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The Spiritual Side of a Digital Society

Spiritual issues surface when software is everywhere

In the early days of computing, software developers could completely ignore the spiritual needs of users. Computers were a tool—usually a business tool, used for brief periods to accomplish a task. They were not the backdrop of our lives.

Today, however, users are practically attached to their computers—sometimes day and night. More and more human interaction takes place digitally. As the percentage of time that users spend with computers increases, the amount of humanity that software developers need to take into consideration increases as well.

In short, because humans are spiritual beings, software needs to start taking into account the spiritual needs of its users.

A few software developers are starting to recognize this need in small ways: The popular business-directed messaging software Slack starts up with a stream of encouraging words. While the spiritual life amounts to much more than feeling better about the day ahead, it is good that software developers are at least recognizing the problem. Some game developers have also recognized that people who spend too much time on their products burn out, so they have invented ways to make players pause for a time and come back.

Likewise, some customer service departments have realized that they can decrease customer rage just by asking on the website comment forms how the respondent is feeling. The user who can vent frustration there will feel less inclined to unload on the hapless customer support representative. We all have a habit of addressing the problem and not the person, but focusing on the person often gives great results.

File:John Ruskin 1863.jpg

Architecture faces a similar problem. Our lives are dominated by the places we live in even more than by our technology. Nineteenth-century art critic John Ruskin (1819–1900) noted a similar problem emerging in urban architecture, which he addressed in The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849). The spiritual needs that Ruskin suggested for architecture are:

  • Obedience: Originality should not be for its own sake, but should submit itself to the values of the culture
  • Memory: Buildings should respect the culture from which they have been developed
  • Life: Buildings should be made by humans hands, with human touches, and the individual expressiveness of each builder
  • Beauty: Buildings should be ornamented, drawing from God’s design in nature
  • Power: Buildings should testify to the organizational effort required to produce them
  • Truth: Buildings should not be needlessly complex, but their display should be honest to their construction
  • Sacrifice: The work of building should be dedicated to God.

Now, I don’t think that these are the final recipes for good architecture, much less so for software. What I appreciated from John Ruskin is not the list of demands for good architecture itself, but rather the fact that he bothered to think about the spiritual aspects of building—from the standpoints of the builders themselves, those for whom the buildings are being built, and God.

We need similar pioneers and critics of modern software architectures to assist us in not only making software more functional (fulfilling the material needs of its users) but also taking into account the user’s spiritual needs as well. The more that software encompasses the whole of life, the more it needs to take into account the whole of the person using it.

Note: If you are interested in the life and work of John Ruskin and what he means for today, you should check out Mark Hall’s essay, “Truth, Beauty, and the Reflection of God” in the book Engineering and the Ultimate: An Interdisciplinary Investigation of Order and Design in Nature and Craft. Here’s the Introduction.

Jonathan Bartlett

Jonathan Bartlett is the Research and Education Director of the Blyth Institute.

Also by Jonathan Bartlett: When machine learning results in mishap The machine isn’t responsible but who IS? That gets tricky


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The Spiritual Side of a Digital Society