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June 18, 2010

2

‘Quod scripsi, scripsi’ and the omniscience of Google

by quaesitor

Earlier this week, I was speaking at a consultation of international seminary teachers (organised by Langham) about the educational potential provided by new technologies. We got onto blogging and its pros/cons – and especially how careful one needs to be about editing before posting. For everything uploaded gets downloaded by Google – and remains in perpetuity (or for as long as their data farms have power). That’s how they achieve such speedy searching.

What it means is that even if you delete a post or file from your blog, myspace or any other site, a record of it will remain somewhere out there. Hence the warnings about firms discovering the less than savoury antics of potential employees from their facebook pages. Publishing and broadcasting have, up until now, been the preserve of such a few, some would say elite, and the processes involved so complex and involved, that the potential for the man on the street to leave trivialities and embarrassments to posterity has been greatly restricted. (Still, it’s incredible how much triviality and embarrassment has been broadcast and published). The web has changed all that. Now, anyone can say anything to anyone ‘forever’. So be careful. Google really does ‘know everything’ (cartoon is from the ingenious and iconoclastic Wellington Grey).

“Quod scripsi, scripsi”

Pontius Pilate famously uttered these words (though he probably said them in Greek, not Vulgate latin as quoted here) ‘What I have written, I have written‘ in response to the request from chief priests to remove the sign on Jesus’ cross declaring him to be ‘The King of the Jews’ (in John 19:21-22). Of course, his was the rather dismissive, and perhaps apathetic, response of power – it’s a simple statement of his authority.

But you could say that anyone who writes anything online needs to learn to echo those words, to own those words. Because anything we write could return to haunt us. Who knows? Without wanting to sound melodramatic, such an acknowledgement may be a confession we must make, not because of a position of power but because of our own powerlessness. I’m certainly not wanting to sound paranoid here – but it is extraordinary how much more of ourselves we make accessible to anyone than people ever did before. Of course, the existence of a Google archive of everything we have posted doesn’t mean that anyone will actually look at it. But they could, if they wanted to…

But that’s actually nothing new…

But then one of the consultation leaders simply pointed out that, in a sense, it’s always been like this. For there is an accountability that we all have to the one who does know everything. And the awkward thing is that it’s not just what we post that he knows – but even what we contemplate posting and then think better of it. As the psalmist wrote:

O LORD, you have searched me and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD. (Psalm 139:1-4)

Alarming? Well, yes, not least because of these words of Jesus :

There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs. (Luke 12:2-3)

So in a sense, we have always had to fess up to what we’ve written, seen, said, done, thought.

  • Quod vidi, vidi
  • Quod dixi, dixi
  • Quod feci, feci
  • Quod putavi, putavi

But there is one crucial difference…

The difference is not what is known but who knows it

You see, one perspective on the exponential growth of technology is that we are constantly gaining abilities that were for centuries regarded as the preserve of divinity.

Google on 20th Anniversary of Berlin Wall's fall

We have gained the ability to communicate instantly over vast distances (a revelation of a sort); we have achieved speeds unthinkable even 100 years ago (like the fiery chariot given to Elijah); we have sources of power that can destroy the planet several times over (we seem to strive after omnipotence). And we now have the ability to discover almost anything about anyone: the algorithms that Google relies on to power its search engines have remarkable power not just to remember what you search for but actually to predict what you’ll search for next (see this fascinating article from yesterday’s Telegraph). It’s an omniscience of sorts.

All in all, it should shatter the myth of total, autonomous invisibility. As if that ever existed.

I suspect that our ancestors were much more aware of the consequences of their actions than we are because they knew there would be a reckoning. What’s salutary now is that it’s not just God who has the ability to know some of our most hidden realities. And I know who I’d rather trust to do the right thing with such knowledge of me: a judge who is also an advocate; a defender of truth and goodness who is also a merciful rescuer. It’s when human beings play at being God that I get really concerned.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Beata
    Jun 2 2011

    This is all a good reminder that we should be aware of what we write!

    Reply

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