- Believing in Bits: Digital Media and the Supernatural ed. by Simone Natale and Diana Pasulka
digital media, social media, popular culture, supernatural, definition of religion, religion and technology, magic, spiritualism, parody religion
In Believing in Bits, Simone Natale and D. W. Pasulka collect twelve essays that track relations between emergent types of media and always dynamic definitions of religion. "Situated at the theoretical interface between the fields of media studies and religious studies, the book aims to unveil the multiple ways in which new media intersect with belief in the supernatural" (2). The book considers the use of new technologies in traditional religions, the use of traditional religions in new technologies, psychological and social models of belief, and the questionable vitality of certain machines.
Checking in most often with Alan Turing, Marcel Mauss, Marshall McLuhan, Arthur C. Clarke, and Erik Davis, the essayists in Believing in Bits treat magic as a convenient crossover point between digital and supernatural domains. Magic maintains differing and numerous relationships with both technology and religion, so the essayists use the former to measure relations between the latter. They reflect upon, extend, and critique Clarke's notorious 1985 suggestion that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" (93, 229). Star Wars is mythology, Spiritualism the philosophical canon, and karma a meme.
To kick things off, Natale and Pasulka provide an introduction that sketches tools for approaching contemporary relations between digital media and the supernatural. Hermeneutic recommendations include attention to a few themes in particular: "secular faiths" reveal a pragmatic trust in the proper functioning of complex machines; artificial intelligence implies "spiritual ramifications;" and accepted definitions of religion "are ripe for change and revision"(4; 7; 11). Three sections of essays follow this introduction and constitute the main body of the book. The three essays in the first section are historical, the four essays in the second section take up religious themes in online social activities, and the five essays in the third section consider the implications of human-machine interfaces for the human world. The book concludes with a conversation between Carole M. Cusack, Massimo Leone, and Jeffrey Sconce, in which they reflect upon the book's central themes and implications and incorporate their own areas of expertise. They meditate on the future of this scholarship, but concern for the future is already almost a given in such contexts. After all, there is very little thinking about technology that does not think about the future of technology.
The first section, "Archaeologies of the Digital Supernatural," contains three essays. Each essay excavates a component of the legacy of the Spiritualists within [End Page 136] contemporary understandings of technology. In the first, Natale connects Spiritualist mind-reading practices to the popular presumption that Amazon can read minds. In the second, Anthony Enns gives a general introduction to relevant Spiritualist priorities. And in the third, Simone Dotto revisits the audiophile debate between vinyl and digital recording with an eye to the Spiritualists' use of recording technologies in their attempts at communication with the dead. Dotto concludes that, if the spiritualists are to be trusted in their philosophy of audio recording,
the very definition of "playback" has to be revised: for the spiritualists and parapsychologists examined here, sound recording does not allow some kind of sound event to be "played back," but rather some imperceptible event to be played as sound. The shared goal of these spiritualist experimentations with audio technologies could be roughly synthesized as "to make the inaudible audible."(61)
The essays agree that following a decline at the start of the twentieth century, the Spiritualists' "central concepts later reappeared with even greater force at the end of the twentieth century" (37). These concepts resolve some of the dissonance that we perceive at the meeting points of media technologies and the supernatural by shortening the distance between enchanted machines and enchanted people. For indeed, "different and competing frameworks are not strictly alternative to each other, but may interact or coexist in complex and meaningful ways" (30).
The second section, "Believing...