More funology: elephants

XI.5 September + October 2004
Page: 76
Digital Citation

The age of auspicious computing?


Authors:
Genevieve Bell

Information and communication technologies are so pervasive that they are becoming a part of our spiritual lives. By December 2003, more than 35 million Americans will have searched for religious or spiritual information online [3]. On the face of it, that might not seem like much, but in the same period only 36 million downloaded music files.

But in the West, there is a long and complicated relationship between technology and religion. After all, Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press produced the Bible in the 1450s, making it the first book to be mass-produced. Today, the largest online genealogical service is run by the Church of the Latter Day Saints; similarly, Christian radio and televisions stations are flourishing in the United States, and e-Mosque projects are underway in Malaysia and Indonesia. Thus, it is not difficult to imagine that new information and communication technologies (ICTs) are being re-purposed to support a wide range of non-secular activities. Some of these re-purposings have been well documented, and some has been theorized [1, 4, 6]. This article focuses on several instances of techno-fied spirituality.

The Age of Auspicious Computing

Religious expression and ritual have found a home online in chat rooms, bulletin boards, and religious portals. Faith and spirituality Web sites have sprung up all over the United States offering everything from virtual Seders to advice on how to leave the Mormon Church. One such site provides a survey to help you determine your best religious fit and then makes recommendation for spiritual practices. The Catholic Church has been conducting a search for the last three years for a Patron Saint for the Internet. Various shrines in Asia (and the West) have their own Websites, allowing for a form of virtual pilgrimage. The Chinese government is actively supporting the creation of online memorial halls to facilitate the time honored filial practice of ancestor worship. In Sri Lanka, one of the first local Web sites to go live offered virtual divination via cyber-parrots to Sri-Lankans all over the world. You can even add your own request for prayers at the Web site for the chapel of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in Wisconsin, where the sisters have been praying continuously for 125 years.

The mobile telephony and communication space is also rich with spiritual possibilities, moral uplift, and tools for devotion. Throughout 2003, the Vatican offered an SMS service, sending out short, uplifting messages from the Pope daily—within the first three months they had more than two million subscribers in Italy alone. The Australia Bible Society offers the complete Bible in SMS (mobile phone text message) format—"4 God so luvd da world." China Mobile, one of that nation’s leading mobile service providers offers the nongli (lunar almanac) as a subscription service. You can download the Koran to your palm-pilot and synchronize it to local prayer times for 1,100 cities around the world, and Malaysian mobile phone service providers offer "quiblats" (directional finders for Mecca) on their phones.

There is more here than just cyber spirituality. Indeed, all these examples of new technologies delivering religious experiences represent not only the leading edge of a much larger re-purposing of the internet in particular, but computing and technology more broadly.

Spiritual Design

If it is the case that religion is a primary framing narrative in most cultures, then religion must also be one of the primary forces acting on people’s relationships with and around new technologies. The cultural logics of religious systems must necessarily impact the very ways in which new technologies are created, consumed, and indeed rejected: the permeability of the home to new ideas; the persistence of values such as simplicity, grace, humility, modesty and purity; ideas about modernity, subjectivity and the self are all implicated in shaping the contexts for new technologies. As such, it is something we need to account for more explicitly.

While no one is really tackling these issues directly, there have been various strategies for thinking beyond the efficiency/leisure paradigm for computing. Weiser and Seely-Brown [5] advocated for something they dubbed "calm computing," writing that "Calmness is a fundamental challenge for all technology design of the next fifty years." Gaver and others have called for an interleaving of computational and everyday worlds through the trope of ambiguity—creating possibilities for other sorts of experiences and meaning making around technologies [2].

Of course, it is equally important to think critically about why we have, thus far, tended to ignore spirituality and religion when we think of non-work usages and user models around technologies. We are oddly, stubbornly, secular in our imaginings of home and leisure contexts for computing. What we have to do is re-imagine the very contexts in which those technologies are conceived, created, and consumed, making room not just for fun and enjoyment but also for another fundamental set of cultural and human needs.

Acknowledgments

I am grateful for the support and encouragement of Nina Wakeford, Dan Russell, Paul Silverstein, Diane Bell, Peter Sheppard-Skaverd and Michael Kuniasky, as well as my colleagues in Peoples and Practices Research, Intel.

References

1. Brasher, B, (2001). Give Me That Online Religion. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

2. Gaver, W., Beaver, J., & Benford, S. (2003). Ambiguity as a resource for design. CHI2003 Conference Proceedings. New Horizons.

3. Leland, J. (2004, January 31). Tucked behind the home page, a call to worship. New York Times.

4. Muller, M.J., Christiansen E., Nardi B., & Dray S. (2001). Spiritual Life and Information Technology. Communications of ACM, [45](2), 82-83.

5. Weiser, M. & Brown, J.S.(1997). The coming age of calm technology, beyond calculation: the next fifty years of computing. New York: Spinger-Verlag.

6. Zaleski, J. (1997). The soul of cyber space: how new technology is changing our spiritual lives. San Francisco: Harper Edge.

Author

Genevieve Bell
Intel Research
Genevieve.Bell@intel.com

©2004 ACM  1072-5220/04/0900  $5.00

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