kind of zero-sum outlook. Social media companies prize attention and engagement, which requires conflict. Media organizations need sensationalism and clickbait in order to get eyeballs and advertising and subscriptions. And the way to get ahead, to build an audience, is to be provocative. 

A Christian way to speak

But should Christians engage this way? Scripture gives us quite a bit of guidance on the way we should conduct ourselves, the way we use words, and how we treat those with whom we disagree. On the one hand, public polemics and courageous speech is encouraged, almost required, of a follower of Jesus. Paul urges Timothy, over and over again, to stand fast, stand up, to courageously defend the truth. Peter, writing to the first-century church, exhorts them to stand fast in the face of opposition. And in the Upper Room, Jesus warned his disciples that to follow him would lead to persecution and death. 

There should be a distinctly Christian way of standing up for what we believe.

And yet the disciple of Jesus is called to a certain kind of otherworldly gentleness. In every single list of qualifications for Christian leadership, Paul lists gentleness. Sometimes he even warns against brawling and being quarrelsome (2 Tim. 2:24). Peter urged God’s people to clothe their polemics in gentleness and kindness (1 Pet. 3:15). Neither of these men were known for their cowardice; both died martyrs’ deaths. 

So we should speak the truth in love. There should be a distinctly Christian way of standing up for what we believe. But what does that look like in a digital age, when the means of publishing our opinions are so quick and easy, with a few taps of the thumb? Some advocate leaving social media platforms all together, and perhaps that’s wise for some. But the Internet is here to stay. We are not going back to 1950. 

So, how can we can apply Scripture to the way we engage online? 

1. Be slow to speak: First, we should follow James 1:19 and be “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” Before we retweet or post that story that confirms our worst ideas about those with whom we disagree, we might get the whole story, wait a day, or not say anything at all. Regardless of what anyone says, we are not required to speak on every topic all the time on every platform. 

2. Be measured: Second, we might consider how we want to speak and ask ourselves how our words might be misunderstood. 

3. Be accountable: Third, we might ask a friend or two before we post. I have found it helpful to have a text thread of close friends where I can try out my hottest takes. Thankfully most of that never sees the public. Community and accountability are helpful. 

4. Be reasonable: Perhaps, most importantly, we should consider Philippians 4 which urges us to “let [our] graciousness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.” Some translations render this, “let your reasonableness be known to everyone.” The idea of being reasonable seems so out of fashion. Love, however, requires us to strive to be reasonable. 

Writing to a warring congregation of Corinthians, Paul says that love “believes all things.” Love requires the benefit of the doubt. It demands that we not see the worst in that person we disagree with. This is not a natural impulse for sinners. It’s a supernatural impulse and something God has to do in us. But it’s sorely needed in our world. 

Sadly there is very little of this even in the church. When controversies arise or when someone misspeaks, there seems to be a digital mob waiting to proclaim their own self-righteousness and heap public scorn. It seems we get up every day ready to cancel someone, to remind the world of how much better and more righteous we are then them. Before we know it, with a few keystrokes, we’ve joined a digital mob. 

There is a better way. The way of love. This doesn’t mean we never engage in meaningful public debates. This doesn’t mean we don’t write public polemics. This doesn’t mean we don’t hold the powerful accountable. But we should resist the urge to cancel, to hurt, and to crush. The people on the other side of our screens are not avatars, but human beings. They are not the sum total of their one bad tweet. They have families who might one day Google their names. 

There is a lot we cannot control about our troubled world and the polarization that grips the nation. But what we can do is show a bit of love and reasonableness when we engage online. We can pause before we post. And we might consider that we are not always as right as we think we are.  

Check out Daniel’s new book, A Way with Words: Using Our Online Conversations for Good.

By / Feb 10

Search bars are a technological marvel. Through them, we can search the limits of the world. We can see the seven wonders or learn of breaking news as it is happening. We can find more information in seconds than most people in human history had access to in their lifetimes. But search bars also expose some of our most personal and intimate moments, as you search for how to overcome infertility or even cancer. During the Super Bowl, Google ran one of the most powerful ads about the use of technology in a long time. 

In the commercial, a man asks his Google Assistant to remember a number of details about his wife and their marriage as he begins to lose his memory due to Alzheimer's. He searches for the places she loved to visit and even for anniversary photos of them from his photo library. Behind the emotion of this man’s story is the technology powering this tool. Google was using this commercial to show off the abilities of their Assistant platform, which is driven by artificial intelligence (AI). Google reminds us that we use AI each day to do many convenient tasks using our smartphones, tablets, smart speakers, and computers. Through this use of Google Assistant, we see how AI can be harnessed to remind us of what makes us human and the greater purpose of technology. 

What makes us human

So much of the hype surrounding AI flows from the ability of this technology to do things typically reserved for humans. Since the beginning of time, our technologies have only been able to aid us in our work and lives. But with the advent of modern AI systems, some tend to believe that today’s technologies are beginning to cross a line between a tool and something entirely different. This is especially true with smart assistants like Google Assistant, Alexa, and Siri.

Before the advent of AI systems used in voice recognition and natural language processing, we couldn’t communicate with our creations like we would another human being. While we can use our voices to interact with animals, we couldn’t have an actual conversation with anything else. But, we can now interact with our tools—powered by AI—as if they are human beings, which naturally begins to blur the line between us and “them.”

Amidst much of the hype about robots leaving us jobless or deciding to revolt against us, our creations will never be able to replace us because they were never created to be on par with us as God’s image-bearers. Our place in creation was secured by the Creator of the cosmos and can’t be changed by the advent of any technology. We are created higher and more valuable than the rest of creation as the only ones made in his image (Gen 1:26-28). 

Instead of replacing us, the Loretta commercial reminds us that technology can be designed and used in such a way that serves us, allowing us to connect with and cherish others created in God's image. I can’t tell you how many times I have added something to my Evernote notebooks so that I don't forget. Whether it is a note for work or even my wife’s shoe size for future gifts, this form of technology aids me by allowing me to extend my physical memory and live a more productive life. It serves me as I seek to become more like how God created me to be in the midst of a fallen world. 

The goal and purpose of all technological innovation is to serve us as we serve the Creator of the universe.

This is exactly what the man was doing throughout the commercial; he was asking his Google Assistant to remember things for him because of the brokenness that he was experiencing in his body. This is not the way that that world was meant to be, ravaged by sin, disease, and death. But by utilizing various technologies like AI, we can be active agents of God who reflect his image in us as we seek to roll back the effects of the fall in our world. While we will never ameliorate the effects of sin and disease, we reflect God’s imprint on us as we use the tools around us to love him and to love our neighbor.

The greater purpose of technology

Often in our consumerist and materialist world, we define humanity down by acting as if the value of our neighbors is based on their contributions to society rather than the God they were made to image. We assign someone’s value and dignity based on what they do or how they can help us. This is antithetical to the biblical message of dignity and an idea that we must reject. Regardless of our perceived value of others or their contributions to the greater good, each human being is created in God’s image and has infinite value and worth.

This was the underlying message of the Google commercial that brought tears to our eyes. In the ad, we see a man created in God’s image ravished by a disease that not only ruins our bodies but also our minds. He has no real contribution to his family or society. He likely would be seen as a drain on resources or even a burden to be carried, rather than a man fashioned by God. The AI in this commercial became a tool that this man used to remind himself of the little details of life and aid his calling as a husband and father. This ad serves as a reminder to all of us that technology is meant to amplify our lives rather than overshadow them.

The goal and purpose of all technological innovation is to serve us as we serve the Creator of the universe. It is easy to get that pattern flipped by forgetting God and then letting technology rule over us. It is tempting to cut ourselves off from the world around us for a few more minutes of breaking news on Twitter or construe our lives in such a way that the Instagram algorithms gains us more likes. It is easy to mold our lives around our technologies rather than mold our use and development of technology to our lives and the goal of human flourishing for all. 

I believe, as Christians, we are called to reflect the image of God in everything we do. For some, this might mean considering more carefully how our work developing technology is aiding the goal of human flourishing. For others, it will mean re-evaluating the ways we use these tools in our daily lives. Whether we are tempted to forget the purpose of technology in our lives because of the powerful ways we can use it today or maybe even because a disease is ravishing our minds, let's never forget whose image we are fashioned after and the life that he calls us to pursue.

By / Aug 23

What just happened?

President Trump is considering issuing an executive order that would put the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in charge of determining how Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and other large tech companies curate what appears on their websites.

The change would radically alter the protections afforded to companies under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (see below for an explanation of Section 230).

In the Senate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has called for the Section 230 to be repealed altogether. “Right now, big tech enjoys an immunity from liability on the assumption they would be neutral and fair,” said Cruz. “If they’re not going to be neutral and fair, if they’re going to be biased, we should repeal the immunity from liability so they should be liable like the rest of us.”

Similarly, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., introduced a bill that would eliminate Section 230 protections for big tech platforms unless they could prove their political neutrality to the Federal Trade Commission every two years. ““With Section 230, tech companies get a sweetheart deal that no other industry enjoys: complete exemption from traditional publisher liability in exchange for providing a forum free of political censorship,” said Senator Hawley. “Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, big tech has failed to hold up its end of the bargain.”

In the House, Rep. Paul Gosnar has introduced the “Stop the Censorship Act” to amend section 230. “Despite their claims, Big Tech does not always foreclose on violent or obscene behavior; in fact, they often monetize it—but they do police political speech, said Gosnar. “Therefore, Big Tech’s immunity should strictly be for good faith efforts to remove actual unlawful content.”

Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke recently also proposed changing it as a way to counter hate speech and gun violence in America. “We must connect the dots between internet communities providing a platform for online radicalization and white supremacy,” his website reads. Another presidential candidate, Kamala Harris, has said we must “hold social media platforms accountable for the hate infiltrating their platforms . . . If you don't police your platforms we are going to hold you accountable as a community.”

Rep. Ed Case, D-Hawai, also supports changing 230 so that it doesn’t shield platforms such a Airbnb from “facilitating illegal rental bookings.”

What is Section 230?

Section 230 (“Protection for private blocking and screening of offensive material”) has been called the law that gave us the modern internet. The law allowed a more open and free market of ideas and for the creation of user-generated content sites like Craigslist and Facebook by giving companies additional protection from litigation.

In the early 1990s, online services such as CompuServe and Prodigy were sued for the content they allowed from third parties. A state court ruling in 1995 suggested these services would receive more protection under the First Amendment if they did not moderate content at all. The result would have been that companies would have been incentivized to take a “hands-off” approach and not remove offensive material.

Many social conservatives, worried about the spread of pornography, lobbied Congress to pass the the Communications Decency Act, which penalized the online transmission of indecent content and protected companies from being sued for removing such offensive content.

Why some parts of the Act were later deemed by the courts to be a violation of the First Amendment, Section 230 was allowed to stand. Part C of the section covers “Protection for “Good Samaritan” blocking and screening of offensive material”:

(1) Treatment of publisher or speaker — No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.

(2) Civil liability — No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of—(A) any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected; or (B) any action taken to enable or make available to information content providers or others the technical means to restrict access to material described in paragraph (1).

What this means is that websites and companies, including Internet Service Providers (ISPs), that host or republish content are protected against a range of laws that might otherwise be used to hold them legally responsible for the speech or actions of those who use their product (such as commenters on a website). For example, websites like YouTube currently allow users to upload content directly to the site because the company will not be held legally liable for offensive material (though companies like YouTube typically remove offensive content after it has been posted).

CDA 230 also offers its legal shield to bloggers who act as intermediaries by hosting comments on their blogs, says the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF). As EFF clarifies, “Under the law, bloggers are not liable for comments left by readers, the work of guest bloggers, tips sent via email, or information received through RSS feeds. This legal protection can still hold even if a blogger is aware of the objectionable content or makes editorial judgments.”

Why are changes to Section 230 being proposed?

Depending on the politician, the changes to the law is considered necessary either to censor online content or to prevent online content from being censored.

Republicans, such as Trump, Cruz, Hawley, and Gosnar, believe social media companies like Facebook have an anti-conservative bias and are censoring content by conservatives.

In contrast, Democrats, such as Harris and O’Rourke, want to repeal 230 to encourage companies to censor offensive speech, including content that is considered “hateful” about gender identity and sexual orientation.

How would the changes affect Section 230?

As CNN notes, tech companies acting "in good faith" currently qualify for broad legal immunity when they take down objectionable content. The executive order (as currently drafted) asks the FCC to restrict the government's view of the good-faith provision. According to CNN, under the draft proposal, the FCC will be asked to find that social media sites do not qualify for the good-faith immunity if they remove or suppress content without notifying the user who posted the material, or if the decision is proven to be evidence of anticompetitive, unfair or deceptive practices.

Isn’t changing 230 necessary to prevent crimes such as sex trafficking?

Section 230 does not protect web platforms from criminal prosecution for posting illegal content (such as child pornography) or participating directly in illegal activities (such as facilitating sales of illegal drugs). Similarly, such companies are subject to state and local law and can be sued in civil court for violations of the law.

A change to Section 230 made in 2018 by Congress also clearly states that it has “no effect on sex trafficking law.” ERLC was in support of this policy change.

"The internet has become a haven for predators using it to traffic and sexually exploit innocent women and children," said ERLC President Russell Moore in 2017. "It is well past time to provide a legislative solution that allows victims of online sex trafficking to seek justice and restitution from the websites that facilitate their abuse. This legislation would close loopholes and ensure those complicit in the online sex trade would find no refuge in America's justice system."

Why it matters to Christians?

Increasingly, society is waking up to the reality of the influence that technology companies have on us. As the internet and these tools have grown in size and influence, it is important for us to think about the issues of free speech and the role of corporations and government in society. Many companies are working to provide outlets for free speech, such as the oversight board for content moderation at Facebook. How we as a society decide to deal with these issues will have a lasting impact on us and how these tools are used in society.

By / Aug 5

Amid all of the cultural conversations surrounding the role of technology in our society, Facebook has been at the top of the headlines. From issues over privacy and a recently announced crypto-currency, public opinion of the platform has shifted in recent years. But Facebook has also been working behind the scenes to collect feedback and put together an external oversight board to advise and guide the company on how it deals with content moderation on its platform. When CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the creation of the board in November 2018, he stated the purpose of the board is to create a mechanism for the public to appeal content decisions through an independent body.

With Facebook having over 2.38 billion active users in the first quarter of 2019, the reach and influence of this company is one of the greatest the world has ever seen. With all of this connectivity and influence, the company has entered into an age-old debate about what constitutes free speech and expression as it tries to manage its global online communication platforms. While there are varying opinions on how this board should function or if it should even exist, the fundamental questions of free speech and the role of corporations and government are paramount as we continue through our social media age. The important thing for believers to ask is: how should Christians approach issues of free speech? 

A polarized world

A quick scroll through your newsfeed or timeline shows the deep scars and pain that exist in today’s polarized public discourse. We see cultural divides over political affiliation, specific issues like race and immigration, and even religious understandings. These divides play out each day online and through our media consumption. We have our preferred TV networks, news sources, and online communities that cater directly to our personal beliefs. We lack a shared moral consensus as a society, but our division did not begin with the rise of social media and other technologies.

The U.S. is truly a democratic experiment made up of people from various backgrounds and beliefs. Our history makes this clear, from canings in the U.S. Congress and the murder of a representive on the floor of the Arkansas State House before the Civil War to deep divisions over Civil Rights and U.S. foreign policy in the 20th century. Even though our society has been frayed and strained at times, the current debates and lack of civility are not a new phenomena but are symptomatic of deeper, long-term issues.

Technology has opened new possibilities for us to communicate with each other in ways that have never been possible in the history of the world. We now have instant access to limitless information, but also the ability to express our opinions and thoughts online to anyone that will listen or read. We seem to be more connected than any time in history but also more divided over fundamental beliefs, quick to demonize those that disagree with us on any issue, and hasty to make those things known.

Our broken hearts

While it is easy to blame big tech for our societal issues surrounding privacy, free speech, and a lack of civil discourse, we must remember that we are the ones engaging in these behaviors online. The tools do expand our moral horizons and open up the opportunity for us to act in these defaming ways, but those are mere symptoms of the larger issues surrounding our broken hearts and distorted minds. While it is good that we are having public discourse about the role of technology in our society and the power that these tools have on individuals and families, we must not look to corporations or even government to fix the brokenness that we see all around.

While corporations and government have their place in society (Rom.13:4-6), Christians rightly see that the root cause of many of our social and personal issues is due to the fact that we have rebelled against our Creator (Rom. 3:23). Rather than love God and love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt. 22:37-39), we treat God as a nice addition to our own lives and our neighbor as a burden or barrier second to our own desires.

As Christians move forward in our digital age and in a world that lacks basic civil discourse, we can model for our families and neighbors what it means to live as Christ’s ambassadors in between the times. Hate speech and bullying are not becoming of the people of God. Our conduct online is not hidden because our God knows all things and will judge us for every careless thought, action, and click. We need to be the first to admit that the ways we have engaged online are not honoring to our Lord or our neighbor. But the good news of the gospel is that if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).

We need open and honest conversations about the tools we use each day and the effects they have on our public discourse. Facebook is having extremely complicated discussions that require input from multiple sources. Above all, the issues regarding privacy, accountability, and free speech need to be addressed in light of the understanding that all people, even our enemies, are created in the image of God and deserve dignity, respect, and honor. While our society is broken and frayed, nothing will change the root cause of our prideful hearts other than the saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross.

By / Jun 5

I still remember what it felt like when I gave a local town a state-of-the-art police station. I remember the sense of accomplishment one Christmas when dad and I brought to life an underwater city and the rug by the fireplace that became the temporary repair shop needed to rebuild Luke Skywalker’s landspeeder. You probably have your own memories, all provided by the innovation and wondrous simplicity that comes packaged in a box of Legos.

Legos do more than build, don’t they? They transform. Small, colorful, plastic bricks transform dinner tables into architectural drawing boards and living room floors into hardhat zones. Legos bring emotions and feelings that you never thought were possible. They unveil awe and showcase wonder. Each dismantled box temporarily disguises children and adults alike as Frank Lloyd Wright or I. M. Pei. Yet, even in the midst of the seemingly endless worlds that Legos create, there’s a limit to what they can do. They give a sense of the creation and a glimpse into the complex construction of modern world wonders, but they don’t bring authenticity. They can’t—because a package of Legos was meant to do one thing: bring representation, not reality.

No well-educated architect would trade steel for blue and red plastic blocks. No landscape artist would swap out sod with green, bump-filled rectangles. Real works of art, true architectural masterpieces, require more than what Legos can provide. Reality needs a more solid structural foundation; one that Legos simply cannot and were never meant to support.

Sociologists have issued the same conclusions regarding our exhaustive use of social media and technology. Our beloved social media platforms bring us unending entertainment, distraction, meaning and perceived communal connectivity. We’ve come to believe in our online community’s ability to bring forth true, lasting friendship. But, the generation tethered to digital connection and online content sharing more than any other is using online interactions as substitutions for face-to-face relational connectivity.

Even though we’re more connected than ever, the question must be asked: Connected to what, and how?

A loss of emotions

Even though we’re more connected than ever, the question must be asked: Connected to what, and how? The method of connectivity is more important than the breadth of connectivity. In our search for a connected world, we’ve become masterful Lego architects without memories and experiences of steel, iron and concrete. We’ve lost the skill of building true foundations. Over time, we’re losing any knowledge we had of how to live life in person, amongst others and trading it without thought of consequence for a life lived through our online avatars.

This is the focus of long-time MIT professor Sherry Turkle’s 2015 release, Reclaiming Conversation. Turkle shows from the opening pages that our emotional development is suffering great damage due to constant online activity. Called on to consult for one New York middle school, certain teachers inform Turkle of their 12-year-old students who are unable to show signs of empathy, deeply relate and connect with other students. The teachers explain these students show empathy levels that are present in eight-year-old children, who lack the ability to understand and process the emotions of their peers. It’s not that they’re particularly cruel, the teachers say. These children simply don’t know how to process emotional responses and facial expressions because faces don’t accompany the words we type in online communities.

But empathy is a vital ingredient for friendship and basic human interaction. Without it, our relationships remain self-focused. To have a biblical understanding of relationships that are healthy, we must learn to rise above and beyond our own thoughts and feelings. We must have the ability to see life, both its joys and horrors, from the eyes of another. Constructing social foundations via the web moves forward without this basic need, creating a dangerous sinkhole.

Turkle comments, “face to face conversation is the most human—and humanizing—thing we do . . . conversation advances self-reflection, the conversations with ourselves that are the cornerstone of early development and continue throughout life.” We’re connected, but we aren’t learning. We aren’t engaging with the thoughts, feelings, emotions and personalities of those close to us. We’re failing to experience grief and sorrow, much less sharing in the grief and sorrow of others. Instead, our responses to life events consist of a simple click or tap. 140 characters. One filtered picture.

This is the new structure of present-day conversation. To this, Turkle explains, “the new conversation is to talk about what’s on our phones. . . . it is not doing the work of the old conversation. As teachers see it, the old conversation taught empathy. These students seem to understand each other less.” We’re losing the ability to wrestle, respond and build. We have a starved interest in putting our hands to work on the real joys of friendship that are much harder and take much more time than one Monday evening sitting in front of a box of Legos. We don’t want the risk of building lasting connections with others or to rise from our comfort zones. We’d rather stay put building temporary monuments without ever getting up and moving away from our screens. We want the benefits of connectivity without the risk of intimacy. But this isn’t the way God designed people to interact. Sherry Turkle continues:

From the early days, I saw that computers offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship and then, as the programs got really good, the illusion of friendship without the demands of intimacy. Because, face-to-face, people ask for things that computers never do. With people, things go best if you pay close attention and know how to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Real people demand responses to what they are feeling.

The more we engage with our screens, the less we truly engage with one another. More seriously, the more we engage online, the less we engage our understanding for how to engage in person. If we lose our ability to empathize and feel and recognize emotions, we lose our ability to know ourselves and one another. When this happens, how can we, as Christians, carry out our gospel mandate to make disciples and share with others the love of Christ? If we can’t experience empathy, how can we engage in gospel expansion? How can we bind up the brokenhearted and release from darkness those imprisoned? We may feel more connected than ever before, but that doesn’t mean we know one another more intimately and deeply than we have before.

Empathy vital for gospel living

If we can’t empathize, how can we bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6)? How will we comfort those that need the comfort we’ve experienced (2 Cor. 1)? How will we feel the urge to share the truth of our past and how Christ has redeemed us (Rom. 5)? How can we heed Paul’s exhortation to live as Christ did and sacrifice as he sacrificed (Phil. 2)?

Yes, we’ll serve where we see the need to serve, but without the ability to understand the hearts and minds of those in our neighborhoods, jobs and communities, to what extent can we bring hope and joy? We must care for those that need caring and meet the needs of those who are in distress and without help. But to do so, we need to practice gospel empathy every day. We need to bear the weight and significance of face-to-face contact, no matter how difficult.

Jesus said the world would experience, know and see him when his followers love and care for one another the way he did us. The world won’t experience the redemption found in Jesus by the way we repost and retweet. Christ says that his children will live as he lived and love as he loved when they know the great extent to which Christ has saved their souls. It’s been said that a gospel that doesn’t sound too good to be true is a gospel that is too small. Rest assured, a gospel that is too small is devoid of empathy.

We’ll love when we know how much God has loved us. We’ll forgive to the extent we know we’ve been forgiven. We’ll serve and sacrifice to the extent that we understand how Christ has served and sacrificed for us. This is what it means to know the beauty of Jesus’ death in our place. When we lose our ability to self-reflect, we lose our ability to embrace the true nature of the gospel and the ability to live its radical nature out amongst others. The key to unlocking gospel transformation that extends down in our bones and out to those around us is true gospel empathy. We put ourselves in the stress, pain, sadness, hurt and hopelessness of others because we know, according to Ephesians 2, we once wandered in darkness.

The more we tether ourselves to our devices, the more untethered we become from our hearts. If we connect with one another but lose our ability to process and show emotions in the process, what good are we? Without empathy, we become the people Isaiah spoke of; honoring God with our lips via our social media posts/rants while our hearts are far from treasuring Christ and his people.

The model of the Incarnation

The way we learn to be with other people and experience life in the fullness of being known by God and others is to look at the example Christ set for us by coming to be with and among us. Paul tells us that Christ sacrificed everything to come be with us, to offer us hope and empower us with a new way of life. This is the beauty of the incarnation. Christ gave up all that he had in order to give all that he had to us, his very enemies. In the words of the church father Athanasius, Christ became what we were so that we could become what he is. Whole. Complete. Righteous. Clean. Connected.

God saw our need and did something about it. He brought great pain on himself to bring us great pleasure. As we reflect on the beauty of Christ’s entrance into our world, we understand what we must do in order to bring his hope into the world of others. Without the presence of technology, Christ showed us the best way forward in our present-day context. We must leave the comforts we experience behind our screens and walk out to meet one another in person. We must let go of our devices in order to grab hold of the hands of others, no matter the cost.