Ritual Objects

Sometimes I like to get spacey. This is one of those times.

Human-Computer Interfaces take a wide variety of sizes and shapes. There’s the design of the display (if there even is one – command line, GUI, etc.) the design of the instruments used to interact with the display (various favors of mice, keyboards, touchscreens, etc.), and the data that is displayed on them (census data, term papers, the Internet).

Standard configurations of these aspects (such as a laptop) are interesting to me when they’re pushed beyond typical usage patterns and become something unexpected. The laptop used to connect to the Internet in the mountains of Tibet, for instance. Or the cell phone used to control aerial drones. Or trading thumb drives to circumvent government censors in Cuba.

These instances aren’t a part of the rosy vision for computing that was presented to the public back in the 60s (a lie even then, as computers were used for wartime code breaking and missile calculations). Instead, they are examples of the human side of computing. Seeing the way things change in our societies, in our lives, as computing evolves.

And as computing evolves, so do our methods of interaction with it. Smartphones. The Twiddler. Surface. Project Glass. We’re finding new and amazing ways to change the way computers and humans interact. And I imagine a future in which everyone will have their own custom, ritual objects with which they will be able to operate their computers.

Children drawing on tablets with fat, crayon-like styluses. Monks, automatically logging into their computers using smart prayer beads. Music conductors, guiding their orchestra using motion capture and a digital baton. Computing is evolving away from the idea of the “computer” and towards the idea of smart objects, deriving semantic meaning from the context and behaviors of both everyday objects and highly specialized ones.

The monk, for instance. From what I can tell, most of them carry prayer beads (in almost every religion that has monks). These objects are common within the context of the monk’s life. Certainly “smart” functions could be added to their usage – vibration or a soft pulsing glow, reminding them to pray. Tracking computer usage or credentials. Even measuring anxiety by tracking when they’re used outside of scheduled prayer times, a sort of biofeedback for the spiritual life.

Do monks need this? Of course not. But monasteries have been centers of learning, literacy, and science for thousands of years. (e.g. Gregor Mendel). And much as technologies like the church bell or electric light have been adopted to further the goals of contemplatives, so could something along the lines of “smartening” objects such as these.

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