Can a social media algorithm give you enriching spiritual advice?

For those unfamiliar with academic titles, Th. D. stands for Doctor Theologiae, a doctorate degree in theology. So far to my knowledge, robots or algorithms have not yet been awarded any advanced degree, let alone one in theology. But an article on the website of the journal of religion and society First Things got me thinking about how algorithms can distort our sense of the sacred.

Author Grayson Quay notes that many people subscribe to Bible phone apps that provide the user with a verse for the day. The more popular apps evidently provide verses that have been shared or tweeted the most by the people using the app. In this way, the well-known echo-chamber effect that has plagued recent political discourse so much has found its way into the spiritual lives of millions.

The problem is that just because a verse gets tweeted a lot, that doesn't mean it's the best verse to read at a given time, or at any time. The natural result of this process is that people using the verse-of-the-day app will see mainly verses that other people have felt like sharing.

If you examine your own motives for sharing anything online, you will probably find desires such as to (a) impress other people with your perceptiveness or cleverness, (b) amuse other people with something you thought was funny, or (c) create a reaction that can be summarised as "Oh, ain't it awful." None of these motives mesh well with Bible verses, at least not without some help. One can make jokes with them, but they are generally humorous to the extent that they are not spiritual and vice-versa.

Algorithms

Quay claims that the popularity filter used by social media algorithms will exclude everything that isn't of a feel-good quality. For instance, I doubt that Psalm 137:9 will make it: "Happy is the one who seizes your infants/ And dashes them against the rocks." Imagine if the algorithm sent that to the mother of a newborn. But if you try to remedy the situation by making the algorithm send verses truly at random rather than basing them on popularity, you're bound to get ham-handed incidents like that from time to time.

As ethical problems go, the comparative fatuity of Bible-app verses is not that serious. But what is serious is the way we are turning over all kinds of things that used to be done by humans, into the unfeeling hands of what amounts to robots. And we are doing it without examining the big changes that can result.

Every choice has a basis or cause behind it, and the basis has a philosophy. If you make a Bible-verse app choose randomly from among a set of carefully selected verses that go through a long cycle, say lasting three years, you have what amounts to the Lectionary Cycle idea of public Bible readings used by Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, and a number of other liturgical Christian churches, who got the idea in turn from Jewish practices. This system is based on the notion that the Bible is God's word, and we fallible, forgetful humans need to be reminded of all of it from time to time. It's a good system and has been used for hundreds of years.

On the other hand, if you go with the social-media approach and share only those Bible verses that have been shared or tweeted a lot already, you employ a philosophy that prioritises hits and click volume. If you're running an online business, that's the kind of philosophy to use, but popularity is not the exclusive or even main goal of Christian ministry or discipleship.

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While it's true that if you are so repellent that nobody listens to what you're saying, you will do nobody any good, even Jesus himself said things that proved so confusing or unpopular that he lost a good deal of what we would now call market share. But under the assumption that Jesus made no mistakes in his ministry, those were the right things to say at the time.

The human touch

This topic comes close to home, because for some years, I have been choosing Bible verses to prompt a weekly discussion group of Christian faculty members at my university. No, I have never picked Psalm 137:9 for the topic of discussion, although I think highly enough of my colleagues that they would probably get something good out of it.

My goal has been to choose verses that relate to issues or problems that Christian instructors commonly face. We are humans first and instructors second, of course, so some of the topics just relate to our common humanity. Some verses prove more successful at starting good discussions than others do, but success as such is not necessarily my goal.

The point is that I try to customise the selections to suit my particular audience, and to challenge them as much as amuse or entertain or please them. The operators of most social media dread true challenges to their audiences as the plague, because the metaphorical off switch is always handy, and once a subscriber drops an app, it hurts market share, which is the true bottom line for commercial apps, and possibly for many Bible apps too.

In Acts 20:27, in his parting words, St Paul tells the Ephesians that he has given them "the whole counsel of God." This says to me that he didn't hold back on the hard and difficult and challenging parts, as well as the reassuring parts of Scripture and teaching.

The principle here is that we should listen to what is good for us, not just to what pleases us. And that principle has a much broader application than merely to Bible-verse apps. The customising of news and other information to increase user engagement has been simultaneously one of the greatest innovations in commercial media, and one of the most insidious cultural shifts as well, a shift that has had widespread, profound, but largely invisible and hard-to-trace effects. While church attendees have the Lectionary to counteract the effects of echo-chamber Bible apps, the rest of the world has surrendered happily to its echo-chamber world, and the world is suffering the consequences.


Have you used a Bible app? What has been your experience? Comment below.


Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering in the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunes store.

This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog Engineering Ethics.

Image credit: cartoon by Brian Doyle 


 

Showing 5 reactions

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  • David Page
    commented 2024-06-18 10:44:10 +1000
    Steven, it depends. What is your problem with philosophy? Do you believe questions shouldn’t be asked simply because they are unanswerable?
  • David Page
    commented 2024-06-18 10:44:06 +1000
    Steven, it depends. What is your problem with philosophy? Do you believe questions shouldn’t be asked simply because they are unanswerable?
  • Steven Meyer
    commented 2024-06-17 12:14:36 +1000
    My personal “Lowerarchy”

    Astrologers
    Economists
    Philosophers
    Theologians

    So philosophers and theologians are both worse than economists who are worse than astrologers.

    But who are worst between philosophers and theologians? I don’t know. Anyone got any ideas?
  • Maryse Usher
    commented 2024-06-15 09:05:13 +1000
    This may not be precisely what you are referring to, but I can highly recommend My Catholic Life! , a free online daily bulletin encompassing the Scriptural readings on the Mass of the Day and a commentary on the gospel, plus an excerpt of the Diary of St Faustina and prayer suggestion; also saints of the day. The commentary and prayers strike me as very sound.
    Also Universalis app for the Liturgy and the Hours. Not so keen on the commentary, but its great otherwise.
  • Karl D. Stephan
    published this page in The Latest 2024-06-13 20:14:51 +1000