Continuity in the Digital Age: Religion as Digital Technology

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When media scholars list the social practices constructed around and through digital and virtual  technologies, spirituality and religion don’t tend to top the list. In fact, media theory and the field of communication more broadly generally overlook religio-spiritual social systems, media practices, and ways of being entirely (the history and reasons for this are a worthy topic for another day).

When I considered the ways I might approach the question of how the digital intersects with religion and spirituality, my impulse was to discuss my research on online communities, the breakdown of religious authority in the modern moment, the reframing of institutional religious messaging using defensive communication strategies, and other implications of the culture of the digital age on religious life. My dissertation addressed questions of access, surveillance, and perceived anonymity online, considering how the polyphony of internet voices results in a renegotiation of structure and agency in modern Mormon identities.

But what if we move beyond questions of modernity to a broader media history as an approach to questions about the intersection digital technologies and religion? We often think of media epochs—the period of oral language, the introduction and proliferation of written language, the print era, the emergence of audio-visual media technologies, and now the digital and virtual age—as a simplistic way to understand the evolution of media technologies and their social implications.

But the digital age is a misnomer. The term digital media is casually tossed around to refer to computer networks and, particularly, the internet—but digital technologies have origins in ancient times. Digits (another word for fingers, after all) mark a way of indexing the real using the symbolic. As Peters (2016) points out, digital technologies that predate the computer include coins, typewriters, filing systems, and the telegraph: all communication technologies that inexactly index aspects of the social world.

Thinking of digital technologies and their intersection with the spiritual, then, provides an interesting challenge: Could we theorize religion as a digital technology, an indexing system for the spiritual? Like all digital technologies, religions each propose a “this not that” system of discrete data that together creates a continuous information system. Each religion is a digital media system encoded in its sacred texts, rituals and other human machine-readable formats. It nearly always provides binary answers to all of life’s major questions, providing a complete system of belief and practice to explain the cosmos and our place in it. It does so in formalized language, which though it experiences analog-like errors in copying over time, creates a narrative of tradition and timelessness. The immense data coded in a religious systems’ media is compressed and reduced for use by the average believer or practitioner, but can be decompressed for study among the religious elite.

The metaphor is imperfect. But the point remains: If we concede that religio-spirituality and the digital is a not a new pairing but instead a continuation of our digital history as a species, we can begin to understand and perhaps escape digital media panics around religion—and reconsider the nature of these technologies that extend our voices, hands, and eyes around the world.