Should We Have Formal Courtship Rituals for Technology?

Here is Marshal McLuhan, in a 1959 speech, describing a kind of courtship ritual that Canadian fighter pilots undergo which culminates in the pilots getting “married” to their planes:

Before being assigned to their common task, they undergo a long phase of what is called “going steady.” When finally assigned to their plane they are publicly “married” by the commanding officer in a sober ceremony. Today, it is felt only marriage can connote the degree of togetherness, tolerance, and sympathy necessary for decision-making in the use of new technology. This new pattern is the subliminal but overwhelming message of the media since the telegraph. Yet nowhere in our educational establishment have we made provision for the study of these profound messages which impose their configurations on the sensory equipment of children from their first days of existence. Yet some such provision would seem to be indicated against the persistent effects of media fallout.

This is from a speech titled Electronic Revolution: Revolutionary Effects of New Media and which I came across in the book Understanding Me: Lectures and Interviews (pp. 6-7).

I could find no evidence that the Royal Canadian Air Force actually has such a ritual. But it is an intriguing idea. Before giving my kids their first smart phone would they benefit from going through a courtship period where they first became acquainted with its many benefits and dangers over a period of time sufficient to adequately process and prepare for them, and then finally “marry” it in a ceremony where they publicly commit to use it responsibly?

It sounds like overkill–why adapt some weird ritual when simply educating them might work just as well?

One reason is that collective ritual appears to be a highly effective way of conveying information about potential hazards and ensuring the spread of this information. In a paper titled “Whence Collective Rituals? A Cultural Selection Model of Ritualized Behavior” the French anthropologists Pierre Liénard and Pascal Boyer make the case that collective ritual activates a certain neurocognitive system designed to spot potential hazards. In the abstract to that paper they write that

Ritualized behavior is a specific way of organizing the flow of action, characterized by stereotypy, rigidity in performance, a feeling of compulsion, and specific themes, in particular the potential danger from contamination, predation, and social hazard. We proposed elsewhere a neurocognitive model of ritualized behavior in human development and pathology, as based on the activation of a specific hazard-precaution system specialized in the detection of and response to potential threats. We show how certain features of collective rituals—by conveying information about potential danger and presenting appropriate reaction as a sequence of rigidly described precautionary measures—probably activate this neurocognitive system. This makes some collective ritual sequences highly attention-demanding and intuitively compelling and contributes to their transmission from place to place or generation to generation. The recurrence of ritualized behavior as a central feature of collective ceremonies may be explained as a consequence of this bias in selective transmission.

At a time when the technology available to consumers is rapidly becoming indistinguishable from magic, maybe it makes sense to utilize forms of ritual practice that were formerly reserved for sorcery.


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