Imagine a world where robotics became so technologically advanced that robots controlled people. The thought isn’t just fodder for sci-fi movies, it is, in fact, insidiously taking place in society today. However, students at North Central University (NCU) in Minneapolis who are part of the Institute for Digital Humanity (IDH) are at the very center of taking back that control.
Aaron McKain, director of English, Digital Media, and Communication Arts and a digital ethics scholar for the past 15 years, helped launch IDH in 2019 after a strong student reaction to his simple question: “Robots are taking over the world, what do you want to do about it?”
The IDH website now expands on that thought by posing a very direct question: “Technology is going to keep expanding and changing what it means to be a person, patient, citizen, politician, and student in the post-digital world — shouldn’t we all have a say where it’s heading?”
Shea Sullivan, a senior at NCU and the associate director of IDH, explains that IDH is a student-run think tank determined to advocate for people often not heard. The focus is on algorithmic discrimination, privacy rights, facial recognition, free and hate speech, and other technological invasions.
“Tech is overwhelming our world and taking over our normal lives,” says Hannah Grubb, also a senior at NCU and an IDH Research associate. “We can’t really stop it, but how do we regulate it better than it is?”
Sullivan provides an example of why better regulation is imperative as currently robots seek to manipulate how people think through the use of complex algorithms (instructions that transforms data into useful information).
“The way that you interact online — on Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, whatever you do — the computer is taking note of everything you click on, hover over, or whatever it is and starts to create a profile, this is what you like to see,” Sullivan explains. “That information goes into an algorithm, which uses the instructions it’s been given to calculate what things you prefer to see or might want to see. More often than not, you become stuck on one side of a filter bubble (for example, liberal or conservative) and the algorithm no longer allows you to see other viewpoints and you are fed information, accurate or not, that align only with that one side of the bubble.”
“Filter bubbles are the foundational problem,” McKain agrees, “but because we are bringing people together — Christians, Muslims, agnostics, people of Jewish faith, we don’t care what their background is — we are making progress by working together, from a multitude of perspectives, to fix this.”
But NCU is not a mega-school with tens of thousands of students and unlimited resources. So, how can a small Christian university with an institute made up of a relative handful of students do anything of note that could truly impact its community (much less the entire country)?
It already has.
Grubb says that with the help of IDH, a ban on using facial recognition technology was put into place in Minneapolis. “We’ve proven that facial recognition technology has both a racial and gender bias, meaning it can falsely identify people — all robots see are 1s and 0s, they don’t see people as people.”
McKain says that IDH has found acceptance among numerous secular schools and organizations because of its use of narrative theory in the discussion of any issue. A widely accepted problem-solving theory, useful in all realms of academia, narrative theory allows all sides of an issue to be openly explored and vetted. Also, as the IDH advocates for an unusual combination of support for the First Amendment (free speech) coupled with embracing the realities of racism and its impact upon people of all races, it has become, in a manner of speaking, a connecting point for those who, prior to this, had little potential of civil communication.
IDH is working with organizations such as Indiana University, Creighton University, numerous Christian colleges, African-American outlets, high schools, and others to de-program post-modernism (which says there is no real truth, and knowledge is always made or invented, not discovered) to help get the world’s hands back around the truth.
“Here we have 19-year-old kids fixing America by getting people to talk together,” McKain says. “And through this communication, people are getting vetted sources of information into these ‘filter bubbles’ each of us have and are improving our access to accurate information.”
McKain provides an impressive list of accomplishments for the upstart institute, noting again the facial recognition ban as well as partnering with local artists for teaching events; creating a national high school curriculum in partnership with the Anti-Defamation League; assisting the team that created Netflix’s documentary, Coded Bias, by developing complementary educational tools; and ongoing work with Indiana University on graduate and under-graduate curriculum on digital ethics.
However, McKain points out that when Christians neglect to have a voice in digital social media at its core, those who are creating the algorithms (that result in filter bubbles) are the ones making “the rules” for algorithms based on their own post-humanism and/or post-modernism values, which are non-Christian at best.
“You and I believe in forgiveness,” he states. “Privacy policies don’t — your worst moments are forever available. Many algorithms have also proven to be incredibly racist . . . and for many people, tech has become a form of religion as the digital world has become their primary mode of existence.”
Yet what these North Central University students have launched through IDH is far more than just a local “do-gooders” or “wishful thinkers” club. IDH has already been recognized as a viable tool to help make truth, trust, and civil communication alternative standards that can replace the current standards, which often embrace deceit, incite chaos, and purposely divide people in the pursuit of power and/or financial gain.
“People in the Christian world don’t realize this, but what these kids are doing at IDH, in terms of dollars and students and results, is one of the most significant academic victories in the last 30 years,” McKain says. “There’s really nothing to compare it to . . . these are not ‘social justice warriors,’ but Christian kids doing missional work as they reach across lines and create the playbook on how to save America.”