You discover my thoughts…You notice everything I do and everywhere I go
As Christians, every Sunday we rightly sing of and celebrate God’s care and invite his watchfulness. The idea of “being watched” by the one who has seen the end from the beginning and is compassionate and loving reassures us. Not everything will go our way and yet we trust the God who sees our needs before we see them ourselves.
But “being watched” has also been a developing trend online these past ten years. Today, every time you shop online — someone is taking note (let’s call it a loyalty card). And – as we have seen in the torrent of news these past days – every post you place on Facebook, the location from where you post, the types of articles you “like”, even the photos you upload – these are all “watched” — perused and profiled in an automated manner. They all say something about you. The reason of course is so you can be targeted with ads likely to interest you, “recommendations” you may respond to.
You have looked deep into my heart, and you know all about me
And it doesn’t end there. This so called “harvesting” of personal data is used to influence opinions on a massive scale. By identifying a large group of similar people, and understanding their likes, dislikes, and tendencies, this group can be targeted not just with ads, but with, articles and posts that are likely to influence them in a predictable manner. Barrack Obama among many others warned of this recently.
Data is the new oil
… is a phrase people are quoting.
And it’s true. Personal data is the most valuable asset in our information age. It’s the reason that Facebook, (and Google who are breathing sighs of relief that the spotlight did not fall on them) is worth trillions of dollars. Facebook are under huge pressure from shareholders to grow their business. Every quarter must show increased revenues from the quarter before. Our data is their business.
Even when you casually search for stuff on the web – it is tracked. That’s why you get those ads that keep popping up, following you around, based on stuff you once looked for, and importantly, stuff you might look for next even before you’ve thought of it.
… before I even speak a word, you know what I will say
Or, as folks are saying on the news right now… “Facebook knows more about you, than you”.
Of course, instead of armchair shopping, we could choose to go to the store and pay with cash and forgo the loyalty points. Instead of using Facebook we could call people on the phone – maybe even meet them in person! But for most of us, online is so easy, it’s impossible not to use it. In the battle of privacy versus convenience, convenience wins, every time.
Technology has become a part of us
We no longer think of technology as “technology”, something separate – it’s a part of us. We need it.
This morning for instance you got out of bed and checked your smartphone within 30 minutes of waking up. During the day you checked your phone at least every hour, or, more likely, much more often. I’m not guessing. These are typical figures across annual surveys from the UK telecoms regulator Ofcom.
Your phone or tablet is a sophisticated tracking device that let’s trackers know exactly where you have been, when you were there, and where you are now.
You know all about me. You know when I am resting and when I am working
And all this because we simply clicked “I Agree” somewhere in the past – we have all done it.
Young and Kinaman in their book The Hyperlinked Life summarise our endemic dependence on internet enabled technology:
“The internet has become … an idol of our time, commanding a central place in our lives as well as attention and huge respect, and with the final say in many of our dealings and desires”.
As has been quoted before: If you are not paying for a service, remember, YOU are the product — somebody has to pay.
Stop using these apps?
Should we the stop using Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and all the other ways that our behavior is tracked online? Some might say so. There are writers and theologians for example who draw our attention back to Paul’s powers and principalities, and the internet as a power of our time.
That’s a separate discussion, but I think we have a responsibility to engage with people wherever they are – and today they are on social media, new media. God has always used innovative, new media to reach people, from burning‐bushes, stone‐tablets, and talking donkeys, to prophets, mighty‐voices, and still‐whispers. Paul also used every means possible, always going to where people gathered, “becoming all things to all men that all means, some may be saved (2 Cor 9). I would say we are to do the same.
But we need to approach with caution and understanding the pervasive nature of these things. The Facebook affair in many ways is what we needed – a wake up call. We must recognise the power of the internet for what it is. Paul warns of the danger of not recognising how much authority and influence alternative “powers and authorities” can command. And we also need to understand our own limits. We are all prone to unhealthy addictions that draw us away from God — sometimes it’s good not to be connected.
The call our quotes in this blog are of course from Psalm 139 –but we could almost have been waxing lyrical about Facebook, Google and YouTube.