28 September 2006

No more SMS from Jesus: ubicomp, religion and techno-spiritual practices

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In a reflective and insightful paper, Dr. Genevieve Bell, a highly respected anthropologist and director of user experience at Intel, analyses the use of technology to support religious practices.

Bell argues that “the ways in which new technologies are delivering religious experiences represent the leading edge of a much larger re-purposing of the internet in particular, and of computational technologies more broadly, that has been underway for some time.”

“We need to design a ubiquitous computing not just for a secular life, but also for spiritual life, and we need to design it now!” she claims. “In no small part, this sense of urgency is informed by an awareness of the ways in which techno-spiritual practices are already unfolding; it is also informed by a clear sense that the ubicomp infrastructures we are building might actively preclude important spiritual practices and religious beliefs.”

She adds that, despite the fact “there are few other practices or shaping narratives [as religion] that impact so much of humanity”, there has been up till now “an ideological and rhetorical separation of religion and technology”, which says a lot about “the implicit understanding of the kinds of cultural work” that technology should enable. Instead Bell positions: “If it is indeed the case, that religion is a primary framing narrative in most cultures, and then religion must also be one of the primary forces acting on people’s relationships with and around new technologies – one could go as far as to suggest that there can be no real ubiquitous computing if it does not account for religion.”

The anthropological research the paper is “informed by”, took place in urban settings in India, China, Malaysia, Singapore, Korea, Indonesia and Australia. Bell relied on “a range of ethnographic methods and methodologies, including participant observation, semi-structured interviews, ‘deep hanging-out, and genealogies of ICTs to explore life in one hundred very different Asian households.”

The paper ends with two short scenarios that she wrote “as part of a
corporate exercise to develop a future vision for user-centered computing in 2015.”

The paper was published in P. Dourish and A. Friday (Eds.): Ubicomp 2006, LNCS 4206, pp. 141 – 158, 2006, Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2006.

Since it is not clear where you can download the paper, but Bell herself sent it out to the public anthrodesign Yahoo! email group with 853 subscribers, I consider it to be part of the public domain and re-post it here (pdf, 216 kb, 18 pages).

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