New solutions for old challenges
Life's mysteries unfold in odd ways, don't they?
The Wall Street Journal reports that churches by the thousands are signing up for a service to do to us what corporations and other private groups have done for years – select their targets based on specific, revelatory and actionable data that you might have thought was your own darned business.
Feeling blue? Marriage going down the tubes? The big algorithm in the sky can pick up on that based on your search history, and it might send you an ad for a lovely cruise.
Or an ad for a new pharmaceutical you didn't know about and certainly didn't know you needed.
Or maybe an ad for The House of Welcoming Arms across town.
It's our own fault. We have aided and abetted the growth of Big Data at every turn, with every online transaction, every birthday declaration on Facebook, every click on those bogus polls and contests that carve out more jigsaw puzzle pieces that fit into a commercially exploitable picture of you, of me, of everyone not sociopathically committed to living off the grid. Who can blame the churches for getting in on the game too?
The cynic says perception, not reality, is what matters. That's shallow and lazy, but it's hard to argue with it when the sum of things that make up a life – laughter and tears, hope and fear, determination amid our doubts, the warmth of love in a cold world – give way to the precious electronic bread crumbs we drop along life's long path.
One has to ask: Should churches even be doing this? The easy answer is that Jesus cleansed the temple of the money changers and this feels like another of those moments. The church's ways should not be the world's ways – certainly not the ways of business.
But I think there's more to it. Things change. Online dating at first seemed odd and creepy, and now it's just another option. You can select, finance and click-to-buy a whole house while sitting on your couch in your PJs. Who would have been comfortable with that idea a generation ago? The algorithms are the first and most stubborn gatekeepers between your resume and that great job opening. This is the world we've built and to which we have adapted.
So if people need a kind word, a bit of hope, a hot meal or an hour in a support group and if churches stand ready and eager to serve, then what's the problem? Loneliness is the plague of our times. We need human connection as much as we need food and water.
And we need a home, the place where we belong. For some, it's a long and tiring journey to find that place. If Big Data helps clear the rocky trail, maybe it’s doing some good in the world.
Reach Jeff Fox is firstname.lastname@example.org or @FoxEJC.