Imagine if you had a truth serum that would force you to disclose who you really are and what you really think, fear, and value? In some ways, you already do: the digital search engine on your phones and devices. That’s the argument of a new book that I think ought to prompt us to think about what Christian witness should look like in the Google era.
The book, Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, makes the claim that mined resources on what people search for online is more reliable for research than what they tell people in surveys. This is because, the book asserts, people don’t like to admit certain things about themselves, or to themselves.
But they’ll tell Google.
Netflix has figured this out already, the author argues. They once based their customer’s movie preferences on the films the viewer placed in the queue to be watched. Netflix found though that people there tend to place highbrow, aspirational films, not the lowbrow comedies and romance flicks they actually watch. What the consumer says is what kind of person he wants to be; what he chooses says who he actually is.
Google searches tell us more than surveys or social media posts, the book points out, because all the factors are there to make people honest. No one is there in front of you. You’re alone. You’re seeking out the answers to the questions you really have.
Some of the data this reveals is good news. People really don’t get any more depressed around Christmas or other holidays (in fact, a little less depressed, based on searches related to depression symptoms). People don’t seem to search out racist sites more when unemployment goes up. But much of the data ought to alarm us.
I expected to find bleak news on the pornography front. And there is some of that. What I found more disturbing, though, is the way digital data tell us just where we are in this country on issues of race. The “n-word” is searched at alarming rates. Searches for jokes using the racist slur can be predicted: anytime African-Americans are in the news. The search for these jokes spikes 30 percent on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Stephens-Davidowitz says data should cause us to reconsider whether racial disparities in our job interviews or criminal justice matters should be explained by American society’s implicit racism. The data would suggest that what American minorities are facing is explicit racism, just racism hidden from explicit view.
The book also shows the difference between the way people talk about their lives and families on social media, and what they really think about both. Women speak of their husbands on social media most often as “awesome” and so forth. When they Google questions about their husbands they’re usually asking why he’s so mean or why he doesn’t want sex.
This shouldn’t surprise biblical theists. The Scriptures tell us, after all, that primal humanity hides in shame before God (Gen. 3:8-10). Biblical revelation also tells us that our brokenness is what we often even hide not just from others but from ourselves (Jer. 17:9).
Looking out on our mission field, and on our churches, we shouldn’t rely on what people tell us about how happy or content or pious they are. We should know that, below the surface, they are often churning out their resentment, anger, sadness, shame, and fear.
The human heart often thinks it can cover its paths before God, saying “The Lord does not see; the God of Jacob does not perceive” (Ps. 94:7). The truth is, we can’t even hide from Google. How can we hide from God?
Google knows who we are, sometimes better than we know ourselves. But Google doesn’t love us. Our lives are lived before the face of God, a face seen in that of Jesus Christ. His deep inside knowledge of their lives, good and bad respectively, of Nathanael and the woman at the well startled them both (Jn. 1:47-51; 4:29). The good news is that, in both cases and in many more, Jesus knew all these things ahead of time, and sought them, and us, out anyway.
God not only knows more than Google; he also searches better too.