When I went to bed that night, I thought of how odd it was that my friend downstairs thought he was watching television by himself. In reality, I was upstairs seeing everything that he chose to watch or to pass over. I thought of how embarrassing it would be if he had paused on anything raunchy. And I thought a whole lot about how uncomfortable I’d feel if I knew that someone was always watching my television screen or my computer monitor.
But the truth is that someone actually is always watching my television screen and my computer monitor!
Because of the amazing advances in technology in just the last few years, I now have a nearly infinite range of choices about what to watch, what to look at, and when and where to do it. It’s all at the touch of my finger and it’s all directed by my individual choice. But all that choice has a startling flip side: every time I make a decision about what to watch or what to click on, I’m also building a profile that companies like Facebook, Amazon, and Comcast can use to predict what else I might want to watch or read.
That means that if a pornographic image pops up on Facebook and I click on it, I’m adding that choice to my profile. I’m telling Facebook that I’d like to see more of that kind of image. If I read a sample of a salacious novel on my Kindle, I’m telling Amazon that I’d like to see more books of that genre. On some sites (and coming soon to many more sites), even the way I scroll through a page or move my mouse around images is enough to evaluate my interests and build suggestions around them.
Thus our virtual profiles become a telling model of an important real-life principle: Our decisions determine our destinies.
In the real world, we inevitably become the product of our habits. The small daily decisions we make about how to behave, what to think about, and how to treat other people eventually make us who we are. And similarly, an online profile builds and builds over time to become a reflection of its author.
What I hadn't appreciated until this week, when I watched a great TED talk by Sally Kohn, is that in addition to building your own profile as a reflection of yourself, you’re also voting for what should be available online. If you click on a pornographic image or an article with someone ranting viciously about a political opponent or on an article with nasty rumors about a celebrity, in addition to building your own private (and very ugly) profile, you’re also sending a direct message to companies that decide what to publish on the web. Every time you click on it, you’re submitting a single “Yes” vote for that ugliness to perpetuate online.
But there are alternatives. As the apostle David Bednar has frequently pointed out, “technology in and of itself is neither inherently good nor bad. Rather, the purposes accomplished with and through technology are the ultimate indicators of goodness or badness.” You can use online resources and social media to invite the Holy Ghost into your life and to increase your personal capacity “to live, to love, and to serve in meaningful ways.”
In other words, you can also vote “Yes” to a lot of wonderful content and you can also build up a wonderfully positive profile. As one example, in the last few weeks, I've loved seeing lots of Facebook friends share pictures of flowers. That’s simple and fun and beautiful. I've also always thoroughly enjoyed chances to see nephews learning to walk or to get updates on a family member in the hospital. More than anything, I enjoy daily opportunities to hear online from friends all over the world who express their positive outlooks and share challenges they face and overcome.
Wendy and I sometimes go to movies we’re unsure about. They look “OK” and we want to go on a date and we figure it’s worth gambling on. In that situation, I find that the best indicator of how the movie will be is what previews they decide to show before the movie starts. If the previews are immature, suggestive, violent, or just plain stupid, the movie probably is too. That’s why they were chosen in the first place! Someone specifically selected previews to appeal to the same dummy who paid money to see this equally low-bar feature film that’s about to follow.
I wonder about the online profile I've slowly built with the thousands of votes I've placed over time: the sites I've clicked on, the books I've read, the images I've hovered the pointer over or slowed down the scroll bar for. What does that profile look like? What if someone showed it as a preview to my biography? How well would all those tiny decisions accumulate to reflect the person I am? And how close would it be to the person I want to be?