What’s the Theology of Big Data?


The last few weeks have seen the release of a number of revelations around Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, and the use of Big Data in influencing political campaigns and elections in the UK, US, Hungary and Nigeria. Much of this was around using information gathered from social media profiles, with the true depth of it all still waiting to be revealed. It’s a bewildering matrix of companies and individuals and manipulations.

Beneath it all though, there’s a familiar story: the desire for power. The idea that using our data and online footprints can create a means to control and manipulate people and events is bound to be intoxicating in a world where communication and commerce are dominated by the internet. And all that means that there’s a theological component to all this, one that needs to be wrestled with. The Lord knows the number of the hairs on our head; these guys want that information so that they can sell us combs and tell us to dislike bald people.

Okay, that’s sparky, but it raises the question of narratives. The whole point of this collection of data is to help various organisations get their message across, to communicate a story. That involves targeted adverts and constructed narratives, and frankly some of those aren’t healthy, often demonising others or propagating, to use an over-played term “Fake News”. There’s an army of bots out there, and our data is used to give them their marching orders, and that means we’re absorbing messages that are deliberately constructed to speak to our baser instincts. So what does that means for our discipleship when we’re being hit with goodness knows what other messages? I know that’s always been the case, marketing and advertising and what have you, but it was easier to ignore billboards when they were personalised and pointed directly at our lizard brains.

This also gives the concept of truth a kicking, now that “Fake News” has come to mean more than just a lie; it’s anything that someone wants you to think is unimportant, or simply something they disagree with. And you can only hear someone shout “Fake News” so many times before the seeds of doubt are planted – the whole idea seems to be to keep the ground shifting, to make us distrust everything. It keeps the world nice and malleable.

(I know this makes me sound like a conspiracy theorist. Stick with me.)

There’s also the way in which all this renders people made in the Image of God as products, commodities. We become data footprints to be bought and sold, so many pieces to be moved around a chessboard. This sounds extreme, but it’s the danger that lurks behind any enterprise motivated primarily by power and money. Our humanity – all those pictures we liked, all those websites we visited, all those conversations we shared – become commodified. Our lives become invisible tokens of trade, and that diminishes us, like anything else that sees us as less than image bearers of the divine.

There’s also a practical, pastoral implication to all this – which online platforms do our congregations use – is your church active on Facebook, for instance? In which case, how do the revelations of the last few weeks impact that – how we use it, what information can be gleaned from it? Maybe it’s worth an audit of sorts. Certainly it’s worth a chat with your fellowship’s resident IT expert. And while there may be a gut instinct to burn it all down, we also need to remember that social media can be a spiritual lifeline for those who can’t attend a church in person. There aren’t straight-forward solutions, the world’s just got complicated. Again.

I don’t have any smart answers to any of this – to be honest, I don’t think anyone does. The whole thing is a brave new world, the sort of thing that got mentioned in old sci-fi novels and dystopian fiction and we now how to view it in some sort of theological framework. And that’s a challenge because, bless it, the Church has often had something of the ocean liner about it when it comes to social change. Maybe that’s why we need young people to be theologians.

Sooner or later we’re going to be faced with figuring out the spiritual implications of AI, or finding ourselves operating ‘Smart Churches’ and we owe it to our brothers and sisters in the faith (and, frankly, everyone else), to try and get ahead of things for once. Because this isn’t about the world changing – it’s already changed. We need to figure out what that means for us living and responding as Christ in that world.

Anger, Christianity and Twitter (Matthew 5:22)

Okay, this post isn’t really looking at a specific Bible passage as normal, but I need to write this. Maybe it’s because it’s something I think Christians need to grapple with immediately, maybe because it’s something that exposes my own weaknesses, but either way I need to get it out there.

Yesterday, I was watching the TV show Come Dine With Me, a competition where four disparate strangers cook meals for each other and vote for the best. And because this is reality TV it has elements of the freakshow about it.

Anyway, one of the contestants was introduced singing in a church choir, and during her meal she insisted on starting with a prayer and singing a hymn. Uncomfortable for her guests, sure, but the best was yet to come as she embarked on what looked unpleasantly like bullying one of the other guests. Sure it was ‘justified’, because she always “Tells it like it is”, but whatever her defence, it still resulted in one of those cringe-worthy where Christianity gets…

I was going to say “misrepresented” but I can’t. Because this sort of thing keeps happening. On TV we could write it off as selective editing to create the juiciest story, but communication technology has moved on. Now people expose their lack of love and grace directly, without the excuse of a filter.

And so one of my favourite comic book writers was called an “ignorant fool” this morning, because she disagrees with a particular Christian’s stance on an issue. I’m not going to say what that issue was, because I don’t want this post to become a debate over a specific talking point. I’m not suggesting that people aren’t allowed to disagree with each other – I believe in freedom of speech, even if I don’t agree with you – but I’d suggest that calling someone an ignorant fool is far from being a good witness. Quite the opposite, in fact.

What makes this worse, what really set me off, was that fifteen minutes earlier, the Tweeter in question had written a nice piece about how he’d been saved by Christ and his life had been changed. Which is awesome, but there’s a painful disconnect between the two tweets posted within minutes of each other.

And I was going to jump in. I was going to question this guy’s attitude and go in all guns blazing, because I like the writer who was under attack, I respect her interactions with her fans, and I didn’t want her to get the wrong impression of Christians.

In rushing to defend my point of view, I was ready to be snarky and judgemental. Heck, I’ve done it before; attack a writer I like and I’ll get mad; attack the Prime Minister in a funny way and I’ll give you a retweet. This whole situation exposes my hypocrisy as much as anyone else’s. Not that I think I’ll ever agree with this government’s policies, but like I said, calling an individual a fool isn’t the best witness.

The Bible verse that came to mind is Matthew 5:22: “But anyone who says “You fool!” will be in danger of the fires of hell.” Jesus is emphasising that anger and mockery are dangerous things, as dangerous as the ‘big’ sins.

This is a key verse for social media. Back when Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, giving in to your anger and calling someone an idiot wasn’t particularly public, witnessed only by people within earshot and those who heard the gossip about it later. And yet that was bad enough for Jesus to make that point I just quoted.

Nowadays if you want to attack someone you can do it on social media – call someone a fool on Twitter or Facebook and it’s not a relatively private thing, it’s out there to be seen by thousands of people, and it’s permanent, because even if you delete it, someone somewhere may have cached the message. God removes our sins as far as the east is from the west, but Google doesn’t. If you lash out at someone, it can potentially been seen by around a third of the world’s population. Exaggeration? No, that’s just the internet for you.

So any time someone goes online and calls someone a fool because they somehow think they’re standing up for Jesus, they do so in the shadow of the cross, and they do so in an environment where a mistake or an angry moment can be seen forever. It becomes just another piece of evidence that all Christians are judgemental and bigoted and angry. And people turn away from Jesus because, well, they might respect him as an historical figure, but why should they follow him – look at how his followers treat ‘outsiders’. Look at how his followers treat each other.

“By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Ouch.

One of Jesus’s main bugbears was hypocrisy that drives people from God. Double ouch.

Of course, often lashing out is hidden in terms of defending the faith, of standing up for what we believe in the face of opposition. But that’s the thing – no-one’s saying don’t debate, no-one’s saying don’t disagree, no-one’s saying you have to compromise your beliefs. But it’s the attitude in which these things are expressed that’s the problem.

Because all this talk of witness and social media is about the external stuff, and there’s no point sorting out the external when the internal is still screwed up. If our initial reaction is to show anger, not love, is to show hatred instead of grace, then something’s wrong and it needs fixing before Christianity gets wounded by any more friendly fire incidents. Jesus works less through angry tweets and more through fixing hearts. In an ever-more connected world, that’s a lesson the church needs to learn – that I need to learn – all over again.

The Temptation Of The Christian Blogger

So you’ve written a blog post, and although you know you shouldn’t, although you know that what matters is that you’re writing, that you’re finding your voice, that you’re doing this for you and, hopefully, God, you still can’t help but look at your statistics page…

It’s a temptation for any blogger. I’ll admit that I’m far, far more stats obsessed with my other blog; here I’m basically typing up the notes of my Bible study and hoping that they might be of some use to others, whereas Geeks Shall Inherit The Earth is far more of a blogging-for-blogging’s-sake project (so it gets frustrating when so many people show up there just looking for the lyrics to ‘I Am The Music Man’).

All of which is very high-minded, but all the same, it’s nice to know that you’ve got an audience to communicate this stuff to. Unfortunately that gives rise to insecurity.

Take yesterday, for instance. At first glance I had one of my best days in terms in statistics. All well and good until I looked at it closely and found that I’d had 11 visits from the Republic of Tanzania, a country from which I’ve never received traffic before. That sort of anomaly stokes my paranoia – it would be great to think that I’d been quoted somewhere in Tanzania and that 11 people were enjoying my blog, all within a few minutes of each other, but my cynicism kicks in – was it an attempt to attack my blog? Was it spam? Did someone spill Pepsi into one of the servers?

That’s the thing with blogging. You never know how many real people you’re talking to as opposed to spam robots, especially as that could mean that no-one’s reading some of your posts. That’s why comments, even something as simple as “Great post!” or “You suck!”, are important. At least you know someone’s out there.

This is less of a problem with preaching. I’m doing the Methodist Church’s ‘Faith and Worship’ course, and so far people have been really nice, coming up to me after the service and engaging with what has been said. And no-one’s said “You suck!”, which is nice. Sure, you might deliver an apocalyptically bad sermon, but at least you know that the congregation are real and physically in the room with you. That chat with a preacher at the end of a sermon can be an enormous encouragement, even for someone like me who isn’t much of a chatter – I tend to veer between taciturn and verbal diarrhoea.  

Okay, let’s not be naive – some of this stuff grows out of ego. It’s human nature. We like to be appreciated and like to hear we’re appreciated. And the flipside of this is that we can be bad at expressing that appreciation, because you get busy after the sermon and you miss thanking the preacher, or you read a blog on your smartphone and the commenting software doesn’t work, or you’re sneaking a read of an article while doing thirty other things, or…

That’s the paradox isn’t it? We like to be appreciated but we’re not always great at showing appreciation to others. Here I am, holding my hands up to that.

But there’s another side to this for Christian Bloggers (note the capital letters). There’s a drive, a passion, a calling to communicate something of God out there in the blogosphere and we want that to be heard, not because of ego but because, well, we want to talk about God and there’s no point preaching to an empty church. I don’t care how advanced artificial intelligence is getting, no-one’s ever spoken into the spiritual life of a spambot.

And so these are issues, yes, but God has a way of teaching us lessons through our issues. Here are the lessons he’s been trying to get through to often-unresponsive me:

1. If you’re doing this for God, then he’s your chief audience. It doesn’t matter if the majority of your audience turns out to belong to Skynet, you’re writing this for God. And that means striving for excellence and honesty and concentrating on what God’s saying to you through your writing. Because not only is God your most important audience, if he’s blessing your writing, if he’s speaking through it and inspiring it, then the other chief audience for your blog is you. Because sometimes the message that needs to be communicated isn’t aimed at someone in a cybercafé in downtown Tokyo, it’s aimed at the person actually writing it. If God can be a co-pilot, he can also be a co-writer.

2. One of the ‘life verses’ for bloggers should be Isaiah 55:10-11, which says that God’s word “…will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” Even when we feel like we’re banging our heads off our monitors, contemplating with despair the vast and empty wilderness of our patch of cyberspace, we need to trust that, if God’s put this love of blogging in our hearts, it’ll achieve the purposes he (and not necessarily we) wants it to achieve. And maybe the posts that don’t get an immediate response aren’t ready for it yet, or are teaching us humility, or, worst case scenario, include stuff that needs to be ignored. In this sense it’s the same with any communicative ministry – get the words out there and let God do the rest because he knows what he’s doing.

But that still won’t stop me looking at my stats page… 😉