Jacob From the Machine

I decided to read some of the Old Testament a while back, during high school. I took the liberty of assuming the New Testament is too preachy and would lack the exotic zest of the Old Testament, which felt much closer to an aggregation of myths from a bygone era.

I was especially interested in Genesis for that reason, which felt the most esoteric of the books I knew anything about. There were naturally many parts I immediately recognized, such as those of the creation of the universe, the garden of Eden, and Noah’s ark. Even the verse proclaiming that there were once giants walking the Earth was familiar to me.

But one story that stood out to me, which I had never heard mentioned before, was the story of Esau selling his birthright to Jacob. In case the reader is unfamiliar with it, I encourage you to read the brief set of verses in Genesis 25:19-34. (I will be referencing and linking the New International Version, though I originally read the King James Version myself.)

The story struck me as odd because I wasn’t sure I really understood what it was meant to convey at first, which is unusual for the Bible, where the messages are often readily apparent. A quick search of the term birthright revealed that it was more or less what might be expected: an institution among the Israelites by which a son, almost always the firstborn, would be declared the successor to his father’s governorship of the family.

Additionally, I decided to consult interpretations of the story I could find online. The meanings I found mainly interpreted it to be a demonstration that Esau did not have a proper mindset to act as patriarch of the family. He put his own temporary discomfort above the hallowed duty of the firstborn to act as the heir to his father’s place as the governing force of the household. This is especially true since it is generally agreed that Esau was exaggerating his condition and not truly at death’s door.

Though that reading was sensible enough, it surprised me that it was very different from what I had gotten out of it, which was not mutually exclusive to the traditional reading. The Jacob-Esau exchange, in which a power-hungry and foully ambitious party trades with a hapless party that does not truly understand the scope of their concessions, is borne out constantly in the world we live in, to the point that the story serves as almost a cautionary tale of how things of considerable value may be taken without resistance. At the very least, it serves as a model of a type of transaction that is now ubiquitous.

In a sense. The deal seems to represent a typical means of a shrewder party gaining rights over something, whether physical or intangible: it was completely bloodless, both parties consented, and Jacob came out ahead via an agreed upon deal. One might be tempted at first to liken the Jacob-Esau exchange to settlers purchasing land from disadvantaged natives that did not share their concept of private property.

In truth, though, the analogy does not quite hold in that scenario. The last key element in the Jacob-Esau exchange, which might seem oddest of all, is that Esau actually has all the information to understand the true value of his birthright. He was raised in the same environment as his brother and is able to understand the magnitude of what he is giving up for a meager bowl of soup, but gives it up all the same. It would be very understandable to conclude that Esau must have been foolish or simply did not want the responsibility that came with the birthright and leave it at that. But however misguided the deal may have seemed to us as we observe Esau, we nonetheless find ourselves subjected to some form of the exchange on a nigh-daily basis.

Before I fully explain what I’m getting at, I would like to draw attention to the tendency of online services to gather data on the user. Apps on your phone will often seek to track your location as you use them, and websites track as much data about your browsing and purchasing habits as possible, often with no immediate purpose but the vague hope that they will eventually find a way to profit from the amassed user data. Even our closest loved ones have never had as detailed a report of our activities and location as what is currently handed over to these corporate entities.
Another dramatic feature to highlight is the rise of facial recognition technology, which has seen wide commercial implementation to unlock phones. It only saves a couple of seconds, but it has still been foisted onto consumers with no significant pushback. In some parts of the world, facial recognition may be used to pay for fried chicken or perform bank transactions. In both cases, the time saved over similar technologies that are less invasive is trivial.

In the situations above and others, consumers play Esau to the machine’s nebulously ambitious Jacob. I feel it is right to call the technology itself Jacob in these situations, since the exhaustive volume of Jacob-Esau exchanges would be impossible to sustain without modern technology underpinning the system. Though the decisions made by individuals in corporate and governmental power structures are what cause the technology to be put in place, it would be impractical to implement the mass Jacob-Esau schema another way.

This is not to say that misguided consent is the only threat to the personal data of consumers. After all, there are many ways comparable information is extracted under duress or without their consent. To return to facial recognition as an example, Amazon obtains agreement from its drivers to monitor their alertness algorithmically, and governments are applying the technology to track its citizens in public spaces. Those exact interactions, however, are downstream of executive decisions in which individuals accede to the oppressive effect of increased surveillance for security from largely trivial or imagined threats, a meager bowl of stew in a large-scale Jacob-Esau exchange.

The prevalence of the Jacob-Esau exchange is no accident. Several relatively recent technologies have fused with the capitalist economic order to create a juggernaut that seeks to extract as much data as possible from every consumer. This force, combined with the modern public’s multi-generational culture of trust in institutions of consumerism has created the right conditions for the Jacob-Esau exchange to run rampant. The recency of these elements combining into their present state would also explain my inability to find prior record of eisegesis like my own.

It is, of course, unlikely that the author of the Biblical anecdote had such abstracted interpretations in mind when writing the passage, but I think it makes for a pointed post-hoc metaphor. The parallel between Esau born with Jacob clutching at his heel and humanity beginning its path of technological progressions that would define the species so shortly after being born into the world proves unforgivingly poetic in that light. The stew sold represents the slight benefits many technologies confer on the public, even as their implementation costs dearly on a spiritual level. And just as Jacob was able to prize away the grand concession of the birthright from Esau, so too has technology found a way to talk us out of a birthright of our own.

It is true that our personal information is not completely analogous to a birthright, but much of what is collected represents what has been passed on to us, whether in the form of physical traits or preferences molded by the culture around us. This is especially true in a society that so heavily emphasizes individuality, but paradoxically the predominant attitude towards these concessions is one of futility and compliance with the extraction, and a marked unawareness of the value of resisting the extraction of personal information.
One more key difference in the scenarios lies in that Jacob was the brother of Esau, and ultimately not one to wish him true harm even as he strove to co-opt his lot in life. But our technologies, as bemoaned in countless articles and works of science fiction alike, are not inherently imbued with the moral faculty to either care for us or to consistently mimic caring for us. This difference is my core reason for framing the encroaching permissions we grant technologies around us with the Jacob-Esau exchange.

These corporations and government entities that take the gathered personal data, whether it is a biometric, a location, purchasing habits, content preferences, vocal patterns, or anything else they can possibly get us to swear away in an oath, will never be our brother. At least Jacob had the courtesy of not handing the birthright over to an entity driven by the profit motive, of not being the grasping appendage of an inhuman mass of skirted regulations and legal technicalities that is the modern corporation. Jacob had the favor of God, but there is nothing holy about the mindless and hungry twin we were spawned alongside, hand-in-ankle.

It only takes a few bad actors to make the twisted amalgamation of data that has been extracted into the pistons of an atrocious engine. There is no shortage of ominous choices to employ the data that already exist in the public mind, and the expanding boundaries of our society’s technological capacity coupled with a dehumanizing ethics only opens more doors. Just because you or I may not be insightful enough to pinpoint exactly what horrors will be perpetrated does not make me doubt that gathering the resources for catastrophe is a net harm to society.

In a society that largely shuns its spirituality and glorifies the transaction, the theft of our birthright will come about with cutthroat efficiency. Bleakly, there is little that I could conceive of to halt this steady march except for a restructuring of society at the hands of the assorted looming upheavals currently racing to denature the modern social order. But for now, Jacob still makes his play. He knows you are weary from your time in the open country, and has prepared a very reasonably priced stew for you.

— Adri Persad is consistently unsure as to whether he is joking or not. You may find his disjointed ravings on Misery Tourism and Twitter via @36_chambuhz.

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