Of rituals and technology

I have always enjoyed fixing computers. This is not because of the challenges that are presented by the process of computer repair (although there is a certain amount of enjoyment to be found there as well) but because it is interesting to hear how people feel about their computers both in terms of their normal functioning and their malfunctioning. There seemed to be a near-infinite number of ways that people had come up with to make the functioning (or malfunctioning) of these machines make sense. I came to think of these little quirky approaches to grappling with the black box of computational devices as little rituals. Cultural anthropologist Victor Turner describes rituals as symbolic actions, grouping them alongside other forms of symbolic action such as social drama and metaphor (4). However, I did not have a concrete definition of what a technological ritual was; I just knew it when I saw it.

Fundamental to these is the idea that rituals are activities that occur in the material world, but have some sort of importance beyond their material qualities. Metaphor has become an important to aid users in understanding the functioning of the otherwise complex functioning of digital devices (e.g. 1). Digital technology also has its share of social drama: Facebook relationship status being one way to solidify a romantic engagement between two people. Even ritual itself has been spoken of in the context of computation. One study has examined how “ritualized interactions often play a major role in the performance and experience of the art or performance work,” (2) while another has looked at how ritual activities could be used to make virtual characters seem more like real characters (3). However, art performances hold a kind of lofty ambition and a focus on making virtual characters have rituals focuses on representing people to make them easier to interact with. I wonder how looking at the more everyday practices of people as they relate with technology could lead to a better understanding of both people and the technology they use. As an example of how to look at technological interactions in terms of ritual, I point to Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero.

It is common to hear people complain about having too much email. It takes a lot of time to sort through all of one’s messages, it causes problems with missed communication, and it can make people feel overwhelmed with the amount of information they are receiving. As an answer to this problem, Merlin Mann describes Inbox Zero (http://inboxzero.com/) , a way of handling email overload. At one level, this is a prescription of simple actions of sorting, removing and addressing the demands presented in a person’s inbox. However, it is also a set of small actions that in combination hold a certain higher personal and social value. The empty inbox described by the processes name not only reduces distractions when new email comes in, it also gives a symbol of technological well-adjustment. It is social in the sense that the person’s relations to others are kept in check. The material of Inbox Zero is an empty in box, it’s meaning is control of technology in a way that also incorporates interactions with other people.

This idea of ritual, as it pertains to technology, is still quite rough. However, as HCI has focused more on experiences and the designing thereof, the kind of duality of meaning that comes from ritual acts may prove to be a valuable way of understanding the relationships between the form and function of artifacts and the meanings that people ascribe to them. Looking at interactions as rituals may point to better understandings of digital artifacts and the people who interact with them.

[1] Blackwell, A. F. (2006). The reification of metaphor as a design tool. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction (TOCHI), 13(4), 490-530.
[2] Loke, L., Khut, G. P., & Kocaballi, A. B. (2012, June). Bodily experience and imagination: designing ritual interactions for participatory live-art contexts. InProceedings of the Designing Interactive Systems Conference (pp. 779-788). ACM.
[3] Mascarenhas, S., Dias, J., Afonso, N., Enz, S., & Paiva, A. (2009, May). Using rituals to express cultural differences in synthetic characters. InProceedings of The 8th International Conference on Autonomous Agents and Multiagent Systems (Vol. 1).
[4] Turner, V. W. (1975). Dramas, fields, and metaphors: Symbolic action in human society. Cornell University Press.


Posted on February 18, 2013, in Critical perspectives and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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