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Does all this data help us know ourselves any better?



Christopher Hazell - published on 08/14/18

We can now tap into the hidden secrets of our emotional, psychological, and biological lives, but we remain blind to the ultimate mystery.

As someone with experience in the marketing and communications industry, I sometimes work with something known as a “user persona.” This term, or tool, refers to a superficial amalgam of qualities, demographic information, interests, desires, and attributes that help guide messaging and marketing strategies. So, for example, if I’m tasked with developing a marketing strategy for our MBA programs I might fashion my user persona to look something like this: John, our prospective student, is 29 years old, single, a mid-level manager working in the supply chain industry, a graduate from CSULB with a finance degree, desires to transition from supply chain to marketing, and so on. With this fictional yet tangible entity in mind, I can now employ it to guide and temper our marketing strategy, ensuring that what we’re communicating to our audience is likely to resonate with our mid-level manager, John.

It’s an interesting exercise: the attempt to make concrete and personal something that is abstract and impersonal — a faceless sea of prospective students with their own unique desires, needs, goals, fears, etc. Of course, marketers can now combine this rather crude approach with culled behavioral data to craft a remarkably accurate “persona.” And although many of us fear the potential for behavioral and descriptive data to fall into the wrong hands, on some level many of us are also enamored by the promise of unhindered self-understanding.

Thanks to vastly complex algorithms, repositories of shared human data, and ease of access to connected technologies, we can understand ourselves in ways undreamed by previous generations. We can tap into the hidden secrets of our emotional, psychological, and biological lives. A host of IQ, personality, EQ, temperament, and strengths tests can categorize each of us into narrowly-defined buckets with encouraging names like “Counselor” or “Ambassador.” With a mere $100 we can survey our ancestral histories and dig into our genetic makeup. We can monitor our steps, burned calories, and heart rate at all waking — and un-waking — hours. Such mysteries of the self that were once probed through the antiquated lenses of the humors or cranial imperfections can now be uncovered via dependable, empirical means.

Walker Percy begins his Lost in the Cosmos with an apropos hypothetical. He walks us, the reader, through the exercise of reading an astrology column. After reading about Aries (that’s our astrological sign for this hypothetical), Percy tells us that we think the description is, well, amazingly accurate. However, Percy then informs us that we read the wrong column (it was Gemini and not Aries that we read). So, this time we read the correct description for Aries and, what do you know? That one is amazingly accurate as well.

Percy’s humorous and (embarrassingly) relatable thought exercise set the groundwork for a paradox he explores in the book: our attempt to know ourselves more leads us to realize we don’t know ourselves at all.

But many of us don’t believe it. If only we gather the right data — lean into that apotheosizing of technological innovation just enough — we will eventually come to a full understanding of ourselves. So the utopian vision of the futurist goes.

What we have instead, though, is no different than a well-crafted user persona. With so many disparate pieces of data to assign to our being, we risk the temptation of becoming a mere synthesis as opposed to an actual self. While the eternal “I” remains, I am able to form the ephemeral “me”: the accessory I can customize to my own emotional and psychological gratification. I have a self as opposed to being myself. I become a collection of “things” to help me navigate the world for utilitarian purposes: to wrest that promotion, nab that first date, pass that final interview. I can see myself as a filtered, affirmed collection of images on Instagram or a disparate collection of attributes, traits, and skill sets on LinkedIn. In one setting I’m a “critical thinker,” “strong communicator,” and “collaborative team member,” while in the other I’m “fun,” “thoughtful,” and a “self-deprecating romantic.” I’m an “INFJ” or a “4 with a 5 wing” or an “AIS.” I become binary: this instead of that.

In this way, our “selves” become aspirational — something we fabricate with disparate and desirable parts — and two things can follow: we realize this referent “self” doesn’t correspond to reality and we become depressed by the dissonance. Or we buy-in fully to the aspirational self, losing stake in reality (along with humility) and become mere projections of our inflated egos.

However, there is another great danger buried within this order of thinking. When we subconsciously adopt this mind set and simplify ourselves into a collection of things, we consequently demystify the other as well. Others become a classification of race or socioeconomic status, intelligence or popularity. We all become the things of a utilitarian milieu, blinding us to the reality that we’re each something much more complex and mysterious.

A Christian view of the self provides, paradoxically, both reassuring clarity and dizzying complexity. Who we each are becomes wonderfully clear: a son or daughter of God. With such clarity we are free from anchoring ourselves to any one trait or fact of our personhood. Still, while the simplicity of being one – not many – made in the image and likeness of God gives us peace, we are left with the equally wonderful mystery of how we are to animate this identity. The precise way we come to fulfill that identity — that unique and unrepeatable way of expressing God’s love — remains for us an inscrutable reality buried in the mind of God.

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