Search Me and Know Me, O Google
“When I first saw Google Glass, I knew it would offer us a chance to radically reconceive spiritual development.”
That’s what Jace Enders, founder of Second Creation Media in Austin, Texas, told me when describing the app he and his team are creating for Google’s upcoming product called “Glass.” For the uninitiated, Google Glass is one of the first consumer ready “wearable computing” products that, when worn like traditional glasses, lays a small computer screen over one’s field of view offering notifications such as directions, weather, and text messages. It also features a camera for taking audio and video without the need to hold a camera.
But according to Enders, taking photos and getting updates are the least interesting features of Glass. “I want to use wearable computing to help Christians monitor their spiritual development. Like a digital Holy Spirit, our GodFilter app is always there providing guidance, warnings, and encouragement.”
The GodFilter App: Turn Right at the Next Sin
So just what does a digital Holy Spirit actually “look like”? First, what you need to know is that Enders’ app GodFilter is not so much about what you see as much as it is what it sees about you. It’s constantly monitoring what you do on a variety of levels, and then it performs actions based on triggers you set up.
“Let’s say you pull into a parking lot of an adult-oriented establishment,” explains Enders. “GodFilter will cross check with Google Maps, and then either try to dissuade you personally or send a text to your spouse or pastor warning them about what’s going on.”
This, of course, could probably be performed with existing phone technology, but what Enders told me next is a huge leap ahead. “The voice recognition on Glass is astounding. Since it’s always on, we can monitor not just what you say, but how you say it.” This let’s GodFilter detect your mood such as if you’re particularly happy or, more importantly, if you start getting angry.
“When GodFilter hears you raise the volume or pitch of your voice, it guesses that you might be getting frustrated at a situation or person. At a certain level, it will warn you that this isn’t a good time to send emails or texts. We can even remotely shut down your laptop if you allow it.” Though undeniably creepy, for those of us who’ve ever sent an email we later regretted or a text before properly cooling down from a session in Battle School, this sounds like a helpful concept.
The Future Will Be Prude, Or Not
It turns out this is just the beginning. Glass hasn’t even been released to the public yet, but Jace’s team wants to add even more powerful features. For example, they plan to add a visual filter that can make a provocatively dressed person appear more modest.
“You can’t always predict what people will wear these days and rather than worrying about it, Glass lets us paint a jersey on guys playing shirtless basketball or a dress on a woman in a short skirt.”
Though Jace is shy about mentioning this, he is receiving funding from Muslim groups exited about this the possibility of making all women appear to be dressed in traditional Hijab or Burqa clothing that covers all but a woman’s eyes and hands.
“I hate to bring this up, but we’re going to see people creating apps that do the opposite, too. If someone is going to make everyone appear less-clothed, we want to be there with an alternative from day one.” Enders is wiggin’ me out!
The Future of Spirituality is Gamification
To top it all off, Jace’s team is trying to package all this together into a continuously updated rating system. “What if we could give you some kind of indicator that would help you track your spiritual progress? A clear number, like a test score, that’s objective, and that you can share online and compare with others.”
Perhaps detecting my skepticism, Jace compares GodFilter it to existing software like calorie counters or exercise trackers. “Some people really don’t know how much they eat until they start tracking it honestly. GodFilter helps us to the same with sin and holiness. It gives us a perspective of what God sees every day.”
At this point, I can’t help but ask Jace what his score is. “Well, we don’t have the algorithm quite right yet, so I’m not really quite sure.”
But I persist in playing Enders’ game, asking him what little problems areas GodFilter might have uncovered in his life. He brushes me off, “Ha! That’s between me and my accountability partners who have access to my progress indicators. Sometimes it’s great, and sometimes it’s discouraging. But at least I don’t have anything to hide now.”
Is This Really So Far-Fetched?
By now, the discerning reader will have detected my ruse. Of course, there is no Jace Enders and no GodFilter app. Yet.
But while this may seem unimaginable or outlandish today, consider that many Christians are already using digital technologies to help manage spiritual disciples and sinful behaviors. It didn’t take long for Christian groups to create Internet filters to help block unsuspecting eyes (or very intentional ones) from reaching illicit content. Today, those filters evolved into social tools like Covenant Eyes that don’t block violent or pornographic sites, but rather report them to accountability partners.
What about YouVersion, the almost ubiquitous Bible app? It started with the idea of people sharing notes and later transformed into a universal Bible reader. But what is more intriguing than putting Bibles into mobile form is YouVersion’s daily Bible-reading schedules. They don’t just track your progress, they actively remind you on a daily basis to read the next section. Is that not a kind of digitally-based spiritual discipline? If so, in what direction are we heading?
Offloading Spiritual Progress
Like most of us, I’ve offloaded significant amounts of my memory to technology. I no longer know dozens of phone numbers – my phone and desktop contacts are all synced to the cloud. I don’t know who I’m having lunch with tomorrow, but my calendar does. And so on.
In theory, there’s nothing wrong with this mental/digital data dump. Now that my mind no longer has to store useless telephone numbers, I’m free to think about other things.
But what happens when we offload our moral and spiritual progress to a device? Certainly, in the case of daily Bible reading alerts, it seems quite helpful, but is there a point at which we lose something essential to our formation into the image of the Son of God? What about those Bible verses I don’t remember any more, but still know how to find through searching?
At the same, time calorie exercise tracking apps do seem to help people monitor and eventually change their behavior. Couldn’t an app do the same for spiritual progress?
What Is Holiness Anyway?
Believe it or not, my point in all of this is not really to discuss technology or fictional apps. What I’m really trying to do is surface questions about what it truly means to grow spiritually.
I have found that when a new technology comes along, it offers us a new way of doing things and in so doing, it challenges our unexamined assumptions about how things actually work. No doubt, new devices like Google Glass and the inevitable Christian apps developed for it, will require us to confront our thinking about what it means to be conformed into the image of Christ.
If an app can help us do more good things (read our Bible, pray, and so on) and avoid bad things (ogling the body of another, speaking angrily), is that spiritual progress in a truly Christian sense? Would shielding our eyes from unclean things out there make us any cleaner on the inside?
We Christians believe that when we enter into the life of faith in Jesus Christ (i.e. “ask Jesus into our heart,” “become a Christ-follower,” “join the church,” or some other catchphrase), we begin a process of transformation that will not end until we die. From the moment we first believe, we are adopted into the family of God, considered as righteous as God’s own Son, and promised resurrection and restoration. And yet, frustratingly, the fullness of these promises won’t be realized until our Savior returns for his Bride.
In the mean time, however, God has promised, by the Spirit of Christ, to conform us into the likeness of his Son. In Biblical language, this process is called “sanctification,” and it is far deeper than simply sinning less or checking spiritual discipline boxes.
So what then is the secret? How might we move beyond sin management techniques and get to some kind of true change?
If the title of Eugene Peterson’s classic A Long Obedience in the Same Direction is any indication, it will take a few more steps beyond installing an app. That said, Christians throughout the ages have found that regularly engaging in the spiritual disciples like prayer, silence, meditation, Scripture memory, and fasting can be used by the Spirit of God to mold us over time, and if an app helps remind us to do that, I’m pretty sure the Spirit can use that, too.