Dataclysm Knows Nothing about Religion

DataclysmI didn’t perform a data set analysis on Christian Rudder’s Dataclysm, which draws heavily from his work as co-founder of OkCupid (the popular dating website), but I can say one thing for certain: Dataclysm knows nothing about religion. And it’s a shame.

More on that in a moment. First, let me explain a bit more about the book. Dataclysm: Who We Are When We Think No One’s Looking (Crown, 2014), an ironic mash-up of “data” and the “biblical” notion of cataclysm, is a sort of anti-Outliers. Rudder says as much late in the book: “Instead of the strays from the far reaches of the data—the one-offs, the exceptions, the singletons, the Einsteins for whom you need the whole story to get it right, I’m pulling from the undifferentiated whole. We focus on the dense clusters, the center of mass, the data duplicated over and over by the repetition and commonality of our human experience” (219).

Rudder looks at the sort of clicks and likes and messages sent by way of dating sites, Google searches, and Facebook posts—the stuff we all do every day and largely ignore as parts of a mass of information no one would likely care about—and uses the data to reveal (as the book’s subtitle explains) “who we are when we think no one’s looking.”

The result is a pretty compelling book that I found myself enjoying with almost every page (this despite any number of concerns that his use and interpretation of the data raises). A few nuggets sure to tease the reader’s imagination:

  • As a woman ages, the men who look best to her pretty well correspond to her own age (trending older than herself until about 30, and then trending moderately younger thereafter).
  • As a man ages, the women who look best to him pretty much stays the same: 20-23 years old no matter how old he gets (a sign that most men are either creeps or merely consistent in their aesthetic judgments—possibly both).
  • Against common wisdom, Twitter may actually be raising the standards of English language by omitting needless words and increasing lexical density.
  • Although open racism is publicly unacceptable, trends on Google searches reveal not only that racism is alive and well, but also that “auto-fill” searches may contribute to widespread stereotypes.
  • Google searches for porn reveal trends in same-sex attraction that persist across different regions of the nation (and may contribute to the nature/nurture debate).

You get the idea. It’s only mildly ironic that Rudder ends with a chapter that basically chastises consumers for “cavalier” attitudes on privacy (232), but I definitely finished with an overall sense of unease. (For what it’s worth, he is equally insistent that his own use of data for the book always protected the privacy of individuals in favor of discovering the larger trends of the whole.)

“Reading History,” this blog, focuses on the intersection between religion and literature, so I was naturally waiting to discover how such “private” data could reveal larger, unexpected trends in religion and spirituality. I mean, clearly if someone wants to talk about sex, politics, and race, surely religion belongs in the discussion, too, right?

Nope. Surprisingly, Rudder pretty well avoids religion throughout the book. When he talks about trends in sexual attraction, he never mentions how data on religious belief implicates the results (in fact, he intimates that religion doesn’t actually matter). Do Christians seek hookups more or less than the average OkCupid member? Do Muslims or Jews trend differently than other users on romantic preferences? This sort of thing—the sort of content that Rudder likes to examine to debunk or confirm public stereotypes. I’m not suggesting the results would be positive (or even wholly negative). It’s just not there.

When religion does appear, the subject is largely innocuous or only stereotypical—but certainly not driven by the data alone. An early footnote tipped me off that Rudder may still buy into the old-fashioned secularization thesis:

“God,” for example, has been in steady decline for decades and is now used only about a third as much in American writings as it was in the early 1800s. (64)

This should have warned him about the problem with interpreting data in isolation. Rudder studied at Harvard, so perhaps he read Harvey Cox’s The Secular City (1965) but never made it to Cox’s apologetic followup Fire from Heaven (1994). In fact, the further I read, the more I worried that religion was not only off Rudder’s radar, but even something he preferred to use as a punch line. When writing about the rise of “self-branding” in social media, Rudder compares one heavy-handed speaker to a Christian evangelist: “He shows the kind of belief that a different type of person channels to rip phone books in half for his tight bro J.C” (210). Well done, I thought. I enjoy a good Power Team reference when I see one. He was on a roll though, so he kept at it on the very next page: “The goals of personal branding are the same you’d find in any empowerment seminar or in any prosperity gospel sermon from any decade. The end has always been wealth and power” (211). Prosperity preachers do fit the bill, but he’s bordering on cliche by this point. But he wasn’t done yet. Rudder finished with a flourish that implicated the entire Protestant Reformation:

This is the core concept of personal branding, and like Christianity + the printing press or pro football + television, the idea has found in social media the perfect technology to go global. (211)

The otherwise unobjectionable comment implies religious manipulation when following on the two previous jibes at alleged faith-pretenders. It’s hardly worth commenting on, except for one thing: that’s the extent of religious reflection in this book.

Here’s my point: For all the ways Dataclysm has the potential to contribute to the study of public opinion, I was disappointed that the book didn’t go far enough in reflecting on what really matters. To write a study of “who we are” and the “commonality of human experience” without attending to religion is short-sighted at best.

Leaving aside the ethics of using private data (defended on the grounds of implicit privacy exchanges in the commodification of social media), I have little doubt that, had he wanted, Rudder could have gathered data that reveals a vast disconnect between confessional belief and private practice. Based on his few references to religion, I imagine his interpretation of the data wouldn’t have been all that flattering. On the other hand, in the course of reflection, perhaps he would have also discovered surprising trends or even religious “outliers” worth noting in the larger account. Either way, religious life and spirituality never appear as more than a prop and a flourish in this otherwise provocative story of disconnect between our private and public selves.

If you enjoyed this post, take a look at After you Left: A Letter to My Pet!

2 thoughts on “Dataclysm Knows Nothing about Religion

  1. Pingback: Death, Bodies, and Smoke Gets in Your Eyes | Jeffrey W. Barbeau

  2. Pingback: Losing Religion, Finding Self in Thompson’s “Blankets” | Jeffrey W. Barbeau

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