God, Google and the NSA



This week I googled "flights to Frankfurt" and suddenly I am getting adverts popping up on unrelated websites and communications, about flights, hotels, hire cars etc in Frankfurt.

This blog rarely gets theological, so let's try it out.

One of the challenges for God fearing Jews is to endeavour to comprehend the scope and scale of God.

It seems frankly incredible that God is on the one hand the Creator of the World, and yet knows all about and even controls our lives (the only thing we apparently control is our own "fear of Heaven": "everything is the hands of Heaven, except fear of Heaven"), for the billions of people on earth, and even the workings of an ant.

Indeed this is the crux of the Theism vs Deism dispute, a hot topic in the 17th and 18th Centuries, promoted in the writings of Voltaire.

Voltaire held that God is the Creator of the world, and set natural law in motion, but is not involved in the days to day running of our affairs. Voltaire  used the analogy of God being like a watchmaker, who engineers and creates the watch, which then runs without further intervention by the watchmaker. Newton referred to God as "the primordial architect".

It appears to me that recent advances in technology can lend insight into God's ability to not "just" create the world and the laws of nature, but also to know so much about so many people, and to influence everyone's actions.

Edward Snowdon's leaks about the National Security Agency have given the world a glimpse of the US Government's monitoring capabilities.

Eavesdropping on national leaders, such as Angela Merkel and Benjamin Netenhayu, is the headline stuff. The narrative is that the NSA can (and probably is) monitoring everyone who is linked-up to 21st Century communications. In the days of the internet and smart phone, every click by every person can or is being monitored.

To understand how God can be aware of the day to day activities of billions of humans, is getting less challenging. Just imagine God as a super-NSA.

But whereas this helps understand the scale and scope of Gods awareness of the activities of His creations, it does not help understand His influence/control of everything (aside from our "fear of Heaven").

Now let's turn to Google.

Like the NSA, Google has vast 'knowledge' of my communications, habits, interests, activities, friends, business...indeed, every aspect of my life. And yours.

Google has turned this NSA-scale knowledge into a business.

The business model is based on selling advertising, promoting services and products.

Advertisers want to sell to people who want to buy. That's why Google's algorithms picked up on my interest in flying to Frankfurt, and linked that up with their google-ads (which reach far further than Google's own sites, and are embedded in many other internet sites), to show me services and products about Frankfurt (unsolicited).

But advertisers, even more than selling to people who already want to buy their product (a flight ticket to Frankfurt), also want to influence potential customers to buy their product when they previously planned to do something else.

Knowledge + access links up to buying-influence.

"You are interested in flying to Frankfurt, David, perhaps I can interest you in our down-town Frankfurt Hotel? Or a rental car? Or another trip, perhaps to Paris?"

However, such Influencing does not yet become controlling. I can still decide not to let the influence make my decision for me. "Sorry, robot, I'll find my own hotel in Frankfurt (using, umm, Google), and I have no plans to go to Paris, so forget it, robot.".

It's a short step to a robot  responding, "I really think you should reconsider going to Paris. After all, your mother Ann Morris from Harrogate, has just googled "holiday in Paris", and is currently writing you an gmail to suggest you come too."

The capability is there. Some code writer in Menlo Park, just needs to do it.

So, consider God as a super-Google, combining vast & current knowledge about each and every one of us, fully networked, with an ability to influence our day to day decisions.

God has also, apparently, chosen to influence us, even in a 'controlling' way, but not to fully control us, enabling us to exercise our own judgement and retaining our ability to say No Thanks.

(I hope Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google will take note).
 

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