Thursday, July 13, 2006

What if god is other people? Notes on trust and technology

Prayer Antenna In a lovely twist on Sartre's notion that hell is other people, Paul Davies' Prayer Antenna project allows wearers to receive signals from god - "yes, your God."

As he explained to Regine:

"[T]he helmet works very simply. There are two radio transmitters out in the museum/gallery/whatever and they transmit the ambient sounds (people talking, etc) to the left and right channel of radio receivers hooked up to headphones inside the helmet (so each ear is a distinct source). The interactivity is the simple act of kneeling and putting your head into the helmet. What you hear is other people (what is god if not other people.) People mostly like it and they know right away without any prompting how they are suposed to interact with the sculpture."

This made me think of Elliott Malkin's work on religious technologies, like Crucifix NG and Modern Orthodox. And remember Soner Ozenc's Sajjadah 1426 prayer rug project? (Flash site, look under product design.) I also just searched Regine's site for a remote prayer project that I remembered because the interaction design equated (religious) ritual with "inefficiency": Kin. And I recalled Susana Ruiz, Kellee Santiago & Kurt MacDonald's Mobile Confessional and Louise Klinkers' Remote Confession Kit, but no doubt there are many other art/design projects I'm forgetting right now.

But back to this idea that god is other people. Alphonso Lingis says that "Today we understand 'the mind of God'—the origins and workings of the whole physical universe—but not the mind of another of our own species." (The whole lecture is well worth a listen.) Lingis writes and talks about how trust comes before belief, and before reason, and that has interesting implications for religion, technology and social interaction. But what if we took god and the universe to be other people? Isn't this precisely the kind of idea that compels us to trust others we don't know and don't understand, to become intimate with strangers?

In conversation with Mary Zournazi, Lingis also talks about the language of hospitality, the kind of communication that is "not really an exchange of messages" but rather "a kind of murmur, a kind of warmth, a kind of spreading and resonance across space." He relates this to the kind of communication that happens when we talk nonsense with our friends, the kind of interaction that relies on discontinuities, like laughing in the middle of a serious conversation or abruptly leaving one's location, that lends space for hope:

"[I] have found with friends when you actually start talking [a problem] out you are really fixing and solidifying the conflicts: marking them. But if you were to go away for a couple of weeks or couple of months, other things may have started in your life, and you are not quite the same person anymore. And maybe you could just put aside your quarrel without ever having resolved it, because you are now both somewhat different people...[Y]ou establish a discontinuity, in which something new gets born."

The key point Lingis is making here is that we trust not because we come to the truth of things, but because we become unknown or incomprehensible to ourselves and each other and we have to start again.

(This sense of discontinuity reminds me of the Quechua and Aymara concept of pachakuti, which refers to a cataclysm or reversal of space/time in which all social relations are re-formulated and life begins anew. The term also finds its way into recent Bolivian indigenous social and political movements that draw from both Andean culture history and Christian millenarianism.)

My point is that this matter of trust is fundamental to our experience of community and yet we often, in the name of efficiency, do everything we can to prevent discontinuities (glitches, resets) from happening in communication technologies. But I'm not sure that to design either with seamlessness or seamfulness in mind is enough - I think we need gaps instead of grooves: spaces and times and people that split apart, instead of being marked or joined by seams. We still need to create space for hope, space to become different people together.

Back to the question of religion and technology, Intel researchers are the only corporate folks I know specifically investigating their intersections. (They're currently looking for interns to study "love and spirituality and its intersection with computers and technology, in and around the home.") And I suspect all of this is directly related to Genevieve Bell's research interests and influence, which makes it not only ethnographically but anthropologically informed. For more of Genevieve's work on technology and religion, check out:

Mobile Phones and Spirituality, on BBC Radio 4 in 2005

Getting to God: Technology, Religion and the New Enlightenment, Alex Pang's notes on a talk at the IFTF in 2004

Does Jesus do SMS?: Religion, Technology and Ubiquitous Computing, Melissa Ho's notes on a lecture at SIMS in 2004

Hmmm. Maybe I should ask her about trust and hope and technology? We've talked before about intimacy and risk, and I think this is related.


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