Tech as Ritual

tech as ritual

It is an impersonal god, without name, without history, immanent in the world, diffused in a numberless multitude of things.

That’s how the “father of sociology” Emile Durkheim described the native state of religion. By discussing religion as something outside god, outside the supernatural, Durkheim overcame the modern impulse to separate experiences into the real and the magical. To so-called “primitive” peoples, wrote Durkheim, religion is bound up in the rituals of day-to-day existence: without scientific rationality everything becomes laden with meaning, with arcane portent. The physical is spiritual, and the spiritual is intimate and commonplace.

As a young boy attending Sunday Mass, I took in the proceedings as might be expected, in silent anticipation that the Holy Spirit – a luminous and cloud-like entity – would coalesce from the glass over the altar with a miraculous message for me alone. The spirit never showed itself, and I was left to repeat the tired rituals of Catholic communion.

To a son of a different age, lacking today’s scientific indoctrination and rigorous denial of the supernatural, the rituals themselves might have been evidence enough. To stand in a large room, evocatively designed, with true believers instead of the obligatory Sunday crowd, to witness the physical transformation of simple food into something essentially spiritual: maybe that’s the flavor of genuine Christian experience today. Practice and ritual providing not “evidence” of the magical, but a new world where the omnipresence of God makes for wonderful and terrible things.

Whatever the case, religion as Durkheim described it exists today, independent of God, independent of the supernatural, without history, diffused throughout the world. I’m referring to the construct of “tech,” not just an inventory of useful tools, but a clergy, a catechism, a divine mission. Tech will create a world, tech will destroy a world.

Turning to transhumanism

There’s a pinch of Genesis in the corporate language of high tech. Google defines its mission as the following: to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. This is, one can assume, a task the Lord God might have left for the seventh day had He not chosen to rest. Google’s “Ten things we know to be true” is as much a modern confession of faith than anything else I’ve come across. In its quest to innovate and disrupt, tech moves beyond bourgeois motives into a realm still freshly baked from the sixties, a California Jerusalem characterized by the need to achieve oneness with God.

Faced with my own lack of religious faith, I struggled to find a substitute for God. My solution started from the many insolvable questions I had about the world. I recall the feeling clearly: grasping at a word, an idea, and mashing it around to extract meaning. But what meaning there was could be subjected to the same torture, and on and on until all meaning derailed into the ultimate unknown. The only way to discern the “meaning of life,” I decided, was to become all-knowing. Only then could one access the answers and finally know what to do. This adolescent quest sparked my interest in transhumanism.

The transhuman dream, still one of the most interesting developments in modern religiosity, is techno-optimism taken to its logical conclusion: that the human race, having achieved singularity and runaway intelligence, might become 1) all knowing and 2) immortal. It’s the need to atone for our dying bodies and decaying minds. Transhumanists, like many religious people, need to become the god they seek. It’s a way to reconcile the obvious benefits of applied science with the squidgy moral stuff science doesn’t address.

But transhumanism is still a super-natural framework. To the disappointment of men like Ray Kurzweil, we remain trapped in mortal bodies. There is reason to believe Moore’s Law cannot hold, that the growth rate of digital processing power will peak before our machines achieve self-awareness. Transhumanism is a theology, dealing with God before man. But tech on the ground feels more like religious practice, a framework of daily rituals and obligations. Their sum total isn’t God, but the way we live now, phone addiction and email and Paypal and Youtube and Instagram and Uber and Netflix – the list goes on.

Rituals, not “god”

What would a visitor from a few centuries ago think about our lived world? How would she parse appliances, lighting fixtures, our buildings, cars, airplanes, thermostats, laptops, TVs, our clothes, phones, headphones, bicycles, plastic? Maybe she’d see echoes of her time in the trees outside the window, our books (though they look different), the way people love and hate each other. Our world is a wonderful and terrible place.

As many have said before, digital tech takes all this up a notch. There are older folks bored on Facebook right now to whom “Facebook” was incomprehensible many decades ago. Because we’re so adaptable, we can function within a miraculous environment once we know it isn’t an illusion. Durkheim’s point is that before science, many peoples saw myth and magic as commonplace, granting them the ability to survive and simultaneously develop culture.

Rituals certainly govern our relationship with pre-digital tech. Before vacuuming we unspool the cord and plug it into the wall socket, facilitating the flow of electricity. When we drive we buckle our seatbelts, turn the key in the ignition, and begin a complex series of hand-eye maneuvers to govern the vehicle as it travels. We brush our teeth. Factory workers operate complex machines and do some tasks by hand.

But these actions are still inherently physical. They take place in one world, the “real world.” The rituals of Sunday Mass, of temple, of meditation, are very different. In church, physically meaningless ritual brings the practitioner from the profane world into sacred space. The rules are different there. People aren’t what they seem, and neither are things. There is a sense of order, of authority, of morality, but it’s very distinct from the laws of the outside. In the sacred space, you’re empowered in some ways and handicapped in others. When you enter the sacred space with others, you experience what Durkheim called “collective effervescence,” the passage into a treacherous borderland where anything can happen.

The rituals of modern tech are ergonomic, but only so that we can overcome ergonomics and “go inside.” We tap at our smartphones or switch on laptops. We disassociate from the physical world and enter a state of distracted concentration, gazing into a lighted screen. We wander the onion-world of the internet, where every page reveals the seed of the next. And from those pages leap infinite possibilities. Does the person we’re messaging live next door or across an ocean? Will this article reveal a new way to solve an impossible problem? Will we marry the next swipe on Tinder?

We get bored on tech, just as the the devotee gets bored sometimes during service. But our boredom only reinforces the all-encompassing nature of that which we inhabit. We are bored, but we stay in the matrix. There’s even a tech clergy – the programmers and specialists who’d dismiss this post as a layman’s ravings. To those who understand its hidden mechanics (they’d tell me, citing Asimov), a system cannot be a religion. Sacred space is just bits and electrons, basic programs disguised as something more. But when those programmers and engineers go off the clock, where do they go for entertainment, for love, for release?

The Catholic Church once reserved literacy for clerical elites, convinced that commoners reading the Bible would ruin religion. But when Martin Luther opened the floodgates and let all people read, what emerged was a tighter, stricter version of Christianity based on a personal relationship with the text. Religious ritual changed colors, put on a fresh face. Where once was MySpace now is Snapchat.

Where is all of this leading?

Our interaction with tech is ritualistic, and through ritual we gain access to the realm where, increasingly, we achieve all significant things. The question, as always, is whether all of this is good or bad. I’m on the fence. If we acknowledge a progression from traditional religious practice into a fraught modern era of religious doubt, where does tech practice fit in? Is it scientific/rational? Is it like religion?

One train of thought – sponsored by Silicon Valley and the techno-optimists – promises that digital tech will heal the disconnect between science and meaningful ritual. The alienation of 20th-century mass media, its friendliness to propaganda, will give way to a new age of open data and social media. Connection will breed compassion. But the pessimists fear that by resurrecting social networks and neutering mass media, tech will duplicate the ritual-bound ignorance of the past. The rational individual will lose his power to a new clergy, a new feudalism led by higher earthly powers. The selfie and the tl;dr tribe will replace criticism, the essay, and political economy.

I really hope it’ll be the former and not the latter. Time will tell. But until the picture becomes clearer, let me return to the ritual of posting on WordPress.

Photo credit: Ken Walton via Flickr