Spiritual Computing

Last Thursday my colleague and friend Craig Smith gave a talk on “Spiritual Computing” at Chulalongkorn University. The talk was quite well attended considering the sheer number of talks and meetings that are always going on at the university. Anyway the content of the talk was really interesting, something that we should be reflecting upon.

Basically the theme of the talk concerned how spirituality and technology could go together. This might sound at first odd, but that is where Craig’s original idea came in. His focus was on technology design. How the new breed of technology, especially information and communication technology, could be designed in such a way that is informed by spirituality principles? Craig’s example was on how computer games could be designed so that, instead of promoting violence and anger, they could promote compassion and loving kindness instead? Thus there has been a game developed so that in order to pass to another level, you have to get control of your breathing. (This might raise an issue whether this is actually in line with Buddhist meditation, for example. In practicing Buddhist meditation you should not explicitly aim at any goal. To do that would subvert the meditation process and ironically you won’t go anywhere. So in order to achieve the goal you must not set any goal — but perhaps this is also the intent of the design of the game.)

Craig mentioned that technology has been used to promote spiritual purposes for a long time. The prayer wheel has been around for centuries to turn the mantra up in the air, and it uses some technology to produce it. So why shouldn’t we in the twenty-first century develop our own technology for the same purpose? In what way could technology and spirituality be integrated with each other?

Usually this is done in the context of spiritual principles informing the direction of the technology, a sort of regulatory framework, we might say. But Craig went further than that. The idea is not only that spiritual principles providing a guiding light, but spirituality itself should be infused with the technology from the design stage up. It is going to be a kind of technology that is totally informed by spirituality since the inception stage. It could be designed to serve spiritual purposes, the same way as the prayer wheel is, or it could be designed so that it brings spirituality back to our contemporary lives.

It would be good, I think, to enlist technology to help us with spiritual purposes. One thing that has already been developed in Thailand is a wristwatch that beeps at a regular interval, say one minute or five minutes, to remind the wearer to be mindful. So instead of reminding oneself every now and then to be mindful and not to lose track of the act of watching the mind, the beeps kind of helps with this activity. But there is the possibility that the wearer will be so engrossed with his activities that he completely forgets about the beeps. And I would imagine that in meditation practice or in daily life the beep could become rather annoying. That is one way technology has actually been developed to serve spiritual purposes. As for computer games, perhaps a game might be developed so that it blends with meditation. So instead of sitting alone in a room or outdoor for meditation, one could actually do the meditation in front of the computer. That would be really interesting.

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