Religion and information technology

Religion has always depended on information technology. Vital to the longevity of a religion is getting new followers, and in order for that to happen, the sacred texts, beliefs and rituals need to be spread and passed down. Central to this process, historically speaking, are books. We’ve talked before about the sacred origin of our reverence for the written word.

Of course, there were also times when information technology and religion have butt heads. The Catholic Church, for example, was famous for this. In its earliest days, it was against writing entirely. When printing came around, the Church was delighted by the ease with which they could print letters of indulgence and thereby raise money for their projects, but they were likewise horrified by the ease with which the general public could spread heretical ideas (see The Protestant Reformation).

Today, we’re very comfortable with the concept of finding sacred texts in books. But what does the next wave of innovations in information technology have to offer?

Buddhists are one group that has been quick to adopt new technology. Joyce Morgan wrote a wonderful article on the Huffington Post about why this might be. Indeed, historically speaking, Buddhists have always been on the cutting edge. Buddhists in Japan and in China were the first people to adopt wood block printing on a large scale in order to mass produce and disseminate their sacred texts. That was a huge innovation in a predominantly oral world. And today, some Buddhist communities are taking advantage of the Web and podcasts more than practitioners of many other religions. ZenWest, for example, is a Zen community in Canada that cultivates an e-sangha, where Buddhists from all over the world can take part in a religious community—which is especially helpful for those who do not live near a physical community. On their website, newcomers to Zen can even take online orientation courses and join in discussions. They even have a podcast with regular lectures.

In the Great Courses audio series on the Sacred Texts of the World, Professor Grant Hardy poses this wonderful question:

With the advent of the technological revolution knwon as the Internet, is there some religion that might be able to harness its power to their own spiritual ends? Are there certain kinds of religious practices that may be better suited to the Web than to codices? In some cases, for example in Sikhism, it’s easier to find their sacred texts online than in printed form. And for traditions such as Hinduism, in which the chanting or the singing or scriptures and ritual performances might take precedence over solitary study, YouTube is a marvelous resource. I’m sure that the Internet will transform religion in future generations. It will be interesting to see how that plays out and how that affects different religious traditions, because one of the secrets to having a tradition that continues and expands is being able to take advantage of technological and also scholarly resources that come along.

 

Autocorrect does have a good side, doesn’t it?

Wired has recently published an interesting piece on the history of autocorrect. One important point the author brings up is that, though we seem to focus on the bad side of autocorrect, it certainly is an amazing achievement. That we often miss it probably has to do with the salience of the negative (over the positive), a phenomenon known as negativity bias. (Why can’t we be happy?) The author fleshes this particular case out a bit further:

Given how successful autocorrect is, how indispensable it has become, why do we stay so fixated on the errors? It’s not just because they represent unsolicited intrusions of nonsense into our glassy corporate memoranda. It goes beyond that. The possibility of linguistic communication is grounded in the fact of what some philosophers of language have called the principle of charity: The first step in a successful interpretation of an utterance is the belief that it somehow accords with the universe as we understand it. This means that we have a propensity to take a sort of ownership over even our errors, hoping for the possibility of meaning in even the most perverse string of letters. We feel honored to have a companion like autocorrect who trusts that, despite surface clumsiness or nonsense, inside us always smiles an articulate truth.

Here’s another snippet from the article I found particularly interesting:

A commenter on the Language Log blog recently mentioned hearing of an entire dialect in Asia based on phone cupertinos, where teens used the first suggestion from autocomplete instead of their chosen word, thus creating a slang that others couldn’t decode. (It’s similar to the Anglophone teenagers who, in a previous texting era, claimed to have replaced the term of approval cool with that of book because of happenstance T9 input priority.)

Why do we revere the written word?

If you ever ask me to lend you a book, I’ll probably make up some elaborate excuse about why I can’t—that is, if I don’t flatly refuse. I try to keep my books immaculate and I always treat them gently; I know that many people aren’t so pedantic. Thus, rather than risk getting back a damaged book, I just don’t lend them out.

I understand that books will age with time and love, but I do my best to help my books do so gracefully, and not before their time. Thus I’ve been known to send them back to Amazon if they arrive imperfect in any way. I privately weep when I see scuffs at their corners or little indentations… And the surest route to a sour mood is discovering a crease in a page. Books are special to me. It’s probably overly cliche to say that they’re my children, but it’s something like that. Books are lower-maintenance, at least.

I know I’m not the only one. A number of my friends are this way. Jorge Luis Borges was. And perhaps you are, too.

Where does this come from? I think it has a lot to do with sacred texts.

VEYAGANA, BOOK OF CHANTS OF THE LITURGICAL KAUTHUMA SAMHITA OF THE SAMAVEDA

Until a few hundred years ago, writing was quite rare; few could write, and few could read. Thus, only important things were written down, and it took a thing of tremendous importance to be preserved.

Interestingly, Hindu priests originally resisted the transcription of the Vedas because they thought it would make these sacred poems too accessible, too commonplace. Everyday things are not important, and they certainly are not powerful. (There was certainly also an element of fear for their own social status as the purveyors of a scarce resource.) Perhaps this is why, when sacred things were finally committed to writing, we were conditioned to treat them with supreme reverence.

From there we witness a phenomenon known as the cult of the book: texts are often seen as sacred objects, even apart from the contents of their words. Regarding the Lotus Sutra, for example, a Buddhist text, it was promised that anyone who copied, or even paid someone to copy, the text would live a trouble-free life. Similar beliefs were held for other Buddhist texts: Merely seeing or holding them were esteemed as actions of great merit.

This concept has culminated in the modern-day Sikh holy book, Guru Granth Sahib, which is thought of as a living guru of the faith. It’s even written in its own, dedicated script. This book is treated with the utmost respect by Sikhs: It is kept on a raised platform, often under a canopy of feathers, and it is never allowed to touch the ground. When in the presence of the book, Sikhs cover their heads and remove their shoes. In Sikh homes, it is not uncommon for this book to have an entire room of its own.

So meticulous is the treatment of the Guru Granth Sahib that it was copied by hand only until 1864, well after the invention of the printing press. Today, most copies are printed, but any copy that exhibits even the most minor of defects is cremated in an elaborate ceremony.

Speaking of printed works in particular, it’s worth noting that the oldest mechanically printed book we know of is the Diamond Sutra, another Buddhist text from China. Fast forwarding to when Gutenberg invented a printing press of his own (though not the world’s first), we can recall that the first book printed in the West was also of a sacred nature: The Holy Bible.

Thus it seems that from this precedent, reaching back to the ancient Brahmans of India, we are conditioned to treat books with respect.

On the other hand, there are plenty of people who are the exact opposite: those who underline and dog-ear freely without thinking twice… the people who make me shudder. What’s up with them?