Back in 2001, XM Satellite Radio launched in the US; at the time, I was 2 years into my computer science studies at UIC. A friend and I talked about it, but mostly, theorizing how we could decode transmissions so that we could listen for free.
Perhaps as a foreshadowing of what I would study later in life, I was concerned about the ethics of “breaking” into the coded airwaves to obtain an otherwise paid service for free. Here was my justification at the time: Let’s say there are 2 persons, A and B. A has some information to share with B. A would like to earn some money and so A decides to sell this info to B, who agrees to pay. To avoid other people getting the information for free, A devices a system to deliver the info to B. With me so far?
Let’s say that A sets up a physical medium, a wire connected to a paper cup on each end, A keeps one end, B pays to keep the other end and A sends information through the wire. So, I want to listen in but I don’t want to pay. Is it wrong, then, if I sneak in, connect my own wire to the wire established between A and B and get the information without paying? I’d say yes. The problem was that XM radio did not involved any physical lines or wires – they were airwaves that everyone received. Those airways, however, were coded and if you wanted to decode them, you’d pay XM and they tell you how to decode the information and make sense of it. That’s like A saying that, instead of a wire, A will shout out all the information in a language A created that anyone could hear. However, if you wanted to understand it, you’d have to pay A to get a translator. But, what if I didn’t want to pay for the translator and instead I just listened and learned the language myself and decoded it? Am I wrong for doing that? I told myself, no.
In any case, we never attempted to decode the XM algorithm in any form to get the service for free. But I was reminded of an episode of This American Life where the introduction is about a guy who claims that he should be able to listen to any conversation that is transmitted through airwaves going through his body – something that is illegal. The episode focuses on “invisible” things and people who try to make them “visible.”
In our lives, I think of some of the things that we try to make visible and some things that we try to make invisible. I thought it was OK for me to make visible the radio transmission over airwaves but then, do I want my bank account information, also transmitted via invisible airwaves, to be known? And so, my ethical dilemma is a lot more complicated than I thought. The struggle between visible and invisible is one filled with everything from power, politics, economics and sometimes just awkwardness. In other words, revealing something once invisible has consequences.
One of this week’s lectionary reading comes from John 10. In fact, it is the very last verse of the entire lectionary reading (John 10:10) that I’m focusing on. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” This, for me, sums up Jesus. And, I know, defining “life” and “abundant” is not simple task. But more so that “that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16 which seems to pop on every other billboard about Jesus), John 10:10 speaks to me about the role of Jesus in our lives. In John 3:16, Jesus is passive. In John 10:10, Jesus is active. I like active Jesus. And, if I’m to be Jesus-like in any way, it means to also be active. To hear Jesus say “I came to bring abundant life” is to hear a command that says “make sure you’re bringing abundant life.” There’s a quote I’ve heard and read somewhere that says, “make sure the things you do keep us alive” (A quick Google search indicates that it’s a line in a Graham Nash song…), and that’s what I understand Jesus saying about himself and how I wish to live my life.
But what does an abundant life have to do with visible and invisible things? Sometimes, making something invisible negates someone of an abundant life. There are many instances, but I’m thinking of efforts to make marginalized people, those who are homeless for example, invisible. I came across this article a few weeks back. There’s a video of a police officer citing a homeless man for sitting on the sidewalk. The homeless man basically says “I’m getting a ticket because those with homes do not want to see those without homes.” In other words, there are efforts to remove the homeless from sight. How is that providing an abundant life?
Many times we are simply not aware of things, sometimes we are aware but we ignore them and, at times, we even make efforts to make sure hidden things remain hidden. Perhaps, not everything that comes into revelation or goes into hiding has negative consequences. Sometimes, however, we marginalize others – put them out sight, hide them – for our own benefit. At least for me, that does not equate to living an abundant life.
I encourage you to listen to Episode 141: Invisible Worlds from This American Life. Look at the type of changes, the type of dynamics that occur when something invisible becomes visible. What are the consequences? And, how does that process encourage or discourage an abundant life?