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The NSA Knows You Read My Blog

They say you shouldn’t discuss religion or politics in polite company. Well, nobody said I was polite.

By now, most everyone has heard about the PRISM scandal.  And if you haven’t, I’m surprised you’re able to get a WiFi signal behind the rock in the cave on the moon you must be living in.  I was on my way to work one morning, and I read an article about the new (fake) social network PRSM.  It was created as a satire on our modern approach to technology, networking, and what we’re willing to share (everything, in case you hadn’t put that together).

I’m no different:  I perform web searches through Google, which I do while I’m logged in to my Google account.  I buy apps and music on my smartphone.  I subscribe to streaming services for music and movies, and more than one of those is linked to my Facebook.  On my way between work and home I use GPS to more accurately report my location to (you guessed it) Google’s transit routing service.  I tweet and status update my thoughts and activities from time to time.

Enter the PRISM scandal.  My attitude on governmental snooping into my personal affairs has probably not been entirely healthy.  I have been heard saying things like “It doesn’t thrill me if the government is reading my email, but I have nothing to hide,” and “The NSA agent whose job it is to monitor my activities has a very boring day at work.”  And yes, before you tell me, I know that having nothing to hide is no excuse for being lax about my privacy.

I had a conversation with someone at work about the upcoming XBox One and its (since reversed) always on Kinect sensor.  He is uncomfortable with an always watching, always listening device in his living room.  I’m not, really.  He pointed out that it’s a very predominant generational thing.  I did not exactly grow up in an age of tablets and broadband.  However, I spent more of my developmental years in that environment than did, say, my parents.  Whereas in my computer classes I learned things like touch typing (a phrase which nobody uses anymore) and Microsoft Works (yes, really), students today will probably spend more time learning things like web development and search engine optimization.

As to the religion part of the discussion, it is important to know that I am a “Process Theology-influenced Christian.”  I don’t spend much time discussing my faith.  I am not uncomfortable talking about it, per se, but I always feel underqualified.  Process is very complicated and nuanced, and I always end up thinking I should stop talking and start handing out books by Robert Mesle and David Ray Griffin (huh.  Maybe I’m an evangelist after all).  One of the “big deals” in Process, though, is the interconnectedness of all things.

To get back to the tech: Increasingly pervasive social technologies have created a world wherein everything is not only connected, but also more and more transparent.  You give a YouTube video a “thumbs up,” and suddenly it’s a part of your profile.  You post a comment on Facebook about how rude drivers annoy you, and potentially everyone on your friends list gets a push notification.  The more we publish our thoughts and feelings online, the more those thoughts and feelings become a visible, physical force in the world.  Whereas fifteen years ago your love of cats might have been relatively inconsequential, now it has the potential to specifically change the thoughts and actions of others.

But then again, weren’t we always connected anyway?

Ok, let’s lay aside the Buddhism/Process Theology stuff about interrelatedness and energy and the interdependence of all things (which I wholeheartedly believe, but may not translate well to every audience) and talk about something obvious and logical: simple cause and effect.  You hold the door for a stranger on the way into Starbucks.  That stranger, who had been having a lousy day, is touched by your kind gesture and tips the barista extra generously.  The barista cues Helen Hunt, Haley Joel Osment, and Kevin Spacey; pay it forward blah blah blah.  Et cetera.

But wait, there’s more, because it’s not a chain.  Each link has the potential to create and interact with other chains of events.  Web of interrelatedness.  We take a moment to pat each other on the back for finding commonality between the teachings of Christ and the Buddha.  The evangelicals give a surprised shout and accompanying high five, and the Buddhists smile and shake their heads knowingly.  Et cetera.

So on the one hand it’s easy to see that with the publication of our thoughts and feelings online, our internal life has become increasingly external.  Thoughts become actions, and attitudes become links in our web of causality.  But my argument is that thoughts and attitudes have always been physical events.  Even if you don’t buy the interrelatedness stuff, there’s still psychology:

In many ways, we are made up of our thoughts and feelings.  And where our subconscious goes with us (everywhere), we cannot be completely in control of every aspect of our actions.  So maybe you have a bias against children who misbehave and scream in public (don’t we all?)  You walk into your local pharmacy to see a toddler straining against the grip of his mother’s hand, trying to break free and cause noise, mayhem, and destruction.  You are immediately on edge.  And maybe you’ll keep that feeling to yourself and not speak tersely with the pharmacist.  But maybe you won’t.

It’s unavoidable.  At the end of the day, some of our deeper, ostensibly secret thoughts and feelings are going to creep into our interactions whether we intend them to or not.  So there you go: your thoughts have always been physical events whose effects propagate outward through the world.  In this case, I would say that Facebook, Twitter, Google and the gang are just a matter of technology catching up to the way things always were anyway.

The good thing is that if we regard these technologies maturely and responsibly, they can serve as a really nice metaphor for our responsibility to ourselves and each other.  The fact is that who we choose to be matters and has an impact on the world.

So where does that put PRISM?  I think most of us can agree that unregulated governmental snooping is bad.  On the other hand, it is getting more and more difficult to dispute that our responsibility to decency, humanity, and justice extends beyond our in-person actions and interactions, and into our digital presence.  Maybe even our thoughts and feelings.  Maybe that’s what the technology is really here to tell us.

What are your thoughts?  (I promise not to tell the NSA…)

As always, thank you for reading.  More to follow.

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