Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Secular Ritual Design?

Add a third box for "Consciousness/Probability Shift" and they'd be on to something

I recently came across this article from The Atlantic discussing the idea of "secular rituals design." On the one hand, it seems to me that some of the ideas being bandied about by this group might be useful for designing better and more efficient magical rituals, but on the other, from the contents of the article it sounds like these folks are entirely missing the point.

At the Ritual Design Lab in Silicon Valley, a small team of “interaction designers” is working to generate new rituals for modern life, with an eye to user experience. Created by Kursat Ozenc and Margaret Hagan, the lab crafts rituals for both individuals and organizations, including big hitters like Microsoft. The team’s website offers a Ritual Design Hotline with a tantalizing promise: “You tell us your problem. We will make you a ritual.” Meanwhile, its Ritual Inventory invites you to add any interesting ritual you’ve made or seen to its growing database. And its app, IdeaPop, helps you brainstorm and create your own rituals.

This is an interesting concept, but at the same time what's missing is a way of evaluating how these rituals work. That is, the point of a ritual is to transform some aspect of yourself or your environment that you are unable to transform by any other means. A good ritual has macrocosmic resonance, and should shift probability in your favor in such a way that it at least has the potential to fix the problem. The "user experience" idea, while useful in terms of ease and efficiency, is meaningless without an eye towards the change that the ritual is intended to produce.

Ritual Design Lab has its roots in Stanford’s Institute of Design, where Ozenc and Hagan both teach. In 2015, they proposed a new course on ritual design. To their surprise, more than 100 students signed up. Most were secular. “The interest was huge—so we thought, we should harness this interest,” Ozenc told me. “The new generation, they want bite-size spirituality instead of a whole menu of courses. Design thinking can offer this, because the whole premise of design is human-centeredness. It can help people shape their spirituality based on their needs. Institutionalized religions somehow forget this—that at the center of any religion should be the person.”

This is the kind of approach that could be useful from the standpoint of designing better spells and so forth. Also, the critique of institutionalized religion is accurate and well-placed. However, the whole point of (effective) religion is to (A) produce the experience of Gnosis or metanoia or enlightenment or whatever you want to call it and (B) employ spiritual forces to shape your external circumstances. I don't see any evidence of either in what the design lab is putting together. Which is a shame.


Ozenc, 38, is no stranger to institutionalized religion. Growing up in Turkey, he practiced Sufi Islam—and he still does. “I know the value of spirituality,” he said. To help others access that value, he homes in on what he considers ingredients for a good ritual. One is the bite-sized portion size; whenever possible, a ritual should be quick. Another key ingredient is playfulness. In fact, some of the rituals listed on the website border on silly. The ritual for coping with parking-ticket rage involves sautéing and then eating the ticket. “We intentionally take the stance that we believe in rituals that are lightweight and a bit humorous,” Ozenc told me. “We’re not interested in heavy, top-bottom, religious, or government rituals.”

It seems to me that a person who "knows the value of spirituality" should have a better understanding of (A) and (B) above. Hopefully the quote is just taken out of context, because this makes it sound like, basically, the "spirituality" being accessed is basically just screwing around. There is a value to humor in ritual - I'm not trying to say that there isn't. I'm a fan of silly religions like Discordianism and the Church of the Subgenius, and some chaos magicians get good results working with those systems. However, a ritual needs to be an effective piece of technology and not just a big joke.

And the point of a ritual for a parking ticket is to increase the odds of the ticket being dismissed, not to "cope with rage." I wonder about the mental health of a person who has to cook and eat a parking ticket in order to feel better. I mean, seriously?

The importance of play in ritual is backed up by evolutionary biology: It facilitates problem-solving and social bonding among bonobos, as primatologist Isabel Behncke has shown. Ozenc and Hagan take play so seriously that they’ve actually had Behncke co-teach alongside them in Stanford’s ritual-design classes. They’ve also collaborated with neuropsychologist Nick Hobson, who studies ritual’s impact on neural processes and writes about the power of playful rituals—even ones as simple as playing ping-pong during your lunch break at work.

Playing ping-pong on your lunch break is a routine, not a ritual. The two things are different, though from this it sounds like the design lab is not very clear on the distinction. For a ritual to be a ritual, it should have some sort of objective. Furthermore, it should in some way facilitate the accomplishment of that objective. As I see it a ritual that facilitates problem-solving and out-of-the-box thinking counts, but going back to the parking ticket example it's hard to see how problem-solving in that situation is going to help anything.

Whether a parking ticket gets dismissed or not usually has little to do with a clever strategy on your part (because there's only so much you can really do) and a lot to do with various institutional factors that are outside your control. That should be the point of doing a ritual, because you want to shape the forces of probability so that those institutional factors happen to work in your favor. But the designers don't even seem to have considered that angle. It's great to have a simple ritual that offers a good "user experience." But if it doesn't actually help your situation, doing it is a waste of time.

So really, this whole "design lab" concept strikes me as half of a good idea. If they could bring in some practical magicians and do some probability testing to see which of their ideas are both simple and effective, they could really get somewhere. "User experience" is great and all, but what's the point of having a good experience doing something entirely useless?

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