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Convenience at the Cost of Our God-Given Freedom?

January 18, 2018


Imagine you’re cruising up some famous American street—Hollywood Boulevard, Michigan Avenue, Lombard Street. Although you’re in your car, and no one else is accompanying you, you’re not driving. You’re the single passenger, tucked comfortably in a reclined seat of a driverless car. You look out the angular window and spot a ‘57 Ford Thunderbird, or a passel of men dressed handsomely with bowler hats, bulky coats draped over their arms. Or, maybe, up ahead you see a horse-drawn carriage bounding across an intersection.

Such oneiric instances might not be too far off, at least according to the musings of The Atlantic’s Adrienne LaFrance, in an article, “How to Turn Your Self-Driving Car Into a Time Machine.” The article invites us with a facetious wink to consider the entertaining and exhilarating possibilities afforded to us with a future of driverless cars. Since these automated vehicles would require a robust and extremely sophisticated system for mapping data—from the proximity, speed, and size of nearby objects to precise location and destination coordinates—they could, at least in theory, use such information for the good of entertainment and education: by “combining augmented reality with super-precise location data and real archival video and audio footage (plus a mix of actor reenactments and CGI),” we could recreate the past. In other words, we could drive along a modern street, flip a switch next to the cup holder, and view that same street as it was in the 1950s, or 40s, or 20s.

This would no doubt offer a perk for driverless cars. However, on the other and less whimsical hand, the article suggests that such technology could make for “ethereal billboards that appear only to individual car passengers . . . essentially location-specific, ultra-targeted pop-up ads.” Still, while trips redolent of a Disneyland attraction during a work commute may seem a bit far fetched, the digital, location-based billboards? Not so much.

This is already ingrained in our everyday lives, just to a smaller and less invasive extent. Every time we check Facebook or navigate the web we’re fed ads that are increasingly relevant to our needs, desires and interests. By using online behavioral targeting techniques, companies can dish potential customers specific ads by tracking the type of websites they have visited. If I’m reading a blog about the best national parks in the country for camping, then in fairly short order, while visiting another site or checking my newsfeed, I’ll spot—can you believe it?—an ad for a North Face windbreaker jacket, just as I was considering trekking to Yosemite. Aside from our online behavior, though, potential customers are being targeted by the massive amount of information they are freely giving up to the incorporeal gods of the Internet: Google, Facebook, LinkedIn and so on. For example, Facebook lets brands target their users by accessing the information they provide: age, level of education, job, location, favorite music, gluten-free eater, insatiable dog lover, etc. So when Nancy is online she isn’t just a nameless IP address floating through the web of magic data known as the Internet, but rather, she’s a 26-year old single female living in the greater Chicago area who has a bachelor’s degree from Loyola University Chicago, listens to Kenny Chesney, and shops at Banana Republic and Lululemon.

Some are unsettled by such clandestine advertising techniques (the measures taken by these people usually only goes so far, though, resulting in their voicing of mistrust of these “Big Brands” to their friends and deactivating cookies on their web browsers). But to a certain degree, it actually offers quite a bit of convenience. If we have no choice but to endure an onslaught of digital ads whenever we venture onto the internet, then we might as well see ads we’re interested in, even if only tangentially. This is especially the case when such technologies, advanced algorithms designed to anticipate user desires or needs, are used beyond the realm of advertising and marketing. A relatively simply example is Pandora, where depending on the songs a user likes or dislikes, their overall music playlist is altered to dispense new songs that the user will likely enjoy. The technology studies the human user, collecting and storing all retrievable data, and then feeds him or her information, content, or entertainment with a good probability of success. When it comes to shopping on Amazon or watching a movie on Netflix, this type of user-centered technology sure seems like a good thing.

An article by Jim Taylor, a professor at the University of San Francisco, titled, “How Technology is Changing the Way Children Think and Focus,” examines some of the effects—both positive and negative—that recent technology is having on our children. Taylor explains that our newly wired ecosystem, with its vast and endless repository of evergreen content and information, is conditioning children to scan for information quickly and efficiently. Previous generations read static and limited content in the form of books and magazines, which required a deeper level of attention and focused mental activity. As a result, though children today are able to scan information much more efficiently than children of the past, they are also living in a world where “distraction is the norm, consistent attention is impossible, imagination is unnecessary, and memory is inhibited.” By not engaging in other forms of mental activity—such as reading a book or solving a puzzle—the muscles that help form critical thinking, reflection and problem-solving are becoming weakened because they aren’t needed.

The article doesn’t declare that modern children are any less intelligent or capable, rather, just that their brains are developing differently because of the type of varied and rapid stimuli that they’re exposed to on a regular basis. If we take this recent trend in cognitive development and introduce these evolving algorithms designed to efficiently supply optimal dating partners in a dating app or highlight related books and movies for purchase on Amazon, then we must wonder what this means for human development and flourishing?

The danger may manifest with the weakening of our ability to choose things for ourselves—to choose the people we date and befriend, the news we read, the content we share, the movies we watch, the ideas we ingest. As Facebook gets more sophisticated, the less likely we are to see political, religious, or cultural “content” that doesn’t appeal to our own sense of preferences, past behaviors, and interests. This type of push-based digital economy could enable us to settle comfortably into a state of inactivity, especially if our brains are being conditioned to ingest content on a superficial, less critical level. The more we are spoon-fed content, merchandise, entertainment, information, and the like, the less of a need there is to actively engage in seeking these things ourselves. If we are bombarded with content that we are—based on past behavior—supposedly interested in, then how can we stumble upon diverse ideas or information that has the potential to shape and transform our outlook, character, and understanding? This can be particularly dangerous when our original interests or behaviors aren’t nurturing, and we are therefore required to wade through perpetually tailored information in order to stumble upon something or someone different with the potential to inspire or shape us in expansive and fruitful ways.

Technology in this light borders on the dystopian, redolent of Pope John Paul II’s warning about unbridled technology that reduces “human beings to units of consumption or competing interest groups” and manipulates “viewers and readers and listeners as mere ciphers from whom some advantage is sought.” To the degree that our ability to make free and informed choices is marred, so too is our dignity as self-directing agents destined by God for eternal fulfillment and love, as creatures called, in the words of Thomas Merton, to expand and develop our own individuality and recognize our responsibility “for the good of others, for their own temporal fulfillment, and ultimately for their eternal salvation.”

There is no doubt this type of algorithm-using technology holds the potential to make our lives better, but it’s worth minding just how much power we defer to such impressive and sophisticated algorithms for the sake of convenience.