A Jubilee Year for the Internet
This is a guest post by Sam Novey.
Abraham Lincoln didn’t go to services on Rosh Hashanah.
But on this Rosh Hashanah, Rosh Hashanah 2010, we are asking to be written in the book of life and entering the ten days of teshuvah at a time when our online lives are so intertwined with our real lives that the structure of the world online is inevitably a part of these holy processes. Even though history might be different if Lincoln hadn’t let John Wilkes Booth know where he was by checking into Ford’s Theatre on foursquare that fateful night in 1865, good ole Honest Abe has some useful things as we renew ourselves in a more connected and searchable world.
In December 1862, one month before signing the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln spent days toiling over a message to Congress. The concluding paragraph is a rousing call.
“The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.” -Abraham Lincoln
Now the theme of emancipation is one that we as Jews are familiar with. But Lincoln’s message highlights an important aspect of emancipation that is often overlooked. Emancipation is not just about justice for slaves. As Lincoln says, we must rise to the challenges of our times, and these challenges require us to think and to act in new ways. How can we think and act in new ways if we are stuck in the same social roles that we have inhabited our whole lives? Stuck in roles that we may have even inherited from our parents or even grandparents. Master and slave, employer and employee, rich and poor. The problem with persistent, generationally inherited inequality is not only the injustice for those who get the short end of the stick. It is the erosion of a society’s ability to rise to the occasion when it is piled high with difficulty. How can you think anew and act anew when your role in the world is entirely defined by your past? How can you think in new ways when the world is constantly adapting itself to fit your old ways?
When a tradition manages to stick around for 5000+ years like ours has, it bears the lessons of quite a few occasions piled high with difficulty and provides processes that make us able to rise to them.
Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each one of you is to return to his family property and each to his own clan. 11 The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. 12 For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields. 13 ” ‘In this Year of Jubilee everyone is to return to his own property… ” ‘If one of your countrymen becomes poor among you and sells himself to you, do not make him work as a slave. 40 He is to be treated as a hired worker or a temporary resident among you; he is to work for you until the Year of Jubilee. 41 Then he and his children are to be released, and he will go back to his own clan and to the property of his forefathers. 42 Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves. 43 Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God.
Obviously there is a social justice aspect to the jubilee year. But the benefit is not just for the indentured servants. It is a benefit to the owners as well. The process of renewing ourselves and escaping our old contexts and ways of thinking is a holy one for all members of the community, and the Torah makes that clear. Go back to verse 12: “For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you.”
As we try to think anew and act anew this Rosh Hashanah, living in a searchable and connected world creates new challenges in two distinct ways that require two distinct solutions.
First, when all our actions are searchable, from a particularly spiteful blog post to an unfortunate Facebook photo posted by a friend, the likelihood that others will treat you differently based on those past actions rises. Having a searchable past affects how others view us just as gossip would have in the past. When does search become lashon ha-ra?
This problem occurs due to our own perception of facts that are now available, and the challenge lies with us to offer others redemption. The Talmud admonishes us “If a man was a repentant [sinner], one must not say to him, ‘remember your former deeds.'” This principle holds as true today as it did in the time of rabbis. But today, living up to their words is harder because we are more likely to know the exact nature of the former deeds which a repentant sinner must not be reminded of. Dealing with this first new challenge is a human struggle, and the only solution lies with each our individual ability to give others the opportunity for redemption.
Second is the challenge posed by personalization. Just as individuals scour the Internet for evidence of your past actions and identity, computers do as well. In fact, they do it in a much more complete way than individuals do. For the past year and a half, Google has been tracking the web pages you visit and personalizing your search results. That means you and I get different Google results even if we put in the exact same terms. Acxiom, the most important tech company you’ve never heard of, had 62 billion pieces of data about individuals stored on its five acres of servers in Arkansas that they sell to advertisers so they can show you uncannily personalized ads. In Japan, companies have begun testing billboards in public places that use facial recognition technology to figure out characteristics about passersby and display appropriate ads. Just like in Minority Report.
For the most part this personalization is a good thing. Amazon’s personalized book suggestions are often right on target and I enjoy books I was unaware of. Personalized advertisements alert me to products that are awesome but I had no idea people were selling.
But when it comes to thinking anew and acting anew, personalization is problematic. When my Google Reader RSS feed knows that I read several liberal blogs from The New Republic, it helpfully suggests that I read several other liberal blogs that people who like the same things I do also read. While I do enjoy these blogs, the chance of me being confronted by a blog from an opposing perspective is increasingly small.
Just like other people use their knowledge of my past actions to judge me and calibrate what they say and do in my presence, computers are doing this too, and they are doing it very well.
On these Holy Days in 2010, we will pray for hours on end, atone for our misdeeds in the past year, and pledge to redeem ourselves by thinking and acting anew in the new year. We are continuing a yearly ritual tradition that has been practiced by our ancestors for millennia. But the influence of technology makes it harder than ever to actually achieve the redemption we are commanded to seek over the next 10 days.
The Internet is here to stay, and search and personalization are only going to get better. There is a reason why the Luddites didn’t make it out of the 19th century while the Jewish people have survived and thrived for thousands of years. As times and technologies change, our tradition provides the framework to embrace them in a constructive and Jewish way. Rather than using tradition as an excuse to cling to the past, we use it as a compass to navigate the future.
And that is why in 2010, we need a Jubilee Year for the Internet. In the past, individuals in the Jubilee year started anew, shedding the social status of their past. In the jubilee year of the Internet, we will take steps so that people can be free from information available about them online.
Solving the challenges of searchability and personalization will require change in the actions of both us and our computers. For searchability, we must all think more deeply about when we cross the line from seeking information about people for purely instrumental reasons, and when we are searching too much, and engaging in activity that the rabbis could only classify as lashon hara, or gossip. The responsibility partially lies with us. Just as Jewish values tell us to change the topic when a friend wants to gossip with us, we must refrain from searching in overly invasive ways.
But our tools and structures have values as well. When we build our house in a more environmentally friendly way, Jewish values become a part of the bricks and mortar. And when we build a Jubilee Year for the Internet into the code that builds the structure of our online world, Jewish values become a part of the HTML.
What does it mean to build a Jubilee Year for the Internet into the code? For searchability, it is hard to do much with code to set people free from their past. You can’t change your prior actions, and it is unreasonable to expect people who posted about them to remove these things from the Internet. We are the ones searching, and it is our responsibility not to abuse this opportunity.
But for personalization, there is a lot we can do with code to make us better able to think anew and act anew. Computers are constantly searching for data about us and using algorithms to personalize the information we receive. This is fine and great for commerce. There should be a regular opportunity, however, for users to reset their algorithms. In a jubilee year for the Internet, personalization algorithms would “forget” all the data they have gathered about you. You will have a blank slate from which you can renew yourself. Personalized information going forward would only be given to you based on actions and data points collected since the jubilee year. Netflix will forget that you ever watched the entire Terminator series. Google will forget that I am a progressive Democrat. Credit card companies will forget who my Facebook friends are when deciding whether to offer me credit.
Abe Lincoln may never have gone to a synagogue, but his challenge to think anew and act anew sounds clearly on this Rosh Hashanah. In a searchable and connected world, however, we must apply the values of our tradition to the technologies of our present. Otherwise, the stormy present may overwhelm us.