XXIX.4 July - August 2022
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Digital Citation

The 4th Unitarian Universalist principle as an aid to techno-spirituality research

Elizabeth Buie

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In April 2010, Intel anthropologist Genevieve Bell told CHI conference attendees that spirituality was one of the three most important "underexplored" areas of human-computer interaction research. Bell's words motivated me to follow up on an experience I had had some years earlier, and in the autumn of 2012 I moved across the Atlantic and began a Ph.D. in design research at Northumbria University.


I started by reviewing ACM's HCI literature on techno-spirituality, analyzing the gaps between its coverage and the apps I found in an in-depth search of the iOS App Store. Mark Blythe and I examined my findings and explored possible impediments to HCI research in this area; I presented our paper, "Spirituality: There's an App for That! (But Not a Lot of Research)" [1], at alt.chi 2013.

back to top  Insights

Experiential techno-spirituality research should characterize the experiences and cite transcendent experience literature.
Research should focus on the meaning that people find in their beliefs and experiences, not assuming any "truth" behind them.
Supporting everyone's "free and responsible search for truth and meaning" could enhance not only our research but also HCI as a community.

In that paper, Blythe and I discussed six potential reasons for the gap between HCI research and technologies "in the wild": 1) the HCI community considers techno-spirituality irrelevant to its work, academics being less religious than the general public; 2) the subject is methodologically difficult to study; 3) it's a sensitive topic and could be personally risky for researchers; 4) researchers could see it as professionally risky, with the chance of their being dismissed as having a religious agenda; 5) other academics might consider such research unscientific, under the (mistaken) impression that studying religious practices and experiences implies acceptance of the beliefs; and 6) obtaining funding may be more difficult than in other areas of HCI.

In the nine years since I presented that work, I have seen fairly little evidence of those issues among authors and reviewers of SIGCHI submissions—and the amount of this literature is clearly growing—but I have received some personal communications (one as recently as 2020) that convince me the impediments are still at work.

That 2013 work also delineated the three main roles I had found for the uses of technology in spirituality and religion: institutional (organizational use of technologies),practical (supporting the functional aspects of personal spiritual practices), and experiential (directly fostering subjective techno-spiritual experience). Of these three, what intensely fascinates me are people's subjective experiences, especially ones they feel to be extraordinary or deeply meaningful. From that project, then, I went on to focus on experiential techno-spirituality—the study of technology to facilitate spiritual/ transcendent experiences.

I have encountered some of those impediments myself, in doing this work.

A note about terminology: The literature on spiritual/transcendent experiences calls them by many names—religious, spiritual, mystical, transcendent, peak, self-transcendent, numinous, and so on. Although those experiences are not identical—for example, religion is not the only context in which these experiences occur, and spiritual experiences do not require a belief system—they all involve a sense of connection with something greater than oneself.

To simplify what I am talking about, I use transcendent experience (TX) to refer to all flavors of the experiences, whatever their features are and whether or not they involve belief in a being. I sometimes use techno-spiritual design and techno-spiritual experiences, especially when referring to HCI works.

back to top  Some Problems with Experiential Techno-Spirituality Research

The research situation as of 2019. Three years ago, I analyzed the HCI literature that addressed techno-spiritual experiences [2]. I found substantial growth in coverage over the years, and I also noted some serious problems with how researchers had treated these experiences. The works that covered TXs, I observed, seldom described the experiences they studied or designed for, and they almost never cited any literature on them. This led me to wonder how the authors knew what experiences their research addressed and how they knew when a research participant had had one. One of those papers even described the development of a questionnaire that included a subscale called "Emotional and Spiritual Experience" but did not make any mention whatsoever of the vast amount of spiritual experience literature that could have guided (or even made unnecessary) the development of such a subscale.

I was, frankly, astounded and dismayed to discover the extent of this oversight in the HCI literature. I would have thought that a discipline so strongly grounded in experimental psychology would have been rigorous in defining the psychological constructs it uses.

These oversights led me to wonder: How do the researchers know what they are studying?

As Mark Blythe and I had done in 2013 to try to explain the dearth of HCI research on techno-spirituality, I offer here some ideas for what might be preventing HCI researchers from defining the experiences and citing TX literature.

First let me speculate about what might be keeping HCI researchers from defining (or at least describing) the experiences they study. I have four ideas:

Because the definition is implied and everyone would understand it? Do they think the meaning of spiritual experience (or whatever name they give to the TXs they are studying) is so well understood that there is no need to define it? Are they treating it at a surface level and don't care to dig deeper? I say they owe it to their readers to say what they mean.

Because others might think they share the beliefs? Do they hesitate to delve into the nature of the experiences out of concern that it might give the impression they themselves hold those beliefs and interpretations? This concern is related to speculation 4 from [1] but is more specific, suggesting that researchers might fear that other academics will dismiss their work for being biased toward the particular beliefs held by their participants.

Because they do share the beliefs and think there is no need to define the experience? Do they hold the same beliefs or interpretations as their experients do, and see no need for description or definition because the meaning is a given? Even if this is true, I argue that they have a responsibility to communicate the experiences to people who do not share their beliefs.

Because defining the experience would spoil its mystery? Do they fear that exploring the nature of the experience could amount to reductionism or positivism? Others have made similar arguments against defining ineffable experiences and mindfulness, but I argue we need to define TXs "enough that we can make an educated guess about what we are designing for" [1]—and, I would add now, enough that we can determine when and whether we have seen the kind of experience we are studying or defining for.

Research on awe experiences illustrates and dispels all of these concerns. (Awe is a key component of transcendent experiences.) This work uses as a basis the groundbreaking paper that defined awe in a way that enabled later work to take it forward. In 2003, Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt [3] defined awe in terms of vastness and accommodation, and awe research has been building on that ever since. In recent years, researchers—including some who use virtual reality (VR) to facilitate awe experiences—have identified a number of additional characteristics of awe and have even developed an instrument to assess awe experiences. I've never heard an awe/HCI researcher say there is no need to define the experience.

And I've never heard anyone say that the experience of awe is less awesome for being better understood. I wonder if it might even be the other way around.

Now, what prevents techno-spirituality researchers from citing TX literature? I have two ideas about this:

Because they are unaware of the literature? Maybe it hasn't occurred to them that there is a body of literature on TXs? Maybe they wouldn't know where to find it? I think this reason is unlikely—there's lots of literature on other types of experiences (aesthetic experiences, for example) that HCI researchers cite when it's relevant, and as far as I can tell they're pretty good at finding it.

Because they're stymied by one of the impediments to defining the experiences? Someone who doesn't consider it important to understand the nature of an experience seems unlikely to go looking for literature on the nature of that experience. So I would urge them to reconsider. How can they understand their users if they don't understand the experiences their users are having?

Where can HCI researchers who want to address their own lack of knowledge of the body of literature on TXs start? Well, even though my Ph.D. thesis [4] is almost five years old and I haven't done an extensive literature review of more recent work, readers of this article could do worse than to start with that thesis chapter. I conducted that TX literature review as an HCI researcher and practitioner, so at least my perspective on it should be relatively understandable to others in our field. And my thesis is available for free on the Web (https://nrl.northumbria.ac.uk/33799).

Recent growth in experiential techno-spirituality research. Although Blythe and I wrote just last year [5] that "spirituality continues to be underexplored in HCI," we noted that the volume is picking up and I am pleased to say that the increase includes a fair amount of work on design for transcendent experiences. Unfortunately, it turns out that a substantial amount of this increase exists in sources outside the reach of the ACM Digital Library (DL). Most of this involves studies of virtual reality to foster experiences of awe (e.g., [6,7,8]). Essentially, although these works are strongly relevant to HCI research on transcendent user experiences (TUXs), a search of the DL doesn't find them. Most of them appear in publications related to psychology, and some appear in technology-related publications, such as those produced by IEEE.

Fortunately, some of the increase in TUX work since 2019 does exist in the DL—two papers presented at CHI 2020 [9,10], for example—and both of these works cite TX literature. One of them [9] not only defines mystical-type experiences but also uses an existing instrument to assess the ones its VR system was designed to foster. The other [10] defines transcendent experience, but since it did not aim to study or elicit them it had no need to use an assessment instrument. Both of these works are excellent examples of TUX research that draws appropriately on TX research.

As of this writing, I haven't found any ACM-based TUX research dated later than the CHI 2020 proceedings, but these two papers give me hope for the future of this subfield. More detail on recent TUX research appears in [5].

Managing the impediments in my HCI work. I would not begin to claim to be immune to the impediments to doing techno-spirituality work. In particular, I sometimes find myself wanting to protest, "Wait, I'm not religious!" (usually meaning I'm not theistic) when someone misunderstands the purpose of my research. That's more about their personal impressions of me, though, than it is about any possible professional risk. My "day job" is in the UX industry and I conduct research on my own time, which means the possibility that other researchers might view me as having a bias wouldn't affect my livelihood. But I do care about how people see me and how seriously they take my research.

The Unitarian Universalist tradition offers a key principle that helps me manage the issues.

back to top  Unitarian Universalism

Most readers of this article have probably never heard of Unitarian Universalism (UUism), and may well be surprised to learn that an early work on techno-spiritual design [11] is connected to that tradition. AltarNation "allows physically isolated individuals to participate in communities of meditation" and provides "an environment where those who understand spirituality as a function of community design their meditative experience and overcome isolation" [11]. The work begins by describing some needs of a member of the Church of the Larger Fellowship (CLF), and it later acknowledges representatives of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) for their input. (The work does not mention that CLF is a UU organization, but I recognized its name. See https://www.questformeaning.org/clfuu/)

UUism as a faith tradition originated from Protestant Christianity and draws on sources as diverse as poetry, science, sacred texts, humanist teachings, nature-focused beliefs and practices, and "direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life" [12]. UUism as a defined faith tradition dates only from 1959, created by a merger of the Unitarian and Universalist traditions in North America, but both components go back 200 years or more. Other forms of Unitarianism around the world are older: British Unitarianism is more than 300 years old; and European Unitarianism has roots more than 400 years old, having come from Poland-Lithuania and Transylvania in the late 1500s. So, although the UUA is a relative newcomer as an organization, Unitarianism as liberal religion is not a Johnny-come-lately, and a number of important thinkers, writers, scientists, and activists have been Unitarians, Universalists, or UUs, including Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web.

The 4th Principle helps me respect—even honor—my research participants' right to spiritual self-determination.

I came to UUism in midlife. Brought up in the Protestant Christian denomination of Methodism, in North Carolina, I left Christianity at 18 because the theology no longer made sense to me. Later, I spent a few years in a humanist congregation, and in 2002 I became a UU. I currently belong to two congregations—a UU one in Bethesda, Maryland (which I joined originally), and a Unitarian one in Cambridge, England (where I live now).

I am agnostic with respect to the existence of a deity, but I love mystery and wonder, and I believe in the power of transcendence—a sense of connection with something greater than oneself—to inspire and transform. If I didn't, I could hardly have done my Ph.D. on design to facilitate transcendent experiences.

back to top  UU Principles in HCI Work

Unitarian Universalist congregations "affirm and promote seven Principles, which we hold as strong values and moral guides" (https://www.uua.org/beliefs/what-we-believe/sources ). These principles include respecting "the inherent worth and dignity of every person" and honoring "the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part." Although one might argue that all seven are germane to any research community whose work focuses on people, I see one of them as especially relevant to techno-spirituality research in HCI. The 4th Principle declares respect for "a free and responsible search for truth and meaning." For me, this principle is what uniquely defines UUism.

The 4th Principle and the research work. The 4th UU Principle is directly relevant to techno-spirituality research. It asserts each person's right to spiritual self-determination—the freedom to follow our own spiritual path as long as we choose it for ourselves and it does not lead us to harm others or coerce them in any way. This principle explicitly contributed to my Ph.D. work, in that "I expressed no position on any specific beliefs that my interview participants might hold, although I shared very few of them, and I respect people's right to spiritual self-determination" [4].

To develop a grounded theory of transcendent user experience, I interviewed 24 people about spiritual experiences they'd had and how they might want technology to enhance them. The interviewees came from diverse faith traditions and none at all—Christianity (Methodism, Anglicanism, Catholicism, and Pentecostalism), Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Spiritualism, atheism, and (of course) Unitarian Universalism. For one to two hours each, I listened as they told me about extraordinary experiences with considerably varying phenomenology. I listened again as I transcribed the interviews for my data analysis.

More than seven years later, I continue to be fascinated by many of the experiences, moved even now by stories of what the experiences meant in those people's lives. I still don't know what to think about what might have been real or imagined about the experiences, but I don't need to know. I love a good mystery.

The 4th Principle helps me respect—even honor—my research participants' right to spiritual self-determination.

The 4th Principle and the HCI community. The 4th Principle also speaks to how we conduct ourselves as a community—it asks us to allow one another the same spiritual self-determination that we allow people who participate in our research. I'm sure that most of us are perfectly willing for everyone else to practice their faiths as they see fit, as long as they don't harm others, attempt to coerce them, or disrupt the working of the community. Where it gets difficult is when community members raise concerns about conference activities or events where they feel excluded, such as the issue currently being raised by people whose religious beliefs forbid them from attending events where alcohol is present.

Where do we draw the line between respecting others' self-determination and standing up for our own? I don't see that conundrum as highly relevant to alcohol per se, but I think we should be prepared in case something like it arises.

And then what? Can we use the 4th UU Principle, the one honoring spiritual self-determination, to help us navigate HCI community issues? Those issues are thornier and more difficult to address than is having respect for research participants' beliefs—and I don't pretend to have the answers—but addressing them is vital to our community's well-being.

back to top  Conclusion

In this article I have summarized key points from two of my works—speculations about what might be depressing techno-spirituality research in the HCI community, and identification of two main flaws in much of the work on experiential techno-spirituality. In the vein of the earlier speculations, I have presented some ideas about what might be behind the failure of many researchers to define the experiences they study or to cite literature on the relevant kinds of experience. And I have explained how the 4th UU Principle aids me in approaching HCI research on transcendent user experiences and in participating in the techno-spirituality research community and the HCI community at large.

I am not saying that one has to be a UU to respect other people's spiritual self-determination; far from it. But I have encountered colleagues who struggle with doing so. I put forward the 4th UU Principle in case others in the techno-spirituality community might find it helpful in their own research, and in our mutual cooperation and collaboration.

back to top  References

1. Buie, E. and Blythe, M. Spirituality: There's an app for that! (but not a lot of research). Extended Abstracts CHI 2013. ACM, New York, 2013, 2315–2324.

2. Buie, E. Let us say what we mean: Towards operational definitions for techno-spirituality research. Extended Abstracts of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2019, 1–10; https://doi.org/10.1145/3290607.3310426

3. Keltner, D. and Haidt, J. Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion. Cogn. Emot. 17, 2 (2003), 297–314.

4. Buie, E. Exploring Techno-Spirituality: Design Strategies for Transcendent User Experiences. Ph.D. Dissertation. Northumbria University, 2018.

5. Blythe, M. and Buie, E. Designs on transcendence: Sketches of a TX machine. Found. Trends Human-Computer Interact. 15, 1 (2021), 1–131; https://doi.org/10.1561/1100000082

6. Chirico, A., Yaden, D.B., Riva, G., and Gaggioli, A. The potential of virtual reality for the investigation of awe. Front. Psychol. 7 (Nov. 2016), 1–6; https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01766

7. Kahn, A.S. and Cargile, A.C. Immersive and interactive awe: Evoking awe via presence in virtual reality and online videos to prompt prosocial behavior. Hum. Commun. Res. 47, 4 (2021), 387–417; https://doi.org/10.1093/hcr/hqab007

8. Stepanova, E.R., Quesnel, D., and Riecke, B.E. Understanding AWE: Can a virtual journey, inspired by the overview effect, lead to an increased sense of interconnectedness? Front. Digit. Humanit. 6 (May 2019), Article 9, 1–21; https://doi.org/10.3389/fdigh.2019.00009

9. Glowacki, D.R. et al. Isness: Using multi-person VR to design peak mystical-type experiences comparable to psychedelics. Proc. of the 2020 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, ACM, New York, 2020, 1–14; https://doi.org/10.1145/3313831.3376649

10. Markum, R.B. and Toyama, K. Digital technology, meditative and contemplative practices, and transcendent experiences. Proc. of the 2020 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2020, 1–14; https://doi.org/10.1145/3313831.3376356

11. Hlubinka, M., Beaudin, J., Tapia, E.M., and An, J.S. AltarNation: Interface design for meditative communities. CHI'02 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2002, 612–613.

12. All of the material about Unitarian Universalism (North America) comes from the UUA (https://www.uua.org). Information about British and European Unitarianism comes from their respective websites.

back to top  Author

Elizabeth Buie obtained her Ph.D. at Northumbria University on experiential techno-spirituality, for which she developed a grounded theory of transcendent user experiences, a design game to elicit ideas for techno-spiritual products, and three new forms of design fiction to elaborate on ideas. Her current research also includes the exploration and analysis of how the HCI community studies these experiences. She divides her time among HCI research, user experience consulting, and Renaissance choral polyphony. [email protected]

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