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A Spiritual Connection from

Marcus Didius Falco (
Sun, 13 Mar 2005 03:48:51 -0500

A spiritual connection
Mar 10th 2005
From The Economist print edition

Technology and society: Around the world, mobile phones seem to have a
spiritual or supernatural dimension that other forms of technology

THOSE who go into the priesthood are said to have a calling from God. Now
the purveyors of faith the world over are using mobile phones to give
believers a call in a more literal sense. Catholics can sign up for daily
inspirational text messages from the pope simply by texting Pope On to a
special number (53141 in Ireland, for example). The Irish Jesuits offer a
service called Sacred Space, accessible via smartphone, which encourages
users to spend ten minutes reflecting on a specially chosen scripture for
the day. In Taiwan, limited-edition phones made by Okwap, a local
handset-maker, offer Matsu wallpaper and religious ringtones, along with a
less tangible feature each one has been specially blessed at a temple to
Matsu. And Muslims around the world can use the F7100 handset, launched
last July by LG of South Korea, both to remind them of prayer times (the
phone has an alarm system that works in 500 cities) and to find the
direction of Mecca using the handset's built-in Mecca indicator compass
(see picture).

Mobile phones also make it easy to donate money to religious
groups. In Britain, a company called MS Wireless Marketing offers a
TXT & Donate Islamic Prayer Alert service for .25 ($0.48) per
day. The profits go to Muslim charities such as Muslim Hands and
Islamic Relief. There are also dozens of Christian charities that
accept text-message donations.

Phones and religious beliefs do not always mix smoothly, however.
Finnish authorities shut down a service which claimed to offer text
messages from Jesus for 1.20 ($1.55) each, and bishops in the text-mad
Philippines put a stop to people attending confession and receiving
absolution via text messages.

That technology and religion can be so intertwined is not new. After
all, the first book to roll off Gutenberg's new-fangled printing press
was the Bible. But unlike the personal computer, which has remained
paradoxically impersonal, the mobile phone has transcended its
pragmatic beginnings as a yuppie business tool and has burrowed its
way into popular consciousness, says Mizuko Ito, an anthropologist at
the University of Southern California. Fashion models don them like
jewellery and strut the catwalk, teenage girls in Japan use them as
lockets, sticking photographs of their friends into their battery
compartments, and some Ghanaians even choose to be buried in giant
mobile-phone coffins.

Mobile phones are a uniquely personal form of technology, thanks in
large part to their mobility. When you leave the house, you probably
take your keys, your wallet and your phone. Laptop computers are
carried by far fewer people, and do not have the same personal
associations. Mobile phones provide scope for self-expression, through
the choice of ringtone and screen wallpaper. At the same time, mobile
phones' ability to communicate with unseen, distant people using
invisible radio waves is almost magical.

Indeed, the notion that phones might be capable of supernatural or
spiritual communication goes right back to the inventor of the
telephone himself, Alexander Graham Bell.

According to Avital Ronell, a professor of philosophy at New York
University and the author of The Telephone Book: Technology,
Schizophrenia, and Electric Speech , Bell was just as interested in
using his invention to contact the dead as he was in talking to his
associate Thomas Watson. Bell and Watson had attended regular seances
in Salem, says Dr Ronell. Bell even drew up a contract with his
brother, agreeing that whoever lived the longest should try to contact
the other. For his part, Watson was an avid medium who spent hours
listening to the weird hisses and squeals of early telephone lines in
case they proved to be the dead trying to make contact. AFP

Answering the call

The telephone still maintains such ghostly connections. In China,
people celebrating the Hungry Ghost Festival burn life-sized paper
effigies of everything from televisions to mobile phones so that the
dead can enjoy them in the afterlife. These phone offerings enable the
dead to call each other, rather than the living. Why shouldn't the
dead be as technologically advanced as we are? asks Genevieve Bell, an
anthropologist who works for Intel, the world's largest chipmaker. She
spent two years in Asia conducting field research about attitudes to
technology in different countries. In parts of southern China, she
found, it is customary to take your mobile phone to a local Buddhist
monk for blessing.

Even phone numbers can have supernatural connotations. In Beijing, a
man recently paid $215,000 for a lucky phone number. In Cantonese, the
number four sounds like the word for death, and is therefore unlucky,
while the number eight sounds like the word for fortune, and is
therefore lucky. It's not uncommon even for migrant workers to pay up
to a month's salary for a lucky telephone number, says James Katz,
professor of communications at Rutgers University. Since phones are
the most personal of all high-tech devices, it is hardly surprising
that their use should reflect the entire spectrum of personal beliefs.

Copyright 2005 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group.

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