In your church, “Ben,” a young man is found to have a deep involvement with pornography, using his phone and laptop to access it regularly. Through patient, gentle, and loving confrontation, Ben has repented of his sin and is serious about change. His biblical counselor (also a member of Ben’s church) involves a godly, tech-minded believer to help Ben “clean house” and install software for filtering and accountability on all his devices and even the router. Ben’s online activities are currently restricted to only what is necessary to manage his home and perform his work. Ben’s counselor has administrative privileges on Ben’s devices for the time being. That way, Ben cannot uninstall or install applications himself.
With the advent of digital technology and the “information age,” these actions are what radical amputation tend to look like in cases like Ben’s. Radical amputation is an important part in turning away from and forsaking sin. Jesus emphasizes this in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:27-30:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell.”
Solomon warned his son about sexual temptation in a similar way in Proverbs 5:7-8:
Now then, my sons, listen to me and do not depart from the words of my mouth.
Keep your way far from her and do not go near the door of her house,
Note that “her” is the sensual woman Solomon speaks of throughout Proverbs 5. Today, she can be someone who is real, imagined, physically near us, or online. Below is how I illustrate it based on Heath Lambert’s excellent book, Finally Free. Heath reminds us that the biblical standard is serious, and the biblical stakes are deadly serious. The easy path of sexual immorality will kill, but the hard path of radical warfare against it leads to the fullness of life. When Ben struggles with the loss of conveniences formerly provided by his smartphone, he must remember the much higher penalty of not employing these radical measures.
Ben needs a serious strategy. He must aggressively remove (“throw-away”) anything that gives him access or fuels his temptation. We can decompose this strategy into three main components: Ben’s thinking, Ben’s time alone with technologies, and Ben’s access to technology.
While restricting time and access are important in the process of repentance, they do not change Ben’s heart. Heart change is a work of the Holy Spirit as Ben saturates his mind with the Word, regularly prays, repents, orients himself to pursue (“put on”) purity, and occupies himself with sacrificially loving his church family.
By installing filters and accountability software, Ben is limited in his ease of access to pornography. This gives him space to grow as he strengthens his resistance to temptation and accelerates his pursuit and practice of genuine purity from the heart. Ben and his biblical counselor also work to minimize Ben’s time alone with technologies and re-order his time around biblical priorities.
But recent developments in how online applications and services operate, dating back to around 2011, now provide an aggressive countermove to the “space to grow” from which Ben previously benefitted. Regardless of restrictions on his phone and laptop, he is bombarded with suggested links and ads that could be problematic. Some of the links are not openly pornographic, but they nevertheless lead to a rabbit trail that can eventually stir impure thinking and desires. Ben has not clicked on any of these yet, but he is concerned about moments of weakness.
What’s happening here is that enormous amounts of data on Ben and his previous online activities are stored in warehouses and will likely outlive Ben, regardless of what he has deleted. This data is used to train multiple, digital “models of Ben” that are very good at making complex correlations to predict Ben’s religious position, politics, how much he trusts different people he knows, how strong his different relationships are, his level of intelligence, if he likes working in teams, or if he uses drugs or abuses alcohol, if he likes pornography, and much much more. Every single thing Ben shares about himself is used, in turn, to predict things about him.
There is a multi-billion dollar industry centered on collecting and analyzing our data. Why? This is primarily driven by revenue, and the longer you stay online, the more ads tailored to what the algorithms predict you want to see can be presented to you. For example, have you ever searched online for a kitchen gadget that shows up on lots of different apps for a week afterward? How about going on YouTube to watch one video someone told you about, and two hours later, you’ve watched dozens of videos from the “Recommended for you” section.
This is commonly known as a persuasion architecture but built on a scale far beyond what even millions of human analysts can do by observing Ben’s every move every second of every day. Some refer to this as “artificial intelligence” or (more accurately) “machine learning.” It’s not really intelligence – it’s just a highly sophisticated way to program software to find subtle but important patterns in your data and correlate it with others similar to you. In many cases, your data and analysis (and therefore your attention) can also be sold to other apps or companies that want to market you with their products and services.
How effective are they? Back in 2012, when this technology was still fairly new, Target sent coupons for baby products to a 15-year old girl a full two weeks before she told her parents she was pregnant. The models not only predict if a woman is pregnant but can even predict her due date with impressive accuracy. The correlations are very subtle, like observing that the woman is buying more vitamins than usual or a large purse to carry some diapers.
What does this mean for Ben? Think back to Matthew 5; it’s like the “right eye” and “right hand” he threw away keeps coming back like an unwanted boomerang. The “door of her house” he is trying to stay far away from (Proverbs 5) has grown legs and keeps showing up right next to him. The machine learning models for Ben want him online, and they know well that any online activity that leads him down the path to viewing pornography accomplishes the most time in front of ads and, therefore, the most revenue.
We don’t know exactly how all the services and apps use our data, but our data resides outside of our devices, is owned by other companies, and is used to train complex algorithms; deleting data on our local phones and computers is not nearly enough. Radical amputation has to go further. Ben and his counselor need to consider deleting all of his online accounts and starting over; this includes accounts he uses to sign up for other apps like his email and social media (e.g., his Gmail account). Perhaps a fresh start goes all the way to the roots of our online personas.
We don’t just live in a new age of information and digital technology. This is unlike anything we have experienced. The technologies are not just making things more accessible and convenient for us all; they provide their owners with a powerful means to predict our personalities and essentially know more about us (especially our weaknesses) than our friends and family do. As a result, they are very good at manipulating (and selling) our attention.
I don’t want to leave the reader with a sense of paranoia. AI is not going to rise up against the humans, ok? AI is not really the main concern; in my opinion, it’s what people are doing with it. As believers, we are not to have a spirit of fear but wisdom. These sobering truths help us to look through the latest deceptions and see temptations and distractions for what they are.
However, the real battleground for our affections has not changed – it’s in our hearts. Ben needs to learn to use his devices with wisdom, but just as importantly, Ben needs to pursue holiness and purity through a holy obsession with the Word and God’s glory in his life. We all do. Praise God that “greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4)!
 Lambert, Heath. Finally Free: Fighting for Purity with the Power of Grace. Zondervan .
 An informative explanation can be found at https://www.ted.com/talks/zeynep_tufekci_we_re_building_a_dystopia_just_to_make_people_click_on_ads