The Tower

During February I spent most of a week at a Bartimaeus gathering, in the Ventura River Watershed near Ojai. There, Ched Myers led us through a deeply prophetic study of the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 4, verses 1 through 11.

Eleven verses. All week.

We pretty much spent a day on each temptation. It was a detailed study, to say the least. Matthew’s first and third temptations – riches and power – were right down my alley; of course the devil would offer those.

The middle temptation was more challenging for me.

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (Luke 4:5-7)

At first glance, it looks like some sort of Lutheran thing about how it’s best not to show off. But it’s deeper than that, tied to our sense of entitlement as “American” Christians.

Over the second day of our study we unpacked this temptation. Ched launched a fascinating architectural analysis that drew a line from the highest point of the temple, all the way back before Abraham to another tall building.

That is why it was called Babel – because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth. (Gen 11:9)

This narrative gnawed on me for a couple of weeks until I finally got moving. I see that this temptation is about us and our computers. And our algorithms.

The conceit of algorithms is omniscience. It is (they are, collectively) the Tower of Babel for our times, promising us the best Thai food within 5 miles (or 10!) and protecting us from bad massage therapists.

As I mentioned a few days ago, my Lenten fast is from algorithms. Of course, algorithms are everywhere and I am already deeply ensnared. I use an email account provided “free” in exchange for just a little information about myself. Each time I start typing an address, an algorithm helpfully presents a suggestion list based on whom I have contacted most recently or most often.

Another algorithm hides in the autospell feature that is currently urging me to change how I spelled its name. I will not comply.

I can’t escape them right now. The importance is not identifying (let alone avoiding) the many ways that algorithms penetrate me. However, I can at least improve my general awareness and seek to minimize the extent to which I rely on mathematical equations to tell me what’s important.

When our Tower of Data falls we’ll be unable to communicate beyond the very local level. This sort of disruption often happens temporarily after disasters like the earthquake that hit the North Coast this hour. It could also happen in ways that do permanent damage to our ability to “connect” with people electronically. This will be a problem due to the severe degradation of our natural connections to nearby human beings.

How many phone numbers of your various beloved do you know by memory? Emails? How many of these data points are physically printed somewhere? What will you do when the keeper of your contact list lies dark in your hand?

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One Response to The Tower

  1. jeremy says:

    The relatively new world of online lenders uses algorithms to make quick credit decisions. One site lendup.com, basically an online payday lender with a twist, even judges you in part on the basis of how you navigate their site! Its so important to understand how algorithms influence us… I love the idea of giving them up for lent!

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