The Digital and the Divine: a Critical Exploration of the
Intersections of Spiritual Practice and New Technologies

 Genevieve Bell, Intel

Seminar on People, Computers, and Design
Stanford University November 11, 2005

The Australian Bible Society has recently produced a copy of the bible in text message style and format -- it is designed to be loaded on a computer and blue-toothed to a compatible cell phone and then broadcast to one's bible study or Christian youth group. At first blush, this seems like an odd artefact, the first line to a joke. But in the "West", there is a long and complicated relationship between technology and religion. After all, Johannes Gutenberg's printing press produced the Bible in the 1450s. It was the first book to be thusly mass-produced. Today, the largest online genealogical service is run by a Christian institution, the Catholic church has its own text message service, religiously inspired blogs and chat rooms flourish in the United States and elsewhere around the world. Elsewhere, technology manufacturers are catering to the ways in which computational devices might support religious practices, producing religion-specific technologies and experiences.

Indeed given the ways in which religious practices are intimately woven into the fabric of daily life in many parts of the world, it should not be so far fetched to imagine that new information and communication technologies (ICTs) might support a range of non-secular activities.
Indeed, recent surveys of internet habits, corporate marketing strategies, and new product developments, all point to the fact that there is a growing (perhaps already grown) segment of the population that uses technology to support religious practices. Yet, for the most part, however, religious or spiritual uses of ICTs seem to exist in the realm of technological oddities, fodder for offbeat columns and stand-up comics. Indeed, the critical literature is surprisingly sparse on this subject.

In this talk, I want to revisit some of these instances of techno-fied spirituality, with an ethnographic sensibility. I want to survey some of the existing practices and devices, both in the mobile and internet spaces -- I am interested in both institutional and individual strategies around these various computational platforms and devices. I am particularly interested in thinking about the ways in which religious uses of technology suggest a very different path(s) for technology envisioning and development.

Genevieve Bell is a Senior Researcher within Intel Corporation's Intel Research. Since joining Intel in 1998, Bell has conducted ethnographic research in a variety of consumer spaces, including malls, retail districts, and museums, as well as within a range of different American households. Bell has also conducted significant research beyond the US, including a five-country, strategically situated, ethnographic study of European domestic spaces and a 2 year research project focused on gaining a better understanding of the daily life of Asia's urban middle classes, with an emphasis on the role of new information and communication technologies. Prior to joining Intel, Bell taught anthropology and Native American Studies at Stanford University. Bell received her BA/MA in anthropology from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. She earned a PhD in cultural anthropology from Stanford University in 1998.

View this talk on line at CS547 on Stanford OnLine

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