Rituals for kings, stem cells, and Zoom calls

19.44, Monday 25 Jan 2021

There’s a need for rituals in science and in everyday software, big rituals and micro rituals too.

The last time I went out for a beer was 10 March, 2020. The last time I shook someone’s hand was 11 March – I remember distinctly that it felt awkward, just before the lockdown officially began, but didn’t know how to else to navigate the moment.

Shaking hands marks, concretely, the crossing of a significant virtual threshold: going from being merely in the same physical space as another human, to being present in the same social space together. Not an atom in the room has changed and yet… it’s different.

Rob Shields in his book The Virtual (2003): The virtual is real but not actual.

Here’s another example of the virtual:

The historical importance of the virtual may be detected from records of ritual events and ceremonies; for example, the coronation of kings and queens bestows a title and ascribes an identity to an actual individual. … The transformation from, for example, ‘Crown Prince’ to ‘King’ is engineered via an elaborate ritual in which social attitudes and expectations are shifted and bodies move ritually from one status to another.

Not an atom in the world has changed, yet someone suddenly has the new right to chop off your freaking HEAD. That’s what “the virtual is real” means.

But the virtual and the concrete go together, it’s not that one simply represents the other. Here’s the equation:

Virtual x Concrete = Actual

Think of the new US president and the inauguration witnessed by so many of us on 20 January. If the unsuccessful candidate had thrown a big, concrete “inauguration event,” would that have granted presidency? No of course not.

But if there were no public inauguration ritual this year, I think we would all feel that the winning candidate might be technically president, but they would lack legitimacy.

The canonical example of the virtual is your front door. There is a matter of centimeters between the public domain and the household one. In the first domain, we’re talking. In the second, you’re my guest – or a trespasser. So this threshold of virtual meaning is decorated, in a concrete sense. The front door doesn’t look like a regular door, although it could. Instead it’s painted a bright colour, surrounded by a porch, celebrated, and so on.


Jaron Lanier (futurist and 1980s virtual reality pioneer) said this, in response to a religious critique of the lack of human dignity in stem cell research:

“Dignity is something people have to create. So I said, ‘You religious people. Instead of sitting on your duffs and watching us and then critiquing, you should be the ones figuring out where the dignity comes from for all this. I challenge you. I don’t want to be living in a world in 20 years where there is a non-ritualistic way to do stem-cell research. … Actively create new culture.’“

And I think this is a super smart way to square the circle. There are acts, concrete acts in science that are distasteful. Some are unethical and should be abandoned. But there are others that I feel would be more acceptable if treated with the appropriately weighted virtual dignity – the question being, who do we nominate as the science-clerics to create the rituals?

ON A SIMILAR NOTE: Veganism is, in my view, on the right side of history – but personally I enjoy my omnivorous diet, and I imagine there are many like me, unwilling to let go of our habits. So perhaps a stepping stone movement could be for us to all start (as previously discussed) saying thank you to our meat?


I want to do what I usually do and drag this back to the mundane.

I’ve been sitting at my computer, more than not, since March last year. What virtual thresholds are there, and are they accompanied by sufficiently significant concrete rituals?

Saving a file. OK, it’s fine to press an on-screen button for that.

How about sending money?

I now have less money than I did before and you have more! It’s only bits and bytes but what’s happened is a big deal. So the physical act is given more weight: it’s a swipe, or a fingerprint scan. What the designers are doing is simply matching the virtual with something concrete.

How about finishing a video call?

Someone has left my space. There’s no longer a camera pointing into my house; there’s no longer a hot mic. Huge! Yet… I tap a square of red pixels to mark that? Inadequate.

There’s a wonderful tweet with a video clip showing ex-UK PM Gordon Brown finishing a video interview. SPOILER, he simply shuts the laptop, and the last we see is Brown’s keyboard approaching and then black. The interviewers are speechless. But I get it? Gordon Brown is performing exactly the correct ritual to end a call.

I feel like software should be designed with microrituals to accompany certain acts.

The same oblong button can save a document or commit to swinging into action a factory in China, and that’s the power and also the flatness of computing. Perhaps part of the weirdness of virtual life and virtual work is this flatness, an almost imperceptible distance from concrete reality, a vague but continuous discombobulation, felt below the surface for nine months now.

Maybe when you send an email, you should have to push the button extra hard? Maybe when I send the final deliverable for a project, I should burn some battery by lighting a simulated candle?

Follow-up posts:

If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it by email or on social media. Here’s the link. Thanks, —Matt.