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What Our Interests Reveal


Companies with the knowhow, resources, and access are constantly tracking our habits. Amazon, Twitter, Facebook, Google; they have massive records of our individual online actions.

It's a lucrative strategy. If you know what someone is interested in, you can exploit that to your own advantage. Of course, theoretically you could just as easily use that information to actually help a person and enhance their experience in some kind of altruistic way. But what's the fun in that, right? Or at least, there isn't really a long line of large companies who are working to better your life and mine at the expense of their own bottom line. Which is understandable.

It's safe to assume that the most effective long term business models include both some give and some take. Apple, Tesla, & Chick-fil-A are the current leaders in that strategy (at least from my POV; my point of view). While they get plenty of your money, you get a whole lot of excellence of product in return; at least, that's the aura they've succeeded in creating.

But what do the algorithms of Siri, Alexa, Google, and Facebook "Watch" tell us about ourselves?

Recently I confessed publicly that I really enjoy watching videos of professionals taking care of cow hooves. I like the horse and donkey hoof manicures too, just not quite as much. So, what do you think pops up automatically on my video feed when I go to it? Lots of videos that include hoof maintenance. But that's not all that pops up on my phone, tablet, and computer. There are sponsored ads everywhere as well as many other possible rabbit holes for me to explore. Often these are short term campaign ads based on some recent search engine entry or online purchase. Sometimes a product that we have simply talked about will shortly appear in our news feed. But again, what do the long term trends tells us about ourselves. The mindless AIs (artificial intelligence machines) that keep tabs on us without emotion or interest have the power to reveal some pretty significant things about us. Namely, what our chief interests are.

Even in the tiny world of this website and blog, the trend is not that mysterious. Before I even publish a blog entry I've got a pretty good idea of whether it will bring in lots of readers or will only be read by a faithful few.

Tragedy sells. Pop culture sells. Covert appeals to people's narcissistic tendencies sells. Danger sells. Sensation sells. Sex sells.

Theology doesn't. Vocabulary doesn't. Responsibility doesn't. Self-discipline doesn't. At least, not to my audience or sphere of impact.

I'm not complaining; just observing.

Recently I've been mulling over what the marketing bots think I'm interested in. They are always offering things to me that they predict will keep me coming back for more. Here are my unscientific impressions and observations.

Apparently I'm interested in beauty. Beautiful landscapes, beautiful decor, beautiful animals, beautiful people, beautiful flowers, beautiful colors, beautiful music. I'm also interested in improving the beauty of a thing. It might even still be relatively ugly in the end, even after the improvement is made, but if it's vastly improved over its original state, then I'm in (hence the hoof obsession).

I'm interested in things that are novel, inexplicable, intense, mysterious, incongruous. Maybe those things fit together. Maybe they don't. But to me they do. For those reasons, wildlife videos often interest meat least I think those are the reasons why. Watching killer whales hunt seals or cheetahs chase down gazelles seems so far removed from my docile middle-class existence. It intrigues me.

There are other things too. Deeper things. Psychology, philosophy, theology. But those topics also exhaust me. I want to understand God and man. In that discovery is the discovery of my place. But the goal is constantly illusive there. When I look at a beautiful sunset or a time-lapse video of a blooming flower, I hunger for the object and shortly find it. But when I set out to understand humanity or our Creator, more discovery only reveals more mystery. While on the one hand, that is a thrilling realization. It's also deflating. Working a math problem that is insolvable eventually begins to feel senseless, even if numerous valuable discoveries are made along the way.

A few years ago research was done to find out what the average American is interested in (specifically in the news). Far and away, most cared about their local community. Then it was government and politics, science, business, finance, sports, and entertainment (in that order).

Another way to evaluate our interests is to consider the kinds of books that sell best. Romance novels are top sellers. Crime and thriller fiction are also high on the list. And further down the list, fighting for preeminence, are books on religion and self-help books.

Let's not continue exploring, though we could consider the kinds of television programing that garners high Nielsen ratings. We could talk about how people spend their money or time. We could examine what possessions people keep and value and use.

Here's the rub. Personally, I think that what our interests reveal about us mostly is that we are running from something. With some exceptions, much of what interests people are simply things that make us feel better, or at least distract us from our pain. And frankly, at risk of being a curmudgeon here, I believe the thing we're trying to avoid is our mortality.

Even the best among us still die. The young die. The beautiful eventually dilapidates, dies and decays. The rich, the famous, the powerful, the talented, the nobleall end up in the same condition; dead. We're interested in understanding and explaining the curse that hovers over and around us like a heavy fog, but more still we're bent on avoiding and escaping it.

We should recognize that our environment and our personality certainly plays a part in how we go about answering the difficult questions that haunt us. But in any case, we are all interested very much in either finding adequate answers or else finding a way to quiet the questions themselves.

Indeed, the standard (and correct) answer is all about Jesus. But it's awfully hard sometimes to stay at His feet as we should, isn't it? We want to know things that are none of our business and we often want to do things that are not our right. When Paul advised us in 1st Thessalonians 4:11 to, "Make it our goal to live a quiet life, minding our own business and working with our hands, so that people who are not Christians will respect the way we live..." he gave us a very tall order, right? For many of us, this prescription for life sounds boring.

I read a book this week that I have been recommending to people. It's called Atomic Habits by James Clear. In it he concludes that we have to fall in love with boredom. I found that advice to resonate ironically with me. We certainly can waste an awful lot of time and energy looking for greener grass and being curious about the other side of the mountain. Of course there is a time to explore. That can be healthy too. But perpetual uneasiness is not likely to lead us to where we either want or need to be.

Perhaps the best way to conclude this meandering post is to remind us all that the best thing we can do is to focus on the small sphere in which we have been called to serve. Be the best spouse, the best parent, the best sibling, the best employee, the best neighbor, the best friend you can be right where you are for the glory of God. If He chooses to expand your coasts and mine, great! Admittedly, there is certainly nothing wrong with dreaming and pursuing such things either, but those horizons should follow disciplined caretaking of the posts where we now stand. Those objectives should never be allowed to supplant the responsibilities God has already given to us. Jesus said it best: "Be faithful over a few things so I can make you a ruler over many things."

Meaning and peace is not out there somewhere waiting to be discovered. It is right here with us and in us in the person and presence of Jesus Christ. Are you interested in Him? In serving, obeying, cooperating, submitting to, being used by, and communing with Him. That should be enough for us. It is truly enough. We just need to accept it, embrace it, and practice it.

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