GodFilter: The New Google Glass App That Will Transform Your Spiritual Life

Photo Credit: Ted Eytan
Photo Credit: Ted Eytan

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.

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Where Are Rob Bell’s Glasses?

Bell Glasses Off
Bell going “Glasses Off” in 2013

About a month ago, Rob Bell, former pastor of Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, released a book called What We Talk About When We Talk About God. Since then, there have been quite a few reviews offering various critiques and overviews as well as treatises on Bell’s significance.

This book hasn’t generated quite the firestorm his last book did, and while I think that and the content of Bell’s message are interesting, I’m even more fascinated by Bell’s uncanny ability to use various media to his advantage.

Mastering a New Medium

Bell - Nooma
Bell with his trademark glasses (pre 2013)

As just two examples of Bell’s use of media, I’d point to his ground breaking Nooma videos and the release strategy of Love Wins.

When the first Nooma video was released, there were plenty of other DVDs with Christian material. But most of these videos simply replicated the church-based preaching or speaking of a popular teacher. They might change the setting slightly from a church pulpit to a more interesting stage, but the delivery was essentially the same with a new coat of paint.

This was similar to the way reporters treated television when it was first introduced. In their radio days, reporters read well-written scripts to a microphone, so that’s what they did in front of a camera. After a while, they figured out that to use  TV as TV they would have to figure out a completely new delivery method.

Bell seems to have instinctively understood that the new medium of DVDs demanded an entirely new message format. DVDs are capable of transferring 45 minutes of data speech, but they are much better at telling visual narratives. So that’s what Bell did. He turned his teaching into a well-produced mini-movie rather than a well-recorded sermon. And people bought them. Lots of them.

Many people felt Bell’s content was weak or even in doctrinal error. But the masses who bought Nooma weren’t buying his message. They swiped their credit cards to get the feeling the DVD gave them, because that’s what DVDs do.

Focus on Questions, Not Answers

When it comes to Bell’s books, it’s also no surprise that he was capable not only of understanding how to use a new medium (like a DVD), but also how to turn an older form on its head and do something new.

With each of his books like Velvet Elvis, Sex God, and Drops Like Stars, he was able to write in a non-traditional prose style that infuriated traditional readers, but appealed to a generation skilled in consuming smaller bits of information like tweets, texts, and facebook updates.

Then with Love Wins, Bell also created a brilliant social media campaign. It started with a trailer that didn’t tell you the problem it was going to solve (5 steps to a better life) or offer a question it would answer (how does the atonement work?), but instead simply communicated, “This book is about a posture of questioning.” He then sent the full book to those likely to support his position, and only part of to those unlikely to support it. These moves captivated both popular and professional bloggers (including me) and catapulted what an already successful author into an even bigger space.

The point in both of these cases is that – contrary to popular belief – Bell isn’t using the medium to seem cool. Rather he chooses to use them in such a way that the medium itself communicates as powerfully, if not more so, than his actual message. Over breakfast, a very-well known author who publicly praised Love Wins told me, “The problem with Love Wins is that it’s not very well written.” Whether that’s true or not didn’t matter. It was the world around the book and way Bell used media that performed the communicative acts on his behalf.

So What about the Glasses?

All of this leads me to think that Bell’s decision to take of his glasses has been carefully thought out. It’s not designed to update his style, be more cool, or seem more relevant.

It’s designed to communicate.

To have meaning.

To “tell a story.”

But what is the story? Where does it start? And more importantly, where is it going?

See what I did there?

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A Technology Consumption Resolution

My Discipline Problem

Even though I regularly write, think, and speak about faith and technology, that doesn’t mean I’m immune to the lure of “technology addiction.”

Specifically, one area that I often struggle in properly disciplining is avoiding unnecessary email and social media checks when I’m home with my family. Sometimes when I pull out my phone “just to check the time,” I find myself wanting to check various apps and clear out unread items.

That’s not to say I’m always on my phone. Judging by other dads around me who are often glued to their glowing rectangles, I think I do a pretty decent job of keeping my phone in my pocket. Yet, the battle seems tougher than it needs to be, and being a rather lazy soul, I wanted to find a way to make things easier on myself.

Old Tech to the Rescue

Swiss Watch

So for Christmas I asked for something simple: a watch.

When I have my phone in my pocket and I my mind wanders to something I could do on the phone, I have to make a choice not to pull it out. Or if I need to check the time, I have to make a choice not to do more.

But now that I have the watch, when I got home from work the first thing I do is put my phone on the kitchen counter (turning the ringer on so I can hear it). This way, I’m free to play with my kids and enjoy my family, but I can still keep up with the time if needed.

By putting the phone off to the side, it’s a little harder to get to, and therefore less of a “temptation.” Of course, there are time when I do need it, and it would be more convenient to have it readily available. But with a watch on my arm, I have the tool I need is readily available, and the temptation I don’t want is just far enough away to make it unworthy of pursuit.

Thresholds are Your Best Tool

This strategy is very similar to techniques often recommended for diet and exercise. If you want to avoid sweets, you can make it easier on yourself by removing them from your immediate area and thereby “raising the threshold” necessary to consume them. Driving to the gas station is much harder than walking to the fridge, so when temptation strikes, you’re more likely to conclude it’s too much trouble to get them and then the feeling will pass.

Similarly, you can lower a threshold to make a difficult task easier. If you want to exercise in the morning, it’ll be easier if you set out clothes and shoes the night before. When you wake up, there will be less resistance (and fewer excuses) and you’re more likely to do it.

With technology, if there’s something you want to avoid you can raise the threshold a bit, intentionally making it just a little harder to consume so that you’ll have to think twice about whether you really need to.

I’ll let you know how my little watch experiment goes.

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Love Wins and Truth Prevails, But Speed Kills ‘em Both

Same Story, Different Teams

love winsThis weekend, we had our first family trip to the emergency room for my two-year-old which meant that I missed out on the fireworks in the Christian interwebs over Rob Bell. If you didn’t catch it either, Sarah Pulliam Bailey at CT did a great roundup and here’s the summary: (1) Rob Bell released a trailer and provocative synopsis for his new book on Heaven and Hell, (2) Justin Taylor, Denny Burk, and others wrote that it outed Bell as Universalist (but later backed off on more negative language), (3) Christians took sides and went nuts on everything with a “Publish” or “Post” button.

Most of us have probably forgotten by now, but a nearly identical set of events happened about 18 months ago to John Piper – the only difference was the teams were swapped. Piper said something vague and controversial, famous people who already don’t like his stuff denounced it, and then lots of emergent and neo-reformed types signed up for Twitter accounts.

As is my custom, I’d like to sidestep the actual theological issues at play and ask: How and why does this keep happening? Continue reading Love Wins and Truth Prevails, But Speed Kills ‘em Both

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Why You Need a Technology Basket at Home

The Best 2 Hours of the Day

During a normal work week, I get home around 5:30 and I put my son down for bed around 7:30. That means I have a maximum of 2 hours per day to foster one of the most important relationships I have. It also means that I have a whopping 22  hours a day to check email, facebook, twitter, read, sleep, etc.

Even though I have “all day” to check email and just two hours with my family, it’s hard for me to turn work off when I get home. I often find myself reaching for the phone in my pocket, believing that the world out there is somehow more important than the world right in front of me.

So for that window, I’ve decided to just pack up my devices where I can’t get to them. When I pull in the driveway, I leave my computer in my car or in the laundry room that sits between our garage and family room. I also like to leave my phone in there as well, although I keep it if I know I’ll be taking my son on a walk or doing something where I might truly need it. Continue reading Why You Need a Technology Basket at Home

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The iPad is the Message

Dr. Darrell Bock of Dallas Theological Seminary on the iPad

When the iPhone came out a few years ago, I remember seeing a few people pull them out during church, and I would always lean in to get a glimpse of the mythically powerful device (see Modern Family for a hilarious take on iPad hype). Well, today I was that guy with the fancy device only this time it was Apple’s much hyped iPad, and I sat in the very back row of church so I’d only distract my wife.

I actually bought it as part of my work responsibilities as DTS (pretty sweet perk, huh?) to continue building out their online education initiatives as we move into other languages like Arabic. To the right is screenshot of the video player I’ve been working on. If you’re using Safari or Chrome you can test it out at http://my.dts.edu/player-html5, but please note that it’s very, very rough right now since I built it without actually having an iPad to work with. Continue reading The iPad is the Message

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Today is the National Day of Unplugging

A small group of young, social media drenched Jews called Reboot is garnering attention from NYTimes and CNN for creating the Sabbath Manifesto, a project with the goal of taking back the Sabbath. Here’s their explanation:

Way back when, God said, “On the seventh day thou shalt rest.”  The meaning behind it was simple: Take a break. Call a timeout. Find some balance. Recharge.

Somewhere along the line, however, this mantra for living faded from modern consciousness. The idea of unplugging every seventh day now feels tragically close to impossible. Who has time to take time off? We need eight days a week to get tasks accomplished, not six.

They also have a helpful set of 10 principles for taking a day to disconnect:

  1. Avoid technology
  2. Connect with loved ones
  3. Nurture your health
  4. Get outside
  5. Avoid commerce
  6. Light candles
  7. Drink wine
  8. Eat Bread
  9. Find silence
  10. Give back

Sounds awesome to me. Do you have a Sabbath from technology in place in your life?

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How Roasting Coffee Helped Me Understand Technology and Theology

Adventures in Coffee Roasting

Five or six years ago, I was a textbook Mountain-Dew-fueled web developer who didn’t really like coffee. But coffee was quickly turning into a social standard, and I realized needed to start developing a tolerance. So I drove over to Starbucks and ordered up a cup of regular coffee. Sadly, it tasted like burnt turtles.

I was disappointed, but I knew if I didn’t overcome this I would miss out on all the coolness that happens when people “get coffee.” So I kept trying coffees and eventually found something that I liked. Then I bought a small coffee maker and started making it at home. One day, a coffee snob friend told me that coffee tasted better when it is freshly ground. So I bought a grinder and some fresh whole beans, and gave that a whirl. It definitely tasted better, though maybe not quite as much better as he told me.

Then I heard about something really special. Not only can you grind beans at your house, you can roast them. Another friend said if I bought a popcorn popper from eBay and got some beans from a place like www.sweetmarias.com, I could have coffee as it was meant to be experienced – freshly roasted.

If you want to know how it works, below is a silly video I made a few years ago (with Window Movie Maker, yikes!).

Borgmann’s Device Paradigm

Before we get back to the coffee, I want to tell you about an idea called the “Device Paradigm” coined by philosopher Albert Borgmann. In his 1987 book, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life, Borgmann observed a shift that happens in society as our tools and technology get smaller and smaller.

Continue reading How Roasting Coffee Helped Me Understand Technology and Theology

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Running Without All The Noise

The following is a guest post by Rhett Smith in a series called Media Ecology Experiments in which we encourage each other to use technology creatively and differently so that we can better understand how it shapes our world.

Running Statue
Credit: Manky Maxblack

I used to love field day back in grade school, especially the running events. Whether it was the 100 yard dash or the long distance run (usually one lap around the field) I loved running, and I often found myself throwing my head back and straining towards the finish line. Now if you have ever seen Chariots of Fire, then you know what I am talking about. Not only is that head motion forever inextricably linked with running, but so is the famed song “Chariots of Fire” recorded by Vangelis. It is hard to not think of that song when running and vice-versa. Music has a powerful grasp on our psyches when it comes to athletic events, especially running where carrying music with you on a run is part of the pleasures that come with this very popular hobby and sport.

Music Through the Years

Everyone has a favorite song or album that helps make running a powerful experience. I went through my Final Countdown and Cult of Personality phases in grade school. My Mama Said Knock You Out in high school. And more recently I have been in a huge Explosions in the Sky phase while running. And who of us hasn’t been into Eye of the Tiger?

Music and running just seem to go hand in hand.

Continue reading Running Without All The Noise

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5 Things I Learned from Reading the Newspaper

Back in June, I decided to try a little experiment in how I receive and read the news. My goal was to read news exclusively through a newspaper every day for two weeks. That meant no web news, no NPR in the car, and no TV (including TMZ, which is normally a rich source of reflection for me).

There is a lot of discussion about the slow extinction of the the newspaper and standards of journalism, but that wasn’t really my interest. I didn’t grow up reading newspapers, and I wanted to know how the experience of reading a paper at a fixed time every day compared to checking an RSS feed reader for blogs several times throughout the day. Here’s what I found:

1. Newspapers Are Expensive

On the first day of my experiment, I managed to demonstrate how naive I was about the world of newspapers. I was shocked to see to see that the Dallas Morning News weekday edition is $1.00 and the New York Times is $2.00. That’s more than a Venti coffee!

Interestingly, that expense played into how I interacted with the news. I found that the cost motivated me to really explore the paper and finish articles in contrast to web news which I often stop reading after the first paragraph.

Continue reading 5 Things I Learned from Reading the Newspaper

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