In his book World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, Franklin Foer examines the impact and dangers of technology giants such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon. Many of his warnings should be of interest to us as Christians, parents, and consumers.
Of particular concern are the god-like goals that many of these organizations pursue. One of these is exhaustive knowledge of their users through the amassing of data. On the basis of a user’s likes Facebook can predict their “race, sexual orientation, relationship status, and drug use” (76). Knowledge, as they say, is power. And this knowledge is amassed specifically to manipulate the users. Foer records how Facebook has used its power to control people’s newsfeeds in order to run tests on human emotions. One team member admits, “Anyone on the team could run a test. They’re always trying to alter people’s behavior” (75). He explains how Amazon and Netflix use recommendations in exactly opposite ways: Amazon steers buyers toward the most frequently bought products because volume means profit for them while Netflix recommends less well-known movies which cost the service less to stream.
Foer concludes: “Facebook would never put it this way, but algorithms are meant to erode free will, to relieve humans of the burden of choosing, to nudge them in the right direction. Algorithms fuel a sense of omnipotence, the condescending belief that our behavior can be altered, without our even being aware of the hand guiding us, in a superior direction” (77). Foer even envisions a scenario where Facebook uses geographic and demographic information to selectively influence users to vote, thus deeply impacting an election.
These revelations give me pause on both practical and intellectual levels. Practically, as Christians we should strive to be aware of the forces that are at work upon us. We are enjoined to be ruled by the Spirit of Christ, not by external forces nudging us toward their vision of human flourishing. We do not operate with wholly libertarian free will. Google, Amazon, Netflix and the like are deeply invested in manipulating our decisions and doing so in a way that preserves the illusion of free will. On an intellectual level I find it ironic that the very atheist/agnostic folk that reject as invasive and immoral the idea of an all-knowing, all-powerful God mysteriously meddling in human affairs, have no problem exerting their growing knowledge to mysteriously meddle in human affairs.
The background for all of this is still the ancient account of humanity’s fateful reach beyond itself for divine knowledge. “But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You shall not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’” (Gen. 3:4-5). We need to keep our eyes open to see the forces shaping us, our children, and our world. They are not ultimately out for our good, only their own.