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Can technology make us more spiritual?

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Only last month Xian’er, the first robotic Buddhist monk, was introduced to the world. His intended function is to help the increasingly tech-obsessed Chinese population to re-connect with their more spiritual side. But how useful is Xian’er as a solution and, in a wider sense, can technology help people re-connect with their spirituality?

76% of adults in Britain now own smartphones, while a study in China has found that smartphones are negatively affecting marriages and parenting. Smartphones and mobile technology are intruding on people’s social lives and everyday habits – where once using a phone in company was rude, it’s now increasingly and perhaps sadly, the norm.

Equally, what we do with our phones is changing: Over 32 million smartphones are purchased each year in the UK but fewer people are using their smartphones to make traditional calls. This changing use of phones is perceived by some as dangerous and impersonal – a voice call still consists of conversation, whereas the growing use of messenger services like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger takes personal interaction out of the conversation.

Xian’er seems a fairly simplistic solution to this issue, though; he can recite mantras and answer a small number of questions about the Buddhist faith via a touch screen on his chest. This doesn’t seem to thoroughly address the issue, purely because of its limited scope, but are there technological options that could?

One technological innovation that’s attempting to improve people’s lives in a similar way is the growing trend of ‘wellbeing apps’. Apps like Headspace and Expereal attempt to help people deal with mood swings, attention deficit and similar issues, while other apps offer help monitoring sleep cycles or keeping mood diaries.

Increasing media attention is aimed at mental health and psychological wellbeing (last week was Mental Health Awareness Week), and equally more and more resources are being devoted to developing wellbeing products like these apps. Some encourage meditation, some offer a psychological explanation for mood swings and some offer help structuring our lives so that the things that make us happy and encourage our bodies to produce important chemicals like Serotonin, find a slot in our everyday schedules.

While these apps aren’t religiously focused like Xian’er, they do fulfil a similar role of helping people to re-connect with their spiritual selves and think about their own happiness, rather than being distracted by the constant stream of media our mobile devices increasingly offer.

A central issue with Xian’er and similar solutions is the fact that, for many, technology and religion are entirely disassociated. Religion and spirituality are inherently hard to attach to material things and as a result a robotic Buddhist monk seems comedic and gimmicky.

Wellness apps manage to side-step this because they aren’t explicitly religious despite the fact that many of the things they encourage, i.e. meditation, are inherently religious practices.

Overall wellbeing apps do show that tech can make a constructive addition to people’s spiritual side, but whether religious solutions like Xian’er will catch on remains to be seen. Given the amount of click-bait, advertising that saturates our consumption of mobile media, the idea of smartphones being used as a self-help tool or spiritual guide is a refreshing one, and one that will hopefully continue to provide innovative uses for such tech.

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