No, technology does not ‘imitate’ religion

Originally published on The Kernel, June 28th, 2012

Margot Huysman’s recent essay in The Kernel on religious iconography and the technology world is rather myopic. While Ms Huysman correctly identifies the overabundance of terms like “angel” investor, social media “evangelist”, and the “cult” of the Mac, her naive conclusion is that founders and engineers have developed a sort of God complex, and Mark Zuckerberg has the omniscience and omnipotence previously only ascribed to deities.

She feels that software engineers are more successful than religions in “[engineering] their products to be addictive as possible, toying with human insecurities and vulnerabilities to keep people hooked, thereby acquiring privileged status in our cultural consciousness”. Reading this sentence, I am not sure Ms Huysman understands much about religion.

Religion is social at its foundation. The rules and laws that are embedded into the great religions are designed to strengthen the ties between adherents and to keep them apart from others. Through religious discourse, practices and sources, a language emerges that is unique to the members of the fold. Religion requires people to interact with others, whether by communal meals, public prayers with a quorum or exhortations of how to treat the neighbour. Food plays a central role in religion, too. Through restricting food, religion moves people to shop and eat with other members of their group, often forbidding them from eating with outsiders.

For instance, whereas alcohol is haram (forbidden) at all times in Islam, both Jews and Christians have enacted laws forbidding drinking wine with the other at different times in history. But Jews and Christians use wine in their own ceremonies. The relationship between wine and friendship can be expressed in a binary way: if we can drink wine together, we can be friends; if we cannot drink wine together, we cannot be friends. In certain eastern religions, tea performs a similar function.

As a religious adherent in the modern world, one can always find a sympathetic soul in any place one travels. Religion engenders commonality. Religions often have strict dress codes, for two reasons: on the one hand, the believer will feel comfortable with co-religionists; on the other, they will not be able to assimilate easily into other cultures.

There are tangible psychological benefits of the social cohesion afforded by religion. The father of sociology, Emile Durkheim, noted that the more cohesive a religion is, the more a man’s religion causes him to interact with his neighbours and the less likely he is to commit suicide. To bring people together, religions offer special songs or hymns that everyone knows. Again, these are commonalities for the sake of community, which means that an adherent has many commonalities with members of one’s chosen religion, and not much with people of other religions.

Anthropologically speaking, religion locates meaning in both detail and large events. The details keep people involved between the events: this is why members of the Jewish faith pray three times a day in a quorum and have a biblically commanded three festivals a year, during which they would historically descend upon Jerusalem. Or consider how adherents of the Muslim faith pray five times daily, take part in the Hajj at least once in their life, and will stage large group meals to break their daily fasts during Ramadan.

For years, the initial response people had to Twitter was: “Why do I care what you ate for lunch?” A similar question could be asked of Instagram (“Why does someone care what your food looks like?”) or Foursquare (“Who cares where you ate lunch?”). But, as was alluded to above with relation to religion, food and drink are vital to the social experience. It is no coincidence that two of the first quaffable substances publicly adopted and promoted by the titans of social media were wine (through entrepreneur, video personality and angel investor Gary Vaynerchuck) and tea (through entrepreneur, video personality and angel investor Kevin Rose).

Viral memes, images, songs and videos comprise a currency that social media enthusiasts can exchange. Knowledge of them is critical to being part of the group. In the same vein, there are many articles and bloggers considered vital for a member of social media to know about. Common starting knowledge is key for conversation, as are the common frameworks in which it operates.

A lexicon of phrases, words, and variant meanings exist in many different social networks on the internet that people tend before long to include in their own correspondence with others. They create content in a similar way, because it becomes an accepted style for their social group (or because they wish to mimic or converge). Of course, I am referring to animated GIFs, rage comics and every single product of the ubiquitous Meme Generator.

Using various forms of social media, the mundane details of life garner greater meaning. There is beauty in detail, which, as in a religious life, is viewed against a larger backdrop. The ritual may be running to get the bus in Chicago, getting a morning cappuccino in Tel Aviv or ordering a 2.00am hamburger in London, so long at is it performed regularly. Micro-sharing familiar detail provides stability in the ebb and flow of life.

There are large events, networking, conventions, conferences, dinners, and anything else that you can think of. These holidays exist and give the sense of belonging and create memories that carry relationships through the rest of the year. Facebook has long learned how to focus simultaneously on the day to day, whilst aggregating and accentuating the highlights and milestones of the previous years.

In fact, social media is brilliantly engineered to make people feel that they are not alone and that they belong – without recourse a particular sort of religious jargon.

In light of this short comparison, I would contend that social media does not seek to “copy” religion. Both social technology and religion focus on massive sociological constructs that enable people to co-exist, work and live together. We enjoy commonalities. While religion has existed for millennia, it is based on these sociological fundamentals.

So does the technology industry. The motivation behind the choice of religious nomenclature to describe various phenomena in technology is simply down to religion’s place as a linguistic canon of sociological tropes.

Since our youth, we have constructed an understanding of the job of an “angel”. We have identified Paul the Apostle as the archetype of the modern evangelist. It is not necessary that we posit a replacement of religion with technology. Rather, these two worlds simply share a common language.