The ethics of search filtering and big data: who decides ?

[Reflecting on discussions at the recent UK Internet Policy Forum, this post argues that societies as moral communities need to take a greater share in the decision-making about controversial issues on the web, such as search filtering and the use of open data. It won’t do to expect tech companies and data collectors to settle questions of ethics.]

Last week I was part of the large and engaged audience at the UK Internet Policy Forum meeting, convened by Nominet. The theme was ‘the Open Internet and the Digital Economy’, and the sessions I attended were on filtering and archiving, and on the uses of Big Data. And the two were bound together by a common underlying theme.

That theme was the relative responsibilities of tech providers, end users and government (and regulators, and legislators) to solve difficult issues of principle: of what should (and should not) be available through search; and which data about persons should truly be regarded as personal, and how they should be used.

On search: last autumn there was a wave of public, and then political concern about the risk of child pornography being available via search engine results. Something Should Be Done, it was said. But the issue – child pornography – was so emotive, and legally so clear-cut, that important distinctions were not clearly articulated. The production and distribution of images of this kind would clearly be in contravention of the law, even if no-one were ever to view them. And a recurring theme during the day was that these cases were (relatively) straightforward – if someone shows up with a court order, search engines will remove that content from their results, for all users; so will the British Library remove archived versions of that content from the UK Legal Deposit Web Archive.

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But there are several classes of other web content about which no court order could be obtained. Content may well directly or indirectly cause harm to those who view it. But because that chain of causation is so dependent on context and so individual, no parliament could legislate in advance to stop the harm occurring, and no algorithm could hope to predict that harm would be caused. I myself am not harmed by a site that provides instructions on how to take one’s own life; but others may well be. There is also another broad category of content which causes no immediate and directly attributable harm, but might in the longer term conduce to a change in behaviour (violent movies, for instance). There is also content which may well cause distress or offence (but not harm); on religious grounds, say. No search provider can be expected to intuit which elements of this content should be removed entirely from search, or suggest to end users as the kind of thing they might not want to see.

These decisions need to be taken at a higher level and in more general terms. It depends on the existence of the kind of moral consensus which was clearly visible at earlier times in British history, but which has become weakened if not entirely destroyed since the ‘permissive’ legislation of the Sixties. The system of theatre censorship was abolished in the UK in 1968 because it had become obvious that there was no public consensus that it was necessary or desirable. A similar story could be told about the decriminalisation of male homosexuality in 1967, or the reform of the law on blasphemy in 2008. As Dave Coplin of Microsoft put it, we need to decide collectively what kind of society we want; once we know that, we can legislate for it, and the technology will follow.

The second session revolved around the issue of big data and privacy. Much can be dealt with by getting the nature of informed consent correct, although it is hard to know what ‘informed’ means; difficult to imagine in advance all the possible uses that data might be used, in order both to put and to answer the question ‘Do you consent?’.

But once again, the issues are wider than this, and it isn’t enough to declare that privacy must come first, as if this settled the issue. As Gilad Rosner suggested, the notion of personal data is not stable over time, or consistent between cultures. The terms of use of each of the world’s web archives are different, because different cultures have privileged different types of data as being ‘private’ or ‘personal’ or ‘sensitive’. Some cultures focus more on data about one’s health, or sexuality, or physical location, or travel, or mobile phone usage, or shopping patterns, or trade union membership, or religious affiliation, or postal address, or voting record and political party membership, or disability. None of these categories is self-evidently more or less sensitive than any of the others, and – again – these are decisions that need to be determined by society at large.

Tech companies and data collectors have responsibilities – to be transparent about the data they do have, and to co-operate quickly with law enforcement. They also must be part of the public conversation about where all these lines should be drawn, because public debate will never spontaneously anticipate all the possible use cases which need to be taken into account. In this we need their help. But ultimately, the decisions about what we do and don’t want must rest with us, collectively.

Alister McGrath on C.S. Lewis: a double review

[This review will appear later this year in the Christianity and History Forum Bulletin. This extended version is published with the kind permission of the Editor.]

Alister McGrath, C.S. Lewis. A Life (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 2013)

Alister McGrath, The Intellectual World of C.S. Lewis (Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell, 2014)

In the words of Tom Wright, former bishop of Durham, ‘many of us thought we knew most of what there was to know about C.S. Lewis’. A problem for any scholar looking to shed new light on Lewis – literary scholar, Christian apologist and creator of Narnia – is the easy accessibility of the sources. Walter Hooper’s three volume edition of Lewis’ letters contains very nearly all that are known to have survived. The vast bulk of the essays were recently edited by Lesley Walmsley for Harper Collins. As for the books, a check of my own shelves revealed copies of more than half of the list, accumulated second-hand in recent editions without any great intent or effort. Most of the fiction and much of the apologetic work remains in print. Apart from the Lewis Papers, eleven volumes of manuscript transcripts concerning Lewis’s background in Belfast, there are no significant manuscript collections associated with Lewis that remain unmined.

Yet the wheels of the Lewis Studies machine continue to turn, with study after study traversing the corpus, parsing Lewis’ work in every conceivable way. But for all the attention paid to the works as texts, Lewis seems less well integrated into the history of British Christianity in the 1940s and 1950s than he ought to be. With the exception of Dorothy L. Sayers, also a writer of fiction and apologetics from within the Church of England but on its edge, Lewis seems without easy parallel, and hard to locate.

Lewis is particularly hard to place since, as Walter Hooper observed, there is not one Lewis but several. Most readers will be familiar with Narnia, but perhaps less so with the science fiction of the Ransom trilogy (1938-45), or the fictionalised retelling of classical myth in Till we have faces (1956). Many readers, although perhaps not quite the same readers, have experienced Lewis as Christian apologist and popular theologian, most famously as a wartime broadcaster and in Mere Christianity (1952). Few modern readers will know Lewis’ academic writing on medieval and Renaissance literature, such as his work on Milton’s Paradise Lost, for which he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature long before Narnia. In common with Lewis’ colleagues at Oxford, those who know all three may well struggle to connect them.

McGrath - Intellectual World of Lewis - cover

Now we have two fine complementary studies of Lewis from historian and theologian Alister McGrath. The aim common to both is to integrate the many Lewises, and to show that the many sides of Lewis’ thought can, and must, be read as springing from the same set of fundamental preoccupations. In this McGrath is wholly successful, and both studies will surely establish themselves as essential reading.

From Wiley-Blackwell comes The Intellectual World of C.S. Lewis, a collection of eight essays: fine contributions to the history of ideas in its pure form, and of considerable interest to specialist historians. There are acute and stimulating observations on Surprised by Joy as autobiography cast in a Christian mould, and its reliability as a source for historians. There are two particularly fine chapters showing the long-range influence on Lewis of the tradition of classical, medieval and early modern literature. The first of these re-emphasises the importance of myth for Lewis, and of understanding Christianity as foremost a true myth; the apologetic task was not merely about the cerebral apprehension of certain propositions, but about engaging the imagination. This is an important counter-balance to the plain man Lewis and the plain prose of the wartime apologetic. Perhaps the most striking piece is on Lewis’ use of metaphor, and the privileging of ocular metaphors, of light, sun, sight. McGrath brilliantly contrasts this with the weight of Protestant metaphor which is aural – of hearing the Word – to which Lewis the Ulsterman might have been more disposed.

Lewis - Life - McGrath cover

Published by Hodder is C.S. Lewis. A Life. While it may not surprise specialists in matters of fact, as a Life written for a general readership this will be hard to better. McGrath adroitly steers through the ‘meteoric shower of facts’ that have accumulated around Lewis, giving a pacy account of Lewis’ career, integrated carefully with the genesis of the works. There are pithy expositions of the key works, which send the reader back to the writings themselves as good criticism should. Particularly fine are the accounts of The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933), and of A Grief Observed as a transposition of the abstract concerns of The Problem of Pain into a much higher and more painful key.

McGrath also avoids the temptation to psychoanalyse Lewis overmuch, particularly given the curiously unresolved traumas of Lewis’ experience: in the trenches in the First World War; the loss of his mother; the oddity of his relationship with Mrs Moore; and the marriage of convenience with Joy Davidman. Only occasionally is an odd note sounded. The detailed exposition of the Narnia series in chapter 12 is overlong in relation to McGrath’s treatments of the other works, and feels like a long interlude in the narrative. Occasionally some of the detail is incongruous: ‘the Minto’, Lewis’ nickname for Mrs Moore, may well be connected with the sweet of the same name (p.84); but it isn’t clear why the reader needs to know who invented it, when and where (the Doncaster confectioner William Nuttall, in 1912).

As McGrath points out, on one point he stands alone amongst Lewis scholars: his redating of Lewis’ initial conversion from atheism to theism, from 1929 to 1930, which to this reviewer seems wholly convincing. Historians of Christianity are provided with few enough detailed accounts of individual paths to conversion, and of those few as idiosyncratic as that of Lewis. As such, the redating is welcome and important. Several of the early reviews also identify this as the major piece of new biographical light to be seen here. At the same time, it is a redating of an event in a sequence of events rather than a reordering of that sequence; and the redating does not affect our understanding of the composition of any of the works, other than to show that Lewis’ own account in Surprised by Joy is itself wrong.

There are both advantages and disadvantages to the separation into two volumes. The placing of much of the detailed exposition of Lewis’s intellectual context in The Intellectual World allows rich and nuanced writing that would be difficult to integrate successfully into a chronological narrative. However, the removal of that contextual material leaves the Life rather denuded of very much context that was not contained within Lewis’ head, the Bodleian Library, and a square mile of central Oxford. The impact of the Second World War is limited only to its effect on college life; the ‘low dishonest decade’ that was the Thirties hardly figures. There is also little sense of the wider currents of thought and feeling in post-war British life that together constitute the much-disputed idea of secularisation, apart from its manifestation within Oxford philosophy. Lewis may have self-consciously positioned himself as a dinosaur; but readers of the Life without access to The Intellectual World may need to know rather more about the elements of contemporary discourse with which Lewis was out of sympathy. In both volumes, McGrath correlates the apparent eclipse of Lewis’s thought with the rise of secularism, and then his recovery of influence with the sway of postmodernism. This is entirely plausible, but the suggestion is made without engagement to any great extent with the large and well developed historical literature on both.

Another odd note is sounded in the chapter in The Intellectual World on Lewis as theologian. McGrath is determined to show that Lewis counts as a theologian, and that any definition of the role that would exclude him is a faulty definition. To this reader, at least, this feels very much like pushing at a long-open door. Historically, McGrath tries to show that the theological establishment in Britain tried to exclude Lewis, but at the end of the chapter it remains unclear just who was doing the excluding, from what, and by what means. Undoubtedly there was opposition to, not to say distaste for Lewis in Oxford; but the most waspish character assassination I know of is in the letters of Hugh Trevor-Roper, hardly part of the theological establishment. The bewilderment amongst Lewis’ colleagues at the wartime apologetic was not that it did not pass muster as “theology”, but that he should want to write such stuff at all. By and large Lewis didn’t concern himself with the issues that were preoccupying Oxford divinity; the story is surely one of mutual ignorance, rather than deliberate exclusion.

The final chapter offers an analysis of Lewis’ afterlife, providing a highly suggestive outline of what a reception history of Lewis might look like. It is indeed striking that Lewis, no evangelical, should be thought theologically unsound by Martyn Lloyd-Jones in the year of his death, yet go on to achieve something approach star status amongst evangelicals, particularly in the USA. As with the earlier chapters, however, there is a relative lack of engagement with recent historical scholarship on the period, leaving historians with many threads to pick up and examine more closely. It is to be hoped that they do, along with much else in these splendid volumes.

The meaning of Christian monarchy

This week sees the sixtieth anniversary of the coronation of the Queen, in Westminster
Abbey on June 2nd 1953. No-one who watched the archival footage this week can
have missed the craggy figure of Michael Ramsey at her right hand side throughout the
ceremony. My forthcoming book on Ramsey examines his view that there should be a
greater distance between the state and the Church of England; a distance he helped to
open up. However, this desire for greater independence for the Church could and did co-exist in Ramsey’s mind with a very positive view of
the Christian nature of the monarchy.

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Ramsey at the Queen’s right hand. CC image from Flickr, by banlon1964

According to ancient privilege, Ramsey was entitled to attend the new Queen at her coronation as Bishop of Durham, along with the Bishop of Bath and Wells. Ramsey preached two days before, an address reproduced in his Durham Essays and Addresses, now rather rare. He spoke of a ‘happy nation’, united despite differences of class and wealth, with the ‘happiness of a people who know we have a great treasure; and the treasure is the Monarch whose subjects we are.’ On the occasion of the birth of Prince Edward in 1964 Ramsey spoke in similar and wholly conventional terms of the exemplary royal family which was ‘around the throne a Christian family united, happy and setting to all an example of what the words “home and family” most truly meant.’

But the authority of monarchy had its own obligations. In Christ’s washing of
the disciples’ feet, he had shown the meaning of a ‘royalty of selfless service’; a Christian
monarchy should derive its tone from ‘Christ’s own union of the ruler of all and the servant of
all.’ The monarch not only had a duty to her people, but also to God. The coronation service
was to feature the newly crowned queen, in all the regalia of sovereignty, kneeling to
receive communion ‘just where any Christian man or woman or child might kneel […] She
knows that to the Crucified King Jesus all monarchies are subject, and by him they all are
judged.’ Anglican loyalty to the Church of England’s Supreme Governor was based on
mutual obligation between monarch, nation and subject.

Peter Boorman

I spot a recent obituary of Peter Boorman, organist of St Davids. It is of chief interest here for the fact that Boorman was perhaps the first organist to introduce girls’ voices into a cathedral choir, in an emergency in 1963, and on a permanent basis from 1966. He seems also to have had some involvement in developments that were eventually to issue in Songs of Praise.