Monday, May 12, 2014


Zuckerberg famously declared in 2010, 'privacy is no longer a social norm'


YouVersion: Digitizing, Mobilizing, and Consuming the Word of God
Thursday | Nov 21 2013
YouVersion on a smart phone                                Judy Baxter / Compfight Creative Commons
This past July, the popular mobile Bible app, YouVersion, was featured in a New York Timesarticle, cleverly titled “In the Beginning Was the Word; Now the Word Is on an App.” The article appeared shortly after YouVersion reached 100 million downloads from Apple’s iTunes Store, placing it among the likes of other monumentally successful apps such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Since the NYT article, several other media outlets, including the Washington Times, Fox News, and the Huffington Post, have covered the story. Such widespread coverage of YouVersion’s success demonstrates the public’s interest (and perhaps even surprise!) that the Bible remains a focal point for many Americans. For some, 100 million downloads is a testament to the church’s global mission to share the Word of God.

Amy O’Leary, writer for the NYT, compares the innovation behind the app to the invention of the printing press and claims that YouVersion is changing how, where and when the Bible is read.

And it’s true. YouVersion is revolutionizing the accessibility and distribution of the biblical text, putting over 600 versions in over 400 languages right at our fingertips.

But can the greater accessibility and convenience fully account for YouVersion’s unprecedented success? Digital versions of the Bible, after all, have been around for years, and although YouVersion was the first Bible app to be available on iTunes, hundreds have followed.

Nir Eyal, a writer for The Atlantic, is one of the few journalists who approach YouVersion’s success from a different angle. He asserts:
“It turns out there is much more behind the app’s success than missionary zeal. The company is a case study in how technology can change behavior when it couples the principles of consumer psychology with the latest in analytics.”

Eyal’s analysis is spot on. Like other popular apps, YouVersion collects vast amounts of behavioral data from its users and, in turn, uses this information to build customer loyalty. IP addresses, GPS locations, habits and preferences enable YouVersion to provide a “tailored experience” to the sacred text.

Bobby Gruenewald, the founder of YouVersion, claims that this data has helped identify several factors that drive engagement such as personalization, gamification, and personal investment. YouVersion tracks progress, offers structured reading plans and rewards users as they meet their scriptural goals. Notifications or “nudges” also remind users to continue using the app.

Furthermore, Gruenewald and his team have found that changing the order of the Bible and placing more interesting or popular sections up front increases time spent with the text. And now that readers are not limited to one translation, he says, it has become easier to check other translations for clarity.

This way of reading the Bible raises questions regarding canonicity, authority, and interpretation. But these are not Gruenewald’s main concerns. He simply hopes that by leveraging technology and smart communication, YouVersion will spark a revolution in Bible engagement. “The goal is to reach and engage as many people as possible with scripture. That’s all.”

What does YouVersion hope to accomplish by sparking a revolution in Bible engagement? Gruenewald has expressed concern that today’s Americans are less biblically literate than past generations, and that few hold a biblical worldview. But he believes, with YouVersion’s help, this could all change. “And if it does layers of things in society will change: divorce rates, adultery, crime, deception in corporate America . . . parenting would change.”

Here we must ask: if biblical literacy and a biblical worldview are needed to challenge today’s important social and moral issues, why is YouVersion collecting vast amounts of behavioral data to present users with what they wish to read? With hundreds of versions at your fingertips, there is no need to be challenged by a different worldview, biblical or otherwise. Simply tap until you find YourVersion.

Technological innovations have been used to share religious beliefs, ideas and stories for centuries. But with YouVersion, these religious symbols take on a life of their own, a new sort of agency, as they “nudge” us to remind us of their presence. As technology is paired with consumer psychology, the way in which we engage religious content is being transformed with the same methods advertisers use to compel us to buy and consume their products. Only in this case, these logarithms and equations are being stamped with divine authority, and what is being consumed is the Word of God.
References and Further Reading:

Falkenthal, Gayle. “Bible App One of the Most Popular Ever With 100 Million Downloads.”Washington Times, August 14, 2013.

Murashko, Alex. “Bible App Hits 100 Million Downloads; Innovative Pastor Hopes It Surpasses Facebook, Twitter, Instagram in Popularity.” Christian Post, July 9, 2013.

O’Leary, Amy. “In the Beginning Was the Word; Now the Word Is on an App.” The New York Times, July 26, 2013.

Eyal, Nir. “The App of God.” The Atlantic, July 24, 2013.

Sherman, Bill. “'s Bible App Attracts Millions of Users.” Tulsa World, January 04, 2011. Online. Accessed August 21, 2013.

Gruenewald, Bobby. “The Bible in a Technological Age.” Q: Ideas for the Common Good, August 18, 2011. Online. Accessed August 8, 2013.

Photo Credit: Judy Baxter / Compfight Creative Commons
Author, Sara-Jo Swiatek, is an M.A. student at the University of Chicago Divinity School. In addition to ethics and biblical hermeneutics, she is interested in religious and ethical responses to digital technology.

David Allen - Getting Things Done, Tim Ferriss - The 4 hour work week. Michael Hyett - Platform - get noticed in a noisy world - rhapsodize over Evernote... Hyett once a believer in handwritten notes but says Evernote has let him go entirely digital. Time dec 9 2013 p. 38.

I now have clients with whom I walk'ntalk who carry mini iPads with them with notes for our discussion


Google faces deluge of requests to wipe details from search index

Ex-politician seeking re-election and paedophile among those trying to exercise 'right to be forgotten' after landmark ruling

Google, which has more than 90% of the search market in Europe, declined to comment on how many applications it has received, or their nature. Photograph: Boris Roessler/EPA

Friday 16 May 201400.58 EST

Hundreds of people including an ex-politician seeking re-election, a paedophile and a doctor have applied to have details about them wiped from Google's search index since a landmark ruling in Europe on Tuesday.

The deluge of claims trying to exercise the "right to be forgotten" follows a decision by Europe's highest court, which said that in some cases the right to privacy of individuals outweighs the freedom of search engines to link to information about them although the information itself can remain on web pages.
The Guardian understands that the applications have been made to remove links to information that the complainants say is outdated or irrelevant including, in the UK, a former politician who is now seeking office and wishes information about their behaviour while in office to be removed. A man convicted of possessing child abuse images has demanded links to pages about his conviction are taken out of the index, while a doctor has said that negative reviews from patients should not be searchable.

In total hundreds of people have made claims across Europe since the ruling was released on Tuesday morning.

Google, which has more than 90% of the search market in Europe, declined to comment on how many applications it has received, or their nature.

A Google spokesperson said: "The ruling has significant implications for how we handle takedown requests. This is logistically complicated not least because of the many languages involved and the need for careful review. As soon as we have thought through exactly how this will work, which may take several weeks, we will let our users know."

Google already removes millions of links per month from its indexes where copyright holders such as music and film companies say they infringe their content. But those are largely automated. In the case of people demanding removal, each request would have to be considered individually.

The European court of justice ruling on Tuesday was criticised on Wednesday by Google's executive chairman, Eric Schmdt, who said that the ruling was over "a collision between a right to be forgotten and a right to know. From Google's perspective that's a balance. Google believes, having looked at the decision, which is binding, that the balance that was struck was wrong."

But Viviane Reding, the European commission's vice-president, said that the ruling "is exactly what data protection reform is about, making sure those who do business in Europe respect European laws, and empowering citizens to take the necessary actions to manage their data".

The ruling says that search engines must remove links where they point to information that is "irrelevant or outdated" but that the original information itself can remain. That could cause tensions between the search engines and news organisations, because the latter may argue that links should not be removed, creating a tug of war that leaves the search engines at risk of being sued by both the complainant and the original source of the information.

The ECJ ruling includes a public interest test, which says that search engines do not have to honour removal requests if keeping the links about a person "is justified by the preponderant interest of the general public in having, on account of inclusion in the list of results, access to the information in question".

In the case of the ex-politician seeking office, or a convicted paedophile, that could mean Google and others will have a reason to reject calls to expunge their index.
Google and other search engines operating in Europe, including Microsoft's Bing and Yahoo, will have to devise procedures that allow them to accept requests for link removal from individuals. But sources with knowledge of Google's procedures said that a suggestion by Hamburg's deputy data commissioner that it would have procedures in place within two weeks were incorrect.

Google is understood to be considering offloading the task of deciding whether links should be removed from its index to the data protection commissioners in the country where requests are received – a move that could add significantly to the commissioners' caseload, which in some cases is already under considerable strain.
The UK's information commissioner, Christopher Graham, is currently reviewing the ruling, but a spokesman for his office declined to comment on the possibility of taking on the task of reviewing such cases. "We are still studying the ruling," he said.

Have Digital Devices Become Modern Fetishes?
Thursday | Apr 10 2014
                                                                                                  Image Credit: Kat N.L.M /
In the first season of the television series Revolution a show about a post-apocalyptic Earth where electrical devices cannot function Maggie Foster, played by Anna Lise Philips, carries a defunct cell phone in hopes that one day the power will return and she will be able see the photos stored within of her lost children. The cell phone becomes her fetish, dark and inactive, yet charged with emotion, memory and anticipation.

Maggie’s anxiety mirrors the feelings reported by subjects in The International Center for Media and the Public Agenda’s 2010 study A Day Without Media. The study asked 200 students at the University of Maryland, College Park to spend 24 hours media free—no phones, no Internet, no television.

The study found that “the portability of all that media stuff … changed students’ relationship not just to news and information, but to family and friends—it … caused them to make different and distinctive social, and arguably moral, decisions.” Students reported being surprised by how much they felt “cut off from [the] instantaneous flow of information.”

We live in a world of information, deluged daily by bits of information vying for our attention. Seemingly insignificant trivia when combined with a chime, song clip or photo become urgently vital. Normal practices of communication like mail and conversation, once digitized, become tokens small discrete objects to be collected, archived, manipulated and displayed.

Like B.F. Skinner’s pigeon we tap and gesture incessantly trying desperately to stay “connected;” our sense of seeking, designed by eons of evolution, efficiently exploited by the gamification of communication.

Since human beings seem to be “wired” for “connection,” it is not surprising that parallels exist between the “new” seeking via cellphone and the ancient seeking via fetish of the traditional Bakongo people of the Congo.

In the Bakongo’s religious system, the fetish, called nkisi or minkisi in the plural, is a vessel containing items collectively called bilongoBilongo are bits of glass, pieces of bone or shell, scraps of cloth, plants, seeds, or whatever may invoke metaphor or similitude between the powers of the ancestor-spirits and the items within the container.

The nkisi is a collection of potencies “animated by [the] powers represented metaphorically and metonymically by the bilongo,” serving as a bridge between this world and the next, providing a place for the spirits to reside and aperture through which their power is focused.

Like the minkisi today’s smartphones focus the instantaneous flow of information and house the array of metaphorical processes called applications or apps. They provide a place where we can access the other world, the virtual world, housed in servers, collected by and mined by institutions, and hypostasized as the “cloud.” Our modern day fetishes channel the flow of information buffering our access and helping us manage the excess.

However, more than managing the overwhelming stream of information smartphones also change the grammar of our associations. If duration and presence are the touchstones for the intensity of our intimate relations then the world of app-mediated communication offers frequency and immediacy in its place.

The grammar of association, the rules by which we come to “know” someone, are subtly shifting. We now live in a world where there are entire categories of intimate associations with whom we texttweetlike, and email before we call or meet fact-to face. In fact, we may have friends and associates who are dear to us whom we may never meet face to face and yet they feel as close to us as persons we see daily.

Our digital devices, be they cell phones, tablets, watches or Google glasses fix an axis between worlds. They organize and mediate the array of memories—photos, songs, logs, texts, emails, voice messages, geo-location data or searches—that are stored in servers around the world.

This new prosthetic memory, just recently accessible to the masses, is a reality separate from our own with its own laws and properties. Our phones function very much like the Bakongo fetish, storing and harnessing the array of powers necessary to make the other world real and our prosthetic memories manifest.

However, also like the fetish, it obscures the reality of an ever-diminishing space of authenticity and privacy, masking surveillance with utility, and anxiety with ecstasy. As the saying goes: “know magic; shun magic.”

Sources and Additional Reading:

International Center for Media & the Public Agenda . Study: Conclusions. 2010. Accessed March 2, 2014.

Fennel, Christopher C. "Group Identity, Individual Creativity, and Symbolic Generation in a BaKongo Diaspora." International Journal of Historical Archaeology 7, no. 1 (03 2003): 1-31.

International Center for Media and the Public Agenda. Mobile Phones, 2010. Accessed March 5, 2014.

Kane, Scott Thurm and Yukari Iwatani. "Your Apps Are Watching You; A WSJ Investigation finds that iPhone and Android apps are breaching the privacy of smartphone users." Wall Street Journal, December 17, 2010.

Lehrer, Jonah. Information Addiction, August 14, 2009. Accessed December 31, 2014.

Ling, Rich. Teens, Texting, and Social Isolation. May 3, 2010. Accessed March 4, 2014.

Mundie, Craig. "Privacy Pragmatism." Foreign Affairs 93, no. 2 (March/April 2014): 28-38.

Penenberg, Adam L. The Surveillance Society. December 2001. Accessed March 4, 2014.

Pietz, William. "The Problem of the Fetish." Anthropology and Aesthetics 9, no. spring (1985): 5-17.

Simmel, Georg. The Sociology of Georg Simmel. Edited by Kurt H. Wolff. New York, New York: The Free Press, 1964.

Yoffe, Emily. Seeking 530 0 How the brain hard-wires us to love Google, Twitter, and texting. And why that's dangerous. August 12, 2009. Accessed March 5, 2014.

Image Credit: Kat N.L.M. /

To read previous issues of Sightings, visit:
Author, Rory Johnson, (Ph.D. University of Chicago Divinity School) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Comparative Religion at Miami University. His work focuses on the intersection of religion, aesthetics, technology, and economy. He was a 2005-06 Junior Fellow in the Marty Center.

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