The Day the Computer Prayed

by rthieme on October 24, 1997

Islands in the Clickstream When a computer prays, is it really prayer?

And I mean real prayer, I don’t mean some mood-altering self-manipulation. I mean, is there an intentional focus of energy and intelligence, the intelligence of the heart, so that something happens beyond the merely subjective, something that percolates powerfully through all the levels of our consciousness?

Nor do I mean merely ritualistic prayer. As T. S. Eliot said,

“… prayer is more
than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.”

Not that anything’s wrong with that. We human beings need repetitive symbolic acts to comfort or sustain us. No matter how spontaneous we think we are, our habits dig ruts in our psyches, and the wagons of our lives — including prayer — roll in those ruts.

That’s at the top level, that’s what happens when a conscious mind thinks or says words. Which means that one assumption of prayer is that telepathy is real.

A clairvoyant moment on the moon became a new axis for Buzz Aldrin’s life. The astronaut experienced a silent communication that disclosed to him the unity of all things. It was a moment of transcendent communion that told him he was right where he belonged, at home in a gregarious universe.

When enough people have that kind of experience, they come together and struggle to articulate what they believe. Our individuality is expressed fully in community. That makes for corporate rituals. Our religious institutions and organizations are grievously flawed, but they do bridge the generations and pass on a legacy of the symbols of possibility and promise that can then explode once again into our real experience.

Or devolve once again into ritualized prayer.

Monasteries sometimes send notices saying they are praying for me on a particular day. The names for whom they pray are in a book or rolodex, and as the wheel of time turns, so does the rota. Names are plugged automatically into the blank spaces.

It’s a natural for computerization. That monastery, executing its structured top-down program for ritualized prayer, is a symbol manipulating machine. All human beings are symbol manipulating machines, and so are computers. We’re interlocked in a symbiotic embrace that is taking both networked computers and networked human beings up a spiral of mutual transformation. As we are changed by this process, the symbols we use to express our understanding of the process also change.

Whenever there is a transition from one “technology of the Word” to another, there is always resistance. In an oral community, prayer and ritual were alive as the words were uttered. When the words were written down, they seemed a pale reflection of words that had potency when spoken. Same thing when the printing press with movable type was invented. Some people just couldn’t read what was printed.

One of my favorites is the Duke of Urbin. A passionate manuscript collector, he refused to read printed books, but when he heard of one that he wanted, he had it delivered to the monastery where the monks copied it over by hand.

So there will be resistance to prayers on a computer, as if they are somehow “not real.” Anyone who has reached out on-line during a crisis, however, as I did recently when my brother was deeply depressed and threatening suicide, knows that the words that show up on the monitor in the middle of the night are words of light and life. The response I received to my late-night invitation to a few colleagues and friends resulted in action that saved my brother’s life.

Some of those people prayed and communicated their prayer via email. Some lighted simulated candles in the digital darkness, no less candescent for being words or images. Some typed advice or encouragement. And some, like those monks that turn that rolodex, plugged in our names to programs they had written and let the computer just keep on praying for us, day after day.

OK, you tell me: Did the computer pray?

But remember, the “computer” is not some stand-alone machine, a brain in a bottle on somebody’s desk, the computer is the global network, alive not only with energy but also with intentionality.
Intentionality transforms what would otherwise be rote into prayer. Whether people are reading in a chapel or communicating on the Network, the symbols — printed words or luminous pixels — are turned to flame.

Prayer becomes real, according to Hasidic Jews, when the words on the page become flame. The words on the monitor too.

The Network is a symbiosis, a global community of human beings interlocked with a global network of millions of computers. The symbiosis — digital humanity expressing itself through an electronic network inseparable from itself — prayed and keeps on praying.

How can we separate a mediating structure from that which becomes incarnate in and through it? The medium is the message, the context content, and words becomes both silicon and flesh. Physical objects are permeated with memory and meaning, and then they become sacred. Sacred places are spaces bracketed in the physical world — which is nothing but energy also — transformed by the energy and intelligence of the heart.

There are moments — aren’t there? — when we feel the presence of someone interacting with us through the monitor, through the modem, through email or IRC, so palpably that we feel them there in the room, we feel their energy, their intention focused on us, and we feel it as well when their focus shifts and the energy wanes. Being is manifest through the wires and electromagnetic energy of the digital world.

So yes, prayer happens, but the initial question — does a computer pray? — dissolves into finer distinctions as our sensory extensions are fused with our will and intelligence. Prayer happens, luminous sacred spaces glow in the night, the sudden candescence of a million monitors transformed into altars and sacred groves, a roar of flame in the darkest hour.

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