New Technologies Demand New Rituals

Are 21st century rites of passage an essential human need?

Once upon a time, driving through the drifting, eternal magic-lands of New Mexico, Jaron Lanier got to musing about meaning, ceremony, and ritual. 

Even though Lanier pioneered virtual reality in the 1980s, he has always been more interested in finding new paths to connect humans than with the gear itself. Which is why he was reflecting on the time he was hammered by a man of the cloth. 

Embryonic stem cells had come up at a conference at which Lanier was speaking. He recalls the cleric getting up and ripping into the panelists. “Even if it’s just some little speck on a petri dish, if it’s human, it deserves dignity and you guys are taking away our dignity—you’re just a bunch of boys with technological toys. You have no knowledge of life. You are a disgrace,” Lanier remembers him saying. 

This denunciation started Lanier thinking. “I turned around,” he recalled, “and I said, ‘What kind of dignity do we care about? Do we care about dignity that is just granted? Or do we care about dignity that is earned?’ 

“I’m Jewish. If there is one thing in life that is not dignified, it’s entering adolescence. So we have this thing called a bar mitzvah. The bar mitzvah is a ritual that is kind of a nuisance. It’s kind of expensive. It requires a lot of people to participate. And you know what? It creates a little bit of dignity. Not always enough. But it does have a function. It creates some awareness, some community involvement and some responsibility and a little bit of pride, and there you get dignity. 

“Dignity is something people have to create. So I said, ‘You religious people. Instead of sitting on your duffs and watching us and then critiquing, you should be the ones figuring out where the dignity comes from for all this. I challenge you. I don’t want to be living in a world in 20 years where there is a non-ritualistic way to do stem-cell research. …Actively create new culture.’” The most important thing is not to leave it to the scientists. 

I like Lanier’s notion. It resonates to my sense of human nature. If human values are going to shape our technological evolution and allow our species to prevail, we will need new rituals to mark our transcendence, to show that we’re treating it seriously and taking responsibility.

The nice thing about ritual is that while churches can and should get involved—with their vestments and their sanctuaries—it can start from the bottom up. It can start with individuals and small groups, including those who describe themselves as spiritual, if not religious. They can take ownership of their future, and invite others to stand and witness. At these rituals we can deliberately seek patterns and tell stories—stories that might contribute to the master narrative of what is happening to us. 

The beginning of humanity as we know it has been referred to by the German philosopher of history Karl Jaspers as the Axial Age, a period that spawned fundamentally new approaches to transcendence. Between 800 B.C. and 200 B.C., humans who couldn’t possibly have been in contact with each other simultaneously grappled with deep and cosmic questions. All our major religious beliefs are rooted in this period. As Jaspers wrote in 1949: 

“In China lived Confucius and Lao Tse, all the trends in Chinese philosophy arose, it was the era of Mo Tse, Chuang Tse and countless others. In India it was the age of the Upanishads and of Buddha; as in China, all philosophical trends, including skepticism and materialism, sophistry and nihilism, were developed. In Iran Zarathustra put forward his challenging conception of the cosmic process as a struggle between good and evil; in Palestine prophets arose: Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Deutero-Isaiah; Greece produced Homer, the philosophers Parmenides, Heraclitus, Plato, the tragic poets, Thucydides, Archimedes. All the vast development of which these names are a mere intimation took place in these few centuries, independently and almost simultaneously in China, India, and the West. …The new element in this age is that man everywhere became aware of being as a whole, of himself and his limits. He experienced the horror of the world and his own helplessness. He raised radical questions, approached the abyss in his drive for liberation and redemption. And in consciously apprehending his limits he set himself the highest aims. He experienced the absolute in the depth of selfhood and in the clarity of transcendence.” 

Karen Armstrong, among the most eminent authors on the subject of God and religion, says of the Axial Age, “The search for spiritual breakthrough was no less intense and urgent than the pursuit of technological advance is in our own.

“That’s quite endorsing, actually. Instead of seeing your own tradition as an idiosyncratic, lonely quest, it becomes part of what human beings do, part of a universal search for meaning and value. This is the kind of scenario that the human mind goes through in its search for ultimate meaning.”

Perhaps it is with rituals that we can start choosing to steer.

There is no human culture that does not incorporate some notion of religion. Even non-believers develop systems like Marxism that sport all the trappings of religion. This evidence causes Armstrong to believe that religion is an essential human need, as unlikely to be outgrown as our need for art. “Human beings cannot endure emptiness and desolation,” she writes. “They will fill the vacuum by creating a new focus of meaning.” 

Are we due for a new Axial Age, an era of sense, intelligibility, clarity, continuity, and unity? The last time we had a transition on the scale of that from biological evolution to cultural evolution, profound restatements of how the world works arose all over the planet. Will something like that happen again as we move from cultural evolution to technological evolution? 

In George Bernard Shaw’s play Man and Superman, Don Juan argues with the devil about why humans insist on searching for meaning. 

DON JUAN: …My brain is the organ by which nature strives to understand itself. … 

DEVIL: What is the use of knowing? 

DON JUAN: …To be able to choose the line of greatest advantage instead of yielding in the direction of least resistance. Does a ship sail to its destination no better than a log drifts nowhither? …And there you have our difference: To be in Hell is to drift: to be in Heaven is to steer. 

Perhaps it is with our rituals that we can start choosing to steer. 

Right now the stories we tell do not match the facts. You can see it in the way we’ve handled our first primitive enhancements—our facelifts, our Botox injections, our Viagra prescriptions, even our knee replacements and pacemaker implants. We’ve been a little embarrassed about them, even while the number of new procedures soars every year. If we do not have a way to make them meaningful, are we doomed to be eternally sheepish about these lines we are crossing? Or should we start marking these rites of passage as an important part of the future of human nature? 

Think about what happens when the first-grader whose hand you are holding is old enough to take her SATs. By then, there could be several means on the market to improve her scores by 200 points or more. They no longer seem remarkable. Those pharmaceuticals she takes? They simply help her express her natural abilities, you say. Like vitamins. They’re no different from the memory pills the Boomers gobble up to banish their “senior moments.” Her attachments and implants? So now she is always connected to Google. 

Big deal. It’s just simpler this way. Without her laptop, her enormous backpack bends her over that much less. She was hell bent and determined to have herself pierced anyway. Might as well have those damn things do something useful, like help her think faster. Hey, maybe these will help her get into Yale. Stranger things have happened. It worked for that babysitter she used to have, and he was thick as a brick. Now if they could just invent a new way to pay the tuition. 

Can we picture rituals marking the great significance of a young person getting her first cognition piercing, awakening her mind directly to the Web of all meaning? What about a rite of maturity in which someone is formally recognized as finally knowing enough that is worth keeping that we mark his well-deserved first memory upgrade? Should we have a liturgy of life everlasting as a person receives her first cellular age-reversal work-up? 

We cannot detect any other intelligence in the universe. Maybe that’s because every other species in the cosmos has faced this transcendence test and flunked it horribly.

These rituals could have important content, important aspects of story. They could say: Never forget who you were, and always respect what you’ve become. You are a part of us, no matter how far you roam. They could include a formal admonition to use your new powers only for good. They could include the observation that we may be playing for the highest stakes. We cannot detect any other intelligence in the universe. Maybe that’s because every other species in the cosmos has faced this transcendence test and flunked it horribly. This is serious. This may be the ultimate final exam. 

Will these rituals do any good? Do baptisms, marriages and funerals—sanctifying birth, copulation, and death—do any good? My experience is yes. At the very least they are celebrations of transformation where people cross barriers of class, gender, region, race, and religion. They bring us together by officially marking and embracing critical moments. On these occasions, human connections that are rarely achieved elsewhere routinely occur. 

If today we stand to transform ourselves more than at any brief period in our species’ time on Earth, we are creating new critical moments. Perhaps we might start formally marking the occasions—marking them now. If we did, inviting those we know from all walks of life and all levels of ability to these ceremonies, it would knit together the different kinds of human natures to come. 

It would be about creating the happiness of being part of something much larger than us. It would be about continuing to march up the ramp of human connectedness. 

That, after all, might just possibly be the ultimate transcendence. It might be the point of this final exam.

Originally adapted from the book “Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies—and What It Means to Be Human,” excerpted from the book “Neo.Life: 25 Visions for the Future of Our Species.”

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