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crows nest
By Stephen Tomkins
More Crow's Nests here
Pray without ceasing (at 500MHz)
May 2000

An exhibition at New York's School of Visual Arts includes an installation by Roman Catholic artist Loretta Skeddle. She has set up "The CyberRosary", a circle of iMacs reciting the Lord's Prayer. One of the computers (presumably the priest) leads the litany, the flock follow, and visitors can press rosary-shaped buttons to choose different prayers.

Skeddle hopes that onlookers will be stirred to think about their own spirituality. "Computers going through the motion have reached the same spiritual level as many Catholics," she reckons.

Skipping for now the question, "is it art?", what I want to know is, "is it prayer?" We might assume that worship is one of those pursuits of which humans alone are capable, like cricket, perjury and voting. The Psalms dismiss such snobbery, though, attributing the ability to the moon, water, hills, cows, fruit trees and hail, among others.

The ancient singer-songwriter may not have had in mind a roomful of multicoloured prayer machines, but there are plenty of developments in the history of Christian worship that the Psalms failed to predict, from Latin Mass in empty churches to hyperventilating animal impressionists in Toronto Airport, so there's always room for something new.

On the other hand, the inclusive worldview of the Psalms might make the iMac project seem rather pointless. If all creation is perpetually united in one long act of liturgical harmony, then getting bits of it to recite additional "Our Fathers" is a bit redundant.

So, on second thoughts, the point of teaching your PC to pray would be not so much to put it in touch with its makers' maker, and develop a bit of microspirituality, as to have it doing some prayer for us.

After all, if they're saying, "Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us", it sounds like they're passing on our requests, rather than voicing their own concerns. When they start saying "Give us this day our system software upgrades, and forgive us our crashes, as we forgive those who crash us", we'll know things have changed. (Can computers sin? Well, if we can be held morally responsible despite our social and biological programming, I don't see why they can't.)

So why not have computers pray for us? The precedents are pretty good. For a start, the majority of Christians through the ages have prayed to the saints, which is all about getting someone with more time on their hands to put in a good word for you. The disadvantage of this is that it's rather inefficient. If you have to say a prayer to get someone to say one for you, you might as well say it yourself.

The chantries of the late Middle Ages are a far more workable model. There you paid a workforce of monks to say prayers and Masses for you, and speed your soul through purgatory, while you got on with giving them something to pray about.

The potential for computerizing this is awesome.

Armies of liturgical robots, sending up a thousand petitions a second for peace, justice and forgiveness, or – let's be realistic – a better job, the cancellation of personal disasters and a more satisfactory sex life. Untiring, undoubting, never bored, and never put off by the lack of feedback.

Crow's Nest confidently predicts that the microchip revolution will finally get prayer working.
also see
hubris 2
Mark Howe's regular rant about Internet culture
strangely warmed
Andrew Rumsey's regular column about the religious life
loose canons
Stephen Tomkins' regular round-up of the saints of yore who were one wafer short of a full communion
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