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Netflixing the Story

photo by Carmen Andres

Recently, friends of mine who are software developers told me about Netflix’s data collection, which not only tracks everything we watch but also every time we fast-forward, rewind, pause or abandon a movie or show altogether. Netflix uses this information to personalize recommendations as well as make decisions about what programming to feature or create.

In “How Netflix Reverse Engineered Hollywood,” Alexis Madrigal explores how Netflix also “microtags” every movie and show (from the plot, director and actors to the main characters’ jobs), incorporating that data into a system she compares to Facebook’s Newsfeed—“but instead of serving you up pieces of web content that the algorithm thinks you’ll like, Netflix is serving you up filmed entertainment.”

I find all that pretty impressive (and handy)—but others are a bit more wary.

In “How Netflix is Using Big Data,” Ritika Tiwari notes that some critics are concerned that Netflix is abusing the data and hindering creativity—for example, “if big data can decide the actor, story and the director of the show then what would stop it from deciding the dialogues and the cinematography of the show?”

While data substituting for creativity is worrying, others point out something a bit closer to home: Our Netflix account tells us more about ourselves than we might realize.
In TheNetflix Effect, Neta Alexander says our account provides a surprisingly intimate glimpse into our soul, revealing our desires, fantasies and obsessions. “Share your Netflix’s password with me—and I’ll tell you who are, who you share your life with and who you wish to become.”

And our souls are laid bare to Netflix.

That leads to the potential that entities like Netflix may know more about ourselves than we do, says Andrew Leonard in “How Netflix is Turning Viewers into Puppets”—which allows them “to craft techniques that push us toward where they want us to go, rather than where we would go by ourselves if left to our own devices.”

All this got me thinking not only about my own Netflix habits but also how I approach the biblical story.

Be it by indexes or Google, everything is microtaged in Scripture, making it easy for us to filter through and create a figurative “watch list” of verses, sections and stories. Like our Netflix account, awareness of our tendencies to gravitate towards certain selections—or fast forward through, skip or avoid others—presents a good opportunity to examine what those tendencies reveal about us, our desires and our walk with God.

But while introspection is beneficial, we also need to be aware of what self-selection can do in terms of our understanding of Scripture.

Each part of Scripture is meant to be taken in context of the whole, so if we are self-selecting, that isn’t good.

“God chose to speak to us over time through many writers,” says Scott McKnight in The Blue Parakeet. “God needed a variety of expressions to give us a fuller picture of the Story.”

None of those expressions and stories, says McKnight, are final, comprehensive, absolute or exhaustive. They are held together and both inform and are informed by the larger Story.

Easily finding verses and stories that speak to us in a specific situation or season of our life is a good thing, but we need to be aware of dangers in self-selecting, which can push us down a path that diminishes our understanding of the Story or even result in our gravitation towards a gospel of our own inclinations or one created by others—all of which diminishes our relationship with God, each other and the world around us. 

A shorter version of this post originally appeared at MWR.