One of the primary projects I’ve undertaken with In Real Life is a redefinition of the word “technology.” I think it’s necessary for us to include the gizmos of the Internet Age in a broader category in order to find a healthier role for them in our lives. It does us no good to treat them as alien, with no precedent in human experience.
Moreover, while Internet-enabled technologies certainly solve some longstanding human problems, there are other, equally vexing problems computers can’t touch (yet, I guess), but which we can nevertheless solve with technology. We might not immediately recognize those solutions as technologies, but I think we should.
There’s a whole book coming out soon about this redefinition of technology, but in the meantime, Dimitris Xygalatas, an anthropologist ast the University of Connecticut, has given us a perfect example in Aeon:
Extreme rituals are powerful social technologies, and like all technologies they can be used to change our world for better or for worse. One important takeaway is that when ideology and collective arousal merge, emotional reactions can spread like wildfire through a crowd. But by tapping some of the same guidelines found in ritual arousal, we could harness the positive outcome and prevent vandalism, rioting, lynching and other forms of violence that can also result. By understanding the apparent connection between suffering and prosociality, we could design kinder communities, more empathic work places and more efficient charities.
Xygalatas shares some compelling research about the physiology and social importance of extreme rituals performed around the world. Ancient, intense ascetic ceremonies, walking across hot coals, and even modern rituals like bungee jumping and the ice-bucket challenge serve clear, measurable purposes in creating pro-social behavior. Techies talk a good game (… sometimes) about the unprecedented social power of the Internet, but that conversation is incomplete without extensive research into much longer-standing social technologies, like Xygalatas has done.
(Aeon is a really amazing publication, by the way. You should read and watch more stuff from them.)
Meanwhile, in online social technology news…