Why We Still Practice Superstitious Rituals With Our Technology

How much do you know about the tech you use, and how much do you assume?

Sep 4 2016, 7:00pm

Image: quiet451/YouTube.

It's hard to know how ancient mesopotamian people came to believe in the practice of human sacrifice, but the ritual donation of blood to the gods was an important component of many ancient civilizations. People understood little of what we'd now think of as the science of life. But they understood just enough to know that blood was key to it, and from there they must have groped in the dark until they arrived at the idea that deities offered us life—and that therefore we should offer life in return.

When humans know just a little bit of how something works, the rest of it gets relegated to the realm of mystery and magic. Today, technology is our magic, in a sense: As increasingly complex and capable devices fill our lives and begin to perform more and more instantaneous tasks for us, your average consumer understands less and less about precisely how these miracles are performed.

When something is magical to us, we develop rituals to create the belief that we can control the uncontrollable and the inexplicable. For example, at some point in human history, the hypothesis that giving blood led to the favor of the gods must have been spontaneously affirmed by nature—a human sacrifice must have been followed by a rich harvest, "proving" the ritual's efficacy. When the ritual appears to deliver a favorable outcome, our faith in it is established—even if the ritual appears strange and illogical, a pattern of actions or movements that are silly at best, grotesque at worst.

A smartphone is nothing short of a modern miracle—and to the average user, it comes with just as many mysteries.

In modern times, we still have salutes, obeisances and other numerous ritual practices with which we address the machines in our lives. For example, anyone who was around in the 1980s remembers blowing into video game cartridges to try to solve technical errors. The problem, we reasoned, was dust, and a big puff of our breath would restore the cartridge to its ideal performance.

Fewer people would remember, though, that most manuals advised against blowing in game cartridges. It seems theoretically possible that dust might interfere with the connections, but more often than not, the problem was corrosion, weak pins, tarnishing or aging from rough handling. We now know that blowing on cartridges may have actually caused more problems than it solved. But because collectively our anecdotal experiences had led us to believe that blowing had some positive effect—it seemed to work, even if it took an unpredictable number of puffs, amid all kinds of other unknown factors—we established a ritual. Our belief that blowing on cartridges does something is stronger even than evidence to the contrary. Historians will puzzle over us, puffing our forceful and damp breath uselessly among delicate circuitry.

In fact, that a ritual should seem irrational or superstitious to outsiders is part of what defines it. There are countless religious and cultural rituals that are innate to us—from the inscrutable ornaments of religious ceremonies to sporting events—but these might seem impenetrable to, say, aliens, who would struggle to understand their purpose in our society the same way we struggle to piece together the beliefs of ancient civilizations.

We now own numerous tiny glass windows that can answer any question in the world, show us any person's image, connect us to one another live and in real-time and with no wires. A smartphone is nothing short of a modern miracle—and to the average user, it comes with just as many mysteries.

Image: ecompass3/YouTube.

I have a ritual, for example, where I flick shut any simultaneously open apps on my iPhone in idle moments. It is a clarifying, organizing gesture that makes my mind feel clearer. I always do it before I go running, just so my phone can devote all its "energy" to the smooth functioning of my run tracking apps and music player. I started doing this because someone else advised me to—he told me closing apps would make my device work better, and based on what I know about computers, where multiple applications running simultaneously uses up memory, the advice made sense. I began to do it religiously. I have recommended the practice to others.

It turns out that is not how the iPhone works. There is no reason to close all the background applications—it's just a myth, a superstition born of having only a little bit of information about the larger mystery of technology. And sometimes tech rituals can be more precious than knowledge. Even though I now know for certain having a completely empty RAM might actually slow my phone down, even though it is best for me to trust iOS to manage it all, I still perform the ritual. I still close the apps, for a clearer mind, and because sometimes faith is stronger than the truth.

In his digital book Curious Rituals, Nicolas Nova has documented countless physical behaviors we've devised to help us mediate our relationship to devices. The book, with illustrations, is a marvelous guide to the opaque little rituals we take for granted: Remember the full-body "figure 8"s we would do back when we had to calibrate our GPS devices to use smartphone maps? When lost and navigating by phone don't we still turn in place, shake the device, waggle weirdly as if in a sort of dance? We turn things off and on again in the hope it will improve a given device's behavior, even when we have no idea what the problem is or what the actual solution should be.

How much of the ways you use your computer, phone, and car each day is based on a confident knowledge of its inner working, and how much do you infer or assume?

Sometimes, Nova says, our ritual behaviors actually influence the design of hardware. The common stereotype of an unfamiliar video game fan "tilting" their body or the controller as if it really influenced their onscreen performance led directly to actual motion-sensitive controllers—by implementing an actual purpose for the amateur's innate tilt, console makers hoped their hardware would appeal to wider audiences.

Nova imagines the future of our gestural relationship to devices in this short film, where a person watches television on augmented glasses, unlocks her car with a palm recognition movement, and moves through other tech-assisted activities. While she's nonchalant, her specific repetitive movements give intriguing hints about the rituals of the future. The film's patient style makes it clear how alienating lots of the things we do even now—say, pacing in a circle when having a phone conversation—would be to someone who didn't understand the tech we were using.

How much of the ways you use your computer, phone, and car each day is based on a confident knowledge of its inner working, and how much do you infer or assume? Why does your phone understand the touch of your finger, but not the tapping of your nail? What about those people who still won't let the device actually touch their head even though we've now supposedly proved it's not harmful to your brain? Who knows?

Nicolas Nova continues to work at the fascinating intersection of anthropology and tech as co-founder of the Near Future Laboratory, and as a professor at the Geneva School of Arts and Design. "Each time there is some new artifact, people always try to make sense of it in the interaction they've previously had with other devices," he told me over Skype. "If you look at how people use their smartphones today, it's a combination of how they used earlier artifacts: yes, the landline phone, but also other objects like cigarette packages or remote controls, or even a rosary. The way they gesticulate is somewhat related to other objects, and that's how they make sense of it."

Individual cultures will receive new tech in different ways informed by their own history and beliefs, Nova says. "In certain countries, when people receive an SMS message from an unknown number, it frightens them—they think it's black magic. Same with receiving one containing weird or cryptic characters," he explains. "For some people that signals a curse, or something bad, in cultures that used to receive things like that on paper. As much as we hear the words "disruption" or "revolution," they aren't true—there is always continuity in how we translate things from one medium to another."

We can follow these continuity lines to imagine what kinds of magic our devices will perform and what kind of rituals we will use to command them. A phone, Nova suggests, is very nearly already a "magic wand" that can summon food—expect software developers and service providers to reduce the number of steps and interactions between our desire and its result.

Things that take us multiple taps and keyboard inputs even today might be reduced to a single ritualized gesture, or to miming what we want before an intelligent camera. Future civilizations will someday look back at us kneeling before our motion detectors, crowned with our VR helmets, bowing our heads or waving our devices like sacred fronds in the hopes of summoning food, entertainment or sex, and wonder about what we knew, what we believed, and how we practiced —the same way we look back on ancient civilizations and their inscrutable blood sacrifices today.