The Times of Israel recently reported that archaeologists had uncovered a “miniscule biblical stone weight” from excavations of the foundations of the Western Wall of the Second Jewish Temple. It is round, about the size of a marble, and marked with the Hebrew word beka. It was used to weigh out the silver the Israelites would bring to the temple to pay what was called “the half-shekel tax.” The tax was instituted by Moses: “When you take the census of the sons of Israel to number them, then each shall give a ransom for himself to the Lord” (Exod. 30:12)—a half-shekel per head. I believe that God wanted it to be found. This is not to say that its discovery was a miracle; only one of those “providential mercies . . . ‘grazie’ or ‘favours,’” as Newman called them. The little stone is a reminder of God’s distrust of our technological age.
We are a counted people. Our locations, words, memories, shopping habits, entertainment preferences, and political beliefs are translated into numbers, then stored, sold, and traded by governments and the data giants of Silicon Valley who make our technological age tick. Conspiracy theorists are right to twitch at the thought that their phones record their location; that their emails, calls, and texts are scanned for “keywords” that allow Google to develop personalized ads; that their Facebook existence can be run through algorithms that generalize their political psychology into a marketable identity. But the new Panopticon was not imposed by Patriot Act–style policies. The general desire to know how to get to a coffee shop has uncovered the daily lives of the citizenry more quickly and effectively than a million wiretaps. The convenience of auto-correct and auto-reply has coaxed us to consent to the storage of our communications with greater ease than the slickest intelligence agency could hope for. Consumer desire, motivated by handy tech devices, is the cause of our “counted” state of existence.
It is now the case that extensions of the surveillance state have become banal. Police demand access to our encrypted communications. Insurance companies battle to be allowed to dredge up our searches for medical information—“signs of skin cancer”—to be used as evidence that we knew of a preexisting condition and can be denied coverage. Devices such as “Appsee,” connected to several thousands of apps, record our screens, enabling designers to watch us fuddle about. But this direct, corporate, and governmental peeping-in on the daily lives of individuals pales in comparison to the capacity of Google to collect, anonymize, and manage data en masse. No one person is looking at my Amazon purchase. A mechanism is built to which my Amazon purchase is an input, and the resulting advertisements and suggestions spill from the algorithm automatically. This is the daily bread of the technological age, the integration of Google, Facebook, and Amazon into our lives. I am not personally considered; I am considered as data.
Technological optimists stress the normalcy of our state of affairs. “There is simply so much data,” they say, “that no government or corporation can deal with it beyond the grouping of general trends.” We are saved from scrutiny by becoming numbers.
Compare this response to what happens in Exodus. Moses calls the half-shekel tax ransom money, using padah, the same Hebrew verb used to describe the money that frees a man from slavery (21:8). The ransom people pay after taking the census sounds like blackmail, your-money-or-your-life: “Each shall give a ransom . . . that there may be no plague among them when you number them” (30:12).
Why on earth would the “census of the sons of Israel” put them in a position where they had to pay in order to avoid a plague, of all things? Because of the very fact of being tabulated. The eleventh-century rabbi known as “Rashi” stated, “The evil eye can affect that which has been counted.” The Talmud likewise sums up the danger: “Blessing is found neither in a matter that is weighed, nor in a matter that is measured, nor in a matter that is counted.” Still, why does the evil eye lance through the counted and not the uncounted? What dark effect of enumeration makes the enumerated vulnerable?
There is in Scripture a census and a plague that provides an answer. In 1 Chronicles, we read that “Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel” (21:1). He is punished by a ravaging plague that only an act of sacrifice can stop. His military commander, Joab, resists David’s will to count the sons of Israel by saying, “My lord the king, are they not all my lord’s servants?”
This seems like a non sequitur. If all are servants of the king, why not be counted by the king? Because of the manner in which David’s people became his subjects—not as slaves, but as free men who declared, “Behold, we are your bone and flesh . . . the Lord said to you, ‘You shall be shepherd of my people Israel’” (2 Sam. 5:1–2).
David is obligated to be a priest-king who does not simply rule, but must shepherd his sheep—the sons of Israel. These terms indicate a burgeoning conception of the human person as unique and individual, an idea running against cultures ruled by kings who counted men by the thousands.
The terms “flesh and bone” are more than a recognition of shared racial or tribal lineage. In Hebrew, “flesh” is equated with weakness and “bone” with strength. The formula “we are your bone and your flesh” is akin to the Western marriage formula “for better, for worse . . . in sickness and in health.” “We are your weakness and your strength,” David’s people say, inaugurating a nuptial belonging rather than mere biological descending—let alone a hierarchical or military power dynamic. The Israelites belong to David as Adam belongs to Eve: “This one at last is bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.”
The counted are susceptible to evil because they give up their particularity as sons of Israel and consent to be identified as repeatable and replaceable units. Whether he who considers men as data uses this reduction for good or ill is hardly the concern of the author of Exodus. The counted man, in some way, great or small, belongs to the one who counts. Being counted, being at-hand, is a ground for being used, not as family, but as a part of a larger mechanism.
King David is a man tempted to number his servants rather than love them. Prior to taking the census, he shows his will to number in his murder of Uriah the Hittite. Indeed, he justifies it as the movement of exchangeable parts: “Do not let this matter trouble you, for the sword devours now one and now another” (2 Sam. 11:25).
Hence, the danger for the Jews of the Exodus counted by the rulers of the earth. It is a kind of belonging that competes with man’s unique belonging to God. Time and again, the Jews must ensure their loyalty to the Lord’s rule, not to a worldly king: “When you take the census of the sons of Israel, then each shall give a ransom for himself to the Lord.” Because each belongs to the one who “has their number,” they must purchase themselves back. If they do not buy themselves for God, they risk plague.
The Scriptures make it clear that “plague” denotes any disaster that affects a whole mass of men without discrimination. There is an intrinsic connection between mass devastation and the crime of counting the mass: The latter organizes unique men into a manageable unit operated by the kings of the earth; the former destroys the mass. This is the logic of a saying repeated throughout the Old Testament: “A thousand shall flee at the threat of one”(Isa. 30:17). The ascription is always given to foolish nations who organize into technological masses, to Israel whenever it imitates the militaristic ways of the neighboring nations and becomes another slave-state like Egypt under its Pharaoh. “How,” the book of Deuteronomy asks, rhetorically, “could one have routed a thousand, and two put a myriad to flight, unless their Rock had sold them, the Lord had given them up?” (32:28–31). By giving up their covenantal relationship to the King of all the Earth, the sons of Israel become a mass counted and ruled by an earthly king, a machine that one man operates—and that two men can destroy.
Digital representation is the world considered under a census, under a registry of all things that renders them repeatable, exchangeable, and—most important—available to the kings of the earth who keep the resulting registry. In our case, it is the few billionaires currently culling the world’s data who “have our number.”
We are a generation saved from minor inconveniences and threatened by plagues. Organized into data, we are available to the machinations of men and the sputtering of systems—as the increasing number and severity of leaks and hacks reveals. Companies such as Experian, whose data collection led to a technological plague exposing some 15 million persons’ information to abuse, nonetheless speak jovially of “your data self.” That “data self” is a product of census, counted, belonging to the rulers of this earth, part of mass, exposed to plague.
Recent concerns that Russians manipulated the 2016 American election resolved into demands that the owners of our data take better care, that they sharpen their algorithms, that they sniff through the data to ferret out fake news. No one pointed out the obvious: that the reason it is so easy to manipulate an election is because free people have consented to have their words and actions counted, aggregated, labelled, and identified as a repeatable part of a whole. A few men can, and did, target this aggregated data-set. This is not a novel phenomenon. This is a plague affecting a people living under the most comprehensive census known to man, and who have no half-shekel to offer up for a ransom.
Marc Barnes is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the Benedict XVI Centre at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham, London.