I attended a fantastic summit on Decision Sciences this week. It was all about the next wave of technology using data in incredible ways because it is now affordable enough to keep so much data, it is connected, and we have tools that can combine and analyze it rapidly despite it’s volume, variety and the velocity at which it is growing.
They had a repeating information presentation playing before it started – the type with facts that make you think. An interesting one read:
In the year 320 BC all the data in the world was believed to be recorded at the Library at Alexandria. Today there is enough data in the world to give every person on earth 320 times that much data. If all of it was put on CD and stacked, they could reach from the earth to the moon five times over.
Surely they took some liberty with this but clearly we are living in a world of exponentially growing data.
The growing tools and skills to mine this big data world are bringing about amazing promise and scary possibilities. There is no doubt that the personalization possible will enable companies to tailor great experiences to users. However, the convenience comes with many challenges to security, privacy, and ethics in general. While I intend to blog more about this technology on my business blog. Here on my Christian blog, this idea made me think about Babel.
While much of social media data may be seen by some as not much more than babble, it was the imagery of five stacks of CD to the moon that made me instantly think of the tower of Babel in Genesis 11 in the Bible. If you don’t know the story, people essentially reasoned as follows:
“Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” Genesis 11:4
I was reading an excellent book on God’s mission by Todd Ahrend on my way to the conference. He shared that the people were trying to avoid God’s command to “fill the earth” by staying in one place. Also, they didn’t trust God’s promise not to flood the earth again so they build a tower in an effort to overcome this. There is lots of fear and pride in these motivations. God’s response?
And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. 6 And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech. Genesis 11:5-7
It would be easy to think by comparing big data to Babel that I am saying big data is bad or evil. Christians tend to fear the new thing on the block. I am suggesting no such thing. I am very excited about this new field and what mankind will discover even though I am very aware it will be used for evil as well as good. That is the way of mankind.
The thought for me is more how we will tend grossly overstate it’s value. As we can mine and correlate the collective knowledge of all people, it could seem a somewhat god-like power. But it is so much less. For all it’s potential glory it is still nothing but a tower of Babel – men trying to attain to god-like status. All the collective knowledge of people is vastly less than the knowledge of God. Our knowledge is tainted by the knowledge of good and evil for one thing – much of that collective data is noise, inaccurate, and worthless. But even if it was all perfect, it would still be impossibly less than God’s knowledge.
It is interesting that God says in the Genesis passage, “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them”. Clearly much is impossible to mankind and God knows that. I believe the point of this statement and God’s decision to confuse their language and scatter them is because of God’s mercy and mission.
I’m sure it looks to some like God is being somewhat mean to people in this passage. What must be understood is that God created this world for the mission of filling it with sons and daughters of God. Allowed to our own devices, we find and fill our lives with purposes that mean nothing. It is impossible for us to do anything, but filling up our lives with our own meaningless purpose is not impossible to us. However, it is impossible to make those purposes God’s – we must start with His purpose if we ever hope to find our true purpose. God, in his mercy, redirects us back to His purpose because it is the only real purpose for us.
Besides, knowledge is not that powerful or valuable anyway. It won’t give you peace or love – those come from God alone.
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 4:6
And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. – 1 Corinthians 13:2,8