Thursday, January 9, 2014

Living abundantly in the Information Age


Lincolnville is a small town on the coast of Maine through which I have passed many times. Perhaps the town's best-known personage is Eli Pariser, who grew up there but now lives in Brooklyn. Pariser, former executive director of MoveOn.org, wrote the 2011 New York Times' bestseller, The Filter Bubble (Penguin Books).

In The Filter Bubble, Pariser documents how Google, Facebook, and other internet companies shape the information they provide to users in ways that are transparent to the user, yet target that user's preferences as discerned by the company. For example, political liberals may not see search results from Google queries that deal with political conservatives or posts on in their news Facebook new feed from conservative friends.

The power of these internet companies is insidious and objectionable for three reasons. First, the companies collect data on users, often without users' permission, collate the data, and then utilize it for the company's benefit, which may include selling the data to third parties.

Second, users are oblivious to company's collecting and utilizing this data in large part because companies want to keep users ignorant. User agreements and privacy notices are part of this move by companies to keep users ignorant because the agreements and notices are so verbose and consist of nearly incomprehensible phrasing that companies cannot realistically expect most people to read, let alone understand, those notices.

Finally, as people increasingly become dependent upon the internet for information and entertainment, internet companies have tremendous, unprecedented power to shape the tastes and thoughts of users.

Clericalism connotes a form of religion dominated by the clergy. The clergy, in clericalism, perform the essential elements of the liturgy, teach authoritatively, and are the indispensable link between God and humans. One helpful corrective of the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation in Christianity was the effort to end clericalism, a move that some Churches (e.g., the Orthodox and Roman Catholic) resisted and other Churches carried to an extreme (e.g., the Anabaptists and Quakers). A community may designate and authorize its clergy to lead liturgy, to facilitate spiritual growth, and to aid persons in developing a closer relationship with God. But that is very different from clericalism.

In the Information Age, internet companies that seek to operate without little or no visibility, collecting and benefitting from data on internet users, distinctively shaping the experience, entertainment, and information it provides to those users are arguable the modern analogue of clericalism, and, therefore, no more acceptable than clericalism.

An Information Age reformation might call for open source, non-profit organizations to develop and operate search engines and other internet services that scrupulously refuse to collect any data on users. Users who want to benefit from such services (e.g., a vendor's recommendations on other items that the user might enjoy) could write their software to query the user about her/his tastes and preferences, making the process of interrogation and collection open and explicit. Internet companies that did collect such information could then offer users a small discount or other perk if the user granted the company permission to use (or to sell) the data for other purposes. Again, this would ensure that the process is open and the user aware of its existence.

The abundant life is not synonymous with consumerism. The abundant life also presumes that individuals desire to exercise as much autonomy as possible. The current collection and use of data by internet companies violates both of those premises.

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