Tech Cults: City & Faith

Case Study by Guillem Daniel Esteba
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When did urbanites get spiritual issues?

Temples have always been infused with meaning. Originally, they symbolised prosper commerce, veiled for survival of people and crops, and were the image of colonial times. The temple –once the highest point of the city– also represented certain structures of power which later would be decentralized through banks and service corporations.  With industrialization, cities  became a cult of progress, where computers took over people’s attention, almost making gods an “unnecessary necessity” and temples a thing of the past. The cities were now the ones  making  people immune against almost all forces of nature, almost.

Some argue that the city is a place that might have disoriented us. After observing western societies for years, Carl Jung affirmed that the loss of influence of religious institutions with the rise of science, technology and mass society resulted in a spiritual problem for the modern individual. Some would agree with the idea that Jung was a pretty intense person.

For Jung, the spiritual problem was deeply linked to the feelings of insignificance and uncertainty. With absolute confidence he said and believed that “modern man has suffered an almost fatal shock, psychologically speaking, and as a result has fallen into profound uncertainty.”  Without dwelling into the political implications of modern spiritual challenges, the individual of mass society is sent into the country of insignificance, where one becomes “a social unit of the bureau of statistics”. 

The void needs to be filled. “The individual’s feeling of weakness, indeed of non-existence, was thus compensated by the eruption of hitherto unknown desires for power. It was the revolt of the powerless, the insatiable greed of the “have-nots.”” Decades after the first and second industrial revolutions, Jung’s observations stay relevant at the doors of the third and fourth industrial revolutions. 

Tech Cults, Dataveillance and The Sensible City

Decentralisation equals cyberspace, a concept today referred to as the internet in the midst of  an era of heavenly cloud computing, tech giants, the new temples. Today, the greed of the have-nots can be monitored and transformed in measurable data. The apparently unstable, insecure and suggestible nature of the modern individual went online. Clouded computing?

The organisations behind the hardware, softwares and media have our consent to provide attention as a currency. Building communities became the virtual trend in the first two decades of the 21st century, sometimes to materialise online presence into profitable commodities. One of the prominent figures of the on-line community game, Mark Zuckerberg, compared his Facebook to church

There are more users on Facebook’s platforms than Christians in the world. According to Zuckerberg, Facebook could even replace the church and fill the gap of its decline. These words have a suspicious resonance to Jung’s postulate of “A lot of people now need to find a sense of purpose and support somewhere else”. While many users seek for significance, security or acceptance on social media, others use the very same platform for their deepest confessions.  

What are tomorrow’s belief systems? Today, in their broadest sense, tech cults are about worshiping anything related to tech. If you are employed by the alphabet, the apple or the amazon, you earn a special place in society. Once habitating a city, we tend to become pilgrims, heading towards anything that sounds smart, techie, connected. I did work for a tech company myself for a while and this fact was a motivator for many  of us to keep working there. The city itself becomes a pilgrim who wants to move towards a higher (smarter?) version of itself.

Smart cities, smart phones, smart homes. Tech Cults appear to worship smartness, or at least the marketability of the term smart. Is intelligence the supreme virtue? Some claim against the high prophetisation of the term singularity – The merging of man’s biological thinking and existence with technology to the point there is no distinction between human and machine. Singularity has often been related to intelligence, and following the main promoter, Ray Kurzweil, author of The age of Spiritual machines, many narrative structures surrounding this topic emerged from the biblical ones, where the Judgement Day is replaced by the singularity.

Will we reach the point where we interact with our city as an entity, in a way we do not distinguish the individual citizen from the collective urban setting? Predictions aren’t humans’ forte, but we started sipping from the explosive cocktail blend of computerisation with urban speculation. Machine intelligence embedded in the city, et voilà, the solution to all of our problems, or at least sometimes this is how the pitch sounded.

When experts suggested the cancellation of the Smart Neighborhood project in Toronto, led by Google’s Sidewalk Labs, a certain discomfort emerged already around the relationship between Smart Cities and Surveillance Capitalism. Tech Cults seemed to approve Smart cities, like religious communities surrender to a supreme being watching over you. The silicon version of the Orwellian nightmare is for many a great opportunity to get propper customized ads and seize new, data-based, business opportunities.

Get it off your chest: evolving confessions

Ingrid Guardiola, one of the masterminds behind the TV production Soy Cámara, presented the very stimulating analogy between confessing and online consumerism. In christian communities, the popular redemption scheme articulated the act of confessing. With a very soul-liberating effect, the confessionary was a data center gathering the secrets of a community, which provided very valuable information for the church to stay in command.

Secrecy is perhaps an underrated mystic concept. By purchasing online, we are confessing our most obscure desires to the algorithm, thus turning Amazon into the episcopal power that manages the consumer’s behavior for the sake of its very own existence. While we hand over our consumer preferences, we are also confessing. Only the church knows, only Amazon knows. And the smart city could provide more, geo-spatial information on those consumers’ confessions.

One of the aspects we wanted to explore in the project Tech Cults: City and Faith, while understanding and questioning the limits of machines. At the dawn of the digital era, the promise of the smart city opened ways for discord. Was the smart city a place for a better life? Or was it for surveillance and data gathering? As Harvard School of Design professor Antoine Picon would suggest, what about the sensible city?  And then, under the mandate of a Lockdown, the urban landscape becomes an odd place.

Recently, remote working (or smart working, as Italians have coined it) and all sorts of lifestyle experimentations and transformations provoked by  things such as a massive lockdown offered other perspectives around the meaning of citizenship and community. How will urban applications of machines affect urban life? In the on/off-line duality, what does it actually mean to be a member of a community, needless to say, of a city?

A project involving students, experts and artists was committed to explore this kind of questions.

Imagining E-Confessionaries

When THE FIRST SUPPER collaborated with ELISAVA School of Design and Engineering, the students who participated in the project ‘Tech Cults: City & Faith’ were invited to reflect on the aspect of Faith and it’s possible directions in the digital era. In the digital spacetime, where do we evoque the feeling of Faith? An invitation to merge the christian concept of the confessionary with machine learning, data, interactive design and UX in a very short period of time. 

Everyone, students, teachers and invited professors engaged in a very thought-provoking conversation that drove the reflexions discussed previously. A bunch of references were used during the creative process to challenge the limitations of machines: systems that reflect the binary, online side of the human experience. When we provide machines –supposedly smart, intelligent beings– the purpose of dealing with us –supposedly emotional beings– there is a lot of space to create. But the scenario wasn’t easy at all:

All lectures and feedback sessions were also conducted online. Schedules and deadlines were quite tight. The goal? To create their own interpretation of whatever an eConfessionary means. An interactive piece where human emotions could have some room for play. A project where students meet and collaborate with each other in remote teams.

Challenging as it is to get a proper result with limited technical and spatial-temporal resources, the real value of the project relied on its very own process. And yet, the concepts turned out to be solid, imaginative and powerful. A myriad of scenarios, universes and applications for interactive and immersive designs envisioned alternative futures, better or worse societies, parallel dimensions, and challenging questions.

Understanding urban development through the question of faith in the 21st century isn’t an easy task. Commissioning the creation of eConfessionaries led us to many different interpretations of this ancient tool of reconciliation and its purpose. What if you could confess something to an algorithm and you get a visual interpretation of your confession? What if you go to a space to confess while it challenges your assumptions about gender? Come and see our virtual installation and check all the prototypes.

Each team played with ideas that resulted into different kinds of projects with different applications, nonprofit, profit, activism, conceptual or abstract artistic expression, humor, or just a bit from each. 

One never knows where the blending of different imaginaries with technologies can take us. Machine learning and algorithms are very popular in commercial applications. However, when it comes to speculative and imaginative exercises, we shall confess that there is still a lot of room to play. Atem!

Stay tuned!

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