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Spiritual Life and Information Technology

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We write this essay in a tentative and exploratory voice. We are in the early process of opening a new topic for discussion in our field, and the discussions are filled with surprises for us. About 50 people attended special interest group session we conducted at last year’s CHI conference entitled "Can We Have Spiritual Experiences Online?" We presented our initial impression, which was that the dominant design rhetorics of design work in human-computer interaction (command-and-control; constant updates and interruptions of new information; fast-action games; denotative, explicit clarity rather than connotative, exploratory ambiguity) worked against what we called the "inner stillness" of spiritual life. The first participant to respond helped us understand how little we knew: He told us he begins each workday with a visit to a devotional Web site for his faith. Upon finding inspiration and support there, he said, he is then ready to begin his technology job.

All of us in the room discussed the various ways in which we had had significant emotional and/or spiritual experiences during our work with (or through) technology. Several of us spoke of comfort during periods of personal grief, or deeply emotional support during times of trouble, afforded by email as a medium of communication. Others spoke of remaining not only in contact with others, but also in relationship and in community and perhaps even in communion with others. One person noted that even the experience of spiritual communion with nature could be deepened through online communication with other people who shared those values.

Several people suggested it was sometimes easier to be supportive (or to be supported) at a distance. Indeed, the non-face-to-face nature of email or chat could be a spiritual comfort when grief or trouble was so intense that a person needed a respite from direct social contact, but still needed the support of others. One person emphasized the advantages of online anonymity for spiritual seekers—we think this means the ability to visit religious or spiritual places on the Web without having to make (or without refusing to make) a commitment, or to receive further communications. By contrast, other participants were equally convinced of the importance of knowing who was in each spiritual place online—of knowing, in effect, who was part of their interactions, relationships, and communities.

One participant directly addressed the question of miracles in the online world. He noted that many religious faiths believe in direct Divine intervention in the physical world. Surely, he said, that could include Divine intervention to choose which messages we happen to see, or which sites happen to appear at the top of a list of search results, and so on.

Nearly all of us described our spiritual and religious experiences in terms of text, and most of us referred quite clearly to communications with other people. Despite the spectacular technologies that many of us use or create daily, it appears that the spiritually significant parts of our online lives continue to be, in a sense, traditional. In European-descended cultures, there is a record several centuries long of spiritual and religious exchanges through personal letters. Email, chat, and discussion databases may have reintroduced many of us to this epistolary spiritual tradition.

Despite the spectacular technologies that many of us use or create daily, it appears that the spiritually significant parts of our online lives continue to be, in a sense, traditional.

Toward the end of the session, one participant said she attended the meeting because she felt she didn’t have very many spiritual experiences. After participating in the discussion, she realized she had been having spiritual experiences all the time. The four of us also felt strengthened in our spiritual lives by the courageous sharing of the diverse participants in the session.

Rather than concluding this essay with a future agenda or a set of predictions for the future of technology and spirituality, we want to close, like the last participant, by observing that our spiritual lives actually are intertwined with our workday lives. And we want to encourage our colleagues to join us in reflecting on past experiences of this fact, and in thinking about what happens next.

The future masters of technology will have to be lighthearted and intelligent. The machine easily masters the grim and the dumb.
—Marshall McLuhan, writer

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