Tuesday, April 22, 2014

On Community

Tuesdays at the Chapel
Tim Hawkins



from JohnForeman.com, Data Privacy, Machine Learning, and the Destruction of Mysterious Humanity

"How should we respond to this distillation of human motivation into predictable models where mystery is replaced with math?

Well, one response would be to go along with it. There is no doubt that these models can make us happier. They’ll be able to place in front of us products and services that purport to match our needs. Or as the AI in Minority Report puts it, “Welcome back to the Gap Mr. Yakamoto! How did those assorted tank tops work out for you?”

But while happiness might increase, there can be no doubt that the meaning of our lives will decrease. As understanding of each person increases, as we all become predictable systems, our individual meaning and worth takes a hit.

The famous neurologist Viktor Frankl once said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.”

But in the face of sophisticated modeling and targeting the question is raised: in the future will we know our own mind enough to choose our attitudes? Or will the disingenuous arguments directed at us be so powerful that it will become impossible to know our own mind?

To Frankl, “A human being is a deciding being,” but if our decisions can be hacked by corporations then we have to admit that perhaps we cease to be human as we’ve known it. Instead of being unique or special, we all become predictable and expected, nothing but products of previous measured actions."

John Foreman, the author of the blog excerpt for the first reading and the recently released book called Data Smart, is the Chief Data Scientist for Mailchimp and more importantly a 2008 MIT graduate in Applied Mathmatics graduate program.

I met John before I became I began spending time with students at MIT.  John sized me up quickly when I asked what he studied:  “Math” was his reply to my naieve question, “So, what do you study at MIT.”  While factually correct, the answer was more of a way to end the conversation before I became more confused.

I spent a lot of hours peppering John with questions about algorithms.  Not really…I spent a lot of hours trying to understand how John thought about algorithms and how he was forming them to solve problems of waste in production of Sunkist orange drink…or whatever his current project.

We spent time each week over dinner, Bible study and cheap wine pushing through assumptions and questions about faith, what we believed about Jesus and how what we believed impacted things like algorithms.

John and his wife Lydia now live in the home of Mailchimp headquarters in Atlanta, GA.  Fortunately, because of my work on another board, I get to spend a fair amount of time in Atlanta each year and with John, Lydia and their three boys.

Shortly after meeting John, I met Craig, one of the first Fellows of the Legatum Center…an Sloan entrepreneur.  Craig is a passionate about free-markets, the challenge of distribution in developing countries and social enterprise.  A strong libertarian, our views on politics could not have been more at odds. 

He gives my kids copies of books about the history of money and global politics, and spends hours playing a board game with them called Acquire.  We spend days together skiing or at the beach with he and his wife, all while he makes fun of my hope for change during the election and presidency of President Obama.

I could tell you about Geoff, an Aerospace graduate student who was the first graduate student I met who enjoyed sports more than learning.

Geoff was an evangelical Christian, and one of his best friends a committed agnostic.  To Geoff I was not evangelical enough and to his roommate I was too much.

I could tell you more about Kyle, Christina, David, Kwasi Lisa and Michael.

Or the Thanksgiving when we hosted 24 graduate students from MIT from 9 different countries in our tiny, tiny 2nd floor Somerville apartment.

For years, a rotating group of these committed, thoughtful, intelligent people sat with us at our home.  Eating a home-cooked meal, drinking the best wine we could possibly afford on a graduate student and/or pastors budget (which is not really good wine at all I suppose!).  They took interest in our kids, invited us to be a part of their lives and thoughtfully engaged conversations about Jesus and the Kingdom of God (even if they were uncertain about their own belief).

I’m certain that my experience is not unique to those of us in this room.

And, as I reflected on a book or an individual that has changed/impacted my life, to share with you this morning, it gave me time to reflect not an individual or a book that I would identify this morning that has changed me or shaped me in a significant way, but this community, the MIT community.

And I hope that does not sound trite or pandering.

While those who have called MIT home or an alma mater might at times take the MIT community for granted (though I rarely if every have heard anyone say this), it is this revolving door of inspired world-changers that continue to challenge and inspire me.

Last week my conversations ranged from the ethics of free-market, to the current advancement/challenges of robotics, a short lesson on 3-D printing at which time I was shone an engagement ring designed and printed by a young man who will propose soon, to the Biblical view of suffering and natural disasters, the everyday life of a grandmother living in poverty in Venezuela, and origins and reliability of sacred texts. 

And my connection to the MIT community is relatively small.

The reading that you heard from John Foreman, and the reading you will hear after from Sherry Turkle, are readings from the MIT community.  They, along with others, are continuing to raise the questions about our understanding and assumptions regarding humanity and the nature of self, about our collective understanding of community.  About the difference between being connected and being cared for, about the difference between mechanized response and genuine empathy and if the difference matters, will matter or should matter.

Because these chapel reflections are self-reflections, I am not attempting to give either a philosophical position or a biologically determined defense our understanding of self.

Only that the shared food, shared, laughter, shared caring, shared stories, shared arguments, shared wine, shared differences and shared needs I have experienced are somehow life-giving and seem worth protecting and fostering.

As a pastor, I have heard probably every complaint in the book there is to hear about church.  And most of them have probably come from me.

But, the church at its best…

The community that, “[was] together and had all things in common; 45 and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. 46 Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people.

from Sherry Turkle's Alone Together

"Ours has been called a culture of narcissism. The label is apt but can be misleading. It reads colloquially as selfishness and self-absorption. But these images do not capture the anxiety behind our search for mirrors. We are insecure in our understanding of ourselves, and this insecurity breeds a new preoccupation with the question of who we are. We search for ways to see ourselves. The computer is a new mirror, the first psychological machine. Beyond its nature as an analytical engine lies its second nature as an evocative object."