Gods in the Cloud. How Indian Mysticism Influenced Tech

Guest post by Dr Tina Basi

“When you next go through a four-way crossing, take these lemons and throw them out the rickshaw on your right-hand side. Not the left, the right. All at once. And go to Neem Karoli Baba’s shrine in Nainital.”

These were the instructions from the guruji (soothsayer) to whom I had paid 200 Indian rupees (£2.27) in Delhi for blessings whilst undertaking my PhD. I’d like to say that was the one and only time I threw lemons (and my money) out of a rickshaw but it wasn’t. Over the years that I’ve both visited and lived in India, I have spent a fair bit of cash on offerings, readings, prayers, talismans, all sorts, in my efforts to get a little bit magic on my side and have chance fall in my favour. I know the universe doesn’t really work that way. I don’t really believe some elderly man who is actually a gardener in his day job can help me achieve the perfect life. Yet somehow I yield and embrace the willing suspension of disbelief as I hand over my lemons so he can recite some incantations.

I was reminded of this experience last summer when doing some research on social perceptions of artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML). Responding to the cultural probes used during the interview, our participants did indeed connect with examples from science fiction and dystopic narratives when discussing AI/ML. Others recognised benign intelligence in services that simply organised content in order of preference – shopping, music, films, or photos.

However familiar one was with the computational intelligence in devices and services, a subtle but clear finding was beginning to emerge. Many of our respondents discussed the products and devices they used in an adoring, trusting way, humanizing them: “she’s my little helper in the kitchen”; “I call her his girlfriend because he talks more to her than me”; and “I guess she’s not in the mood today.”

Not that any of this should be surprising. In the UK, Channel 4’s Humans has offered up this narrative already [1].  What was curious was the way in which research participants began to mythologise the brands that lie behind the products and services, like devotees, describing discoveries of photos that were sorted for them by occasion or the relation, not really grasping the facial recognition technology that lay behind this.

In part they recognised that the device or service was designed to seamlessly support their lives, to ease and accelerate their ability to accomplish even more, themes explored by sociologist Judy Wajcman in Pressed for Time: The acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism (2016). However, when research participants were pressed for their thoughts and feelings on data protection it became clear that many were not inclined to read the lengthy user agreements and should they be inclined, would not have been able to penetrate the legalese. Thus the willing suspension of disbelief. They believed they were small fish in a very large pond and their awareness of what was in any legal document would not have changed anything, “Why would anyone want my data? I’m no one special.”

The slow creep of the mythologizing began with comments such as: “I like X, no one I know has ever had any problems with them and they are never in the news for data breaches”; “I would never use Y, my friend lost all her photos with them”; or “that company is always getting sued”. The brands were interchangeable as the same story of rationalisation emerged over and over. The god-like reverence with which some brands and products were held was underscored by a participant sharing a story of one smart home device that was effectively exorcized for being ‘creepy’ by the owner throwing it into a pool, dragging it out, and drilling a hole through it in order to stop it listening. If that doesn’t convince you, try watching Julian Terry’s short film Whisper for something on this theme [2].

It is very human to create myths and stories for experiences and phenomena we don’t understand. Cultures and societies are abundant with such tales. Mystery lends itself to the creation of gods, disbelief is willingly suspended. Particularly when algorithms and smart home devices are designed to appear like humble servants but feel as though they can predict our desires and needs, like they know us, our lives, and our relationships, better than we could. Such intimacy is embraced, coveted even, with frustration and upset only emerging when the experiences are not frictionless, when devices or algorithms break the ‘fourth wall’. The performance of cheerful, frictionless living with AI/ML must remain intact for the pantheon of gods to grow, and for user agreements to never be questioned.

In April 1974, Steve Jobs travelled to India with Dan Kottke to meet Neem Karoli Baba. Jobs was a spiritual seeker and was hoping to learn more about Hinduism. Maharaj-ji, as he was known, had died a few months earlier but for Jobs the seeds had been sown, having attended the Khumb Mela (Hindu pilgrimage) and learning of Indian mysticism and spirituality, something in him changed. In 2008 he convinced Mark Zuckerberg to visit the shrine in Nainital to regain his vision for Facebook. There are stories of visits to Nainital from Larry Brilliant (Google, Skoll Foundation), Larry Page (Google), and Jeffery Skoll (e-Bay).

Do I think they had a spiritual awakening and experienced consciousness? No. I think they saw that the panditry industry in India is worth billions, some put the figure of the Indian spiritual and religious market at $48 billion (£37.83 billion) [3]. With elaborate, lengthy, and expensive rituals and ceremonies, the online industry emerged almost as a way to regulate the sector. It also serves as a way to mitigate the guilt that diasporic Indians may be feeling at missing the endless events and occasions back home. With OnlinePrasad, one can have prasad (edible blessing) delivered directly from India’s ‘top’ temples [4].

Though it has been well-documented that many of Silicon Valley’s best and brightest were highly influenced by Ayn Rand, it is difficult to ignore that the West Coast of the US is also the birthplace of the New-Age, hippy, spiritual movement of the 60s and 70s. Is it so hard then to imagine that both ends of the spectrum – selfishness and generosity – were fundamental cornerstones in the growth of some of the most important organisations in history?

Like good pandits and gurus, tech entrepreneurs know that we don’t really understand how the technology or software works. All soothsayers know it is ultimately about trust in the brand and that the more they co-opt their devotees, the greater the success of the prediction. For every lemon I throw out the rickshaw, the more likely I am to keep my eyes open for opportunities to create the life I want, ultimately giving credit to guruji. Tech brands need to create products and services that co-opt users, creating the illusion that everyone is working together. Google understood this when it released the Google dashboard. By sharing a small part of what they had collected, users articulated respect for Google’s transparency thereby giving themselves permission to rely on, trust, and share with Google even more.

I highly doubt we’ll get to a point where we can penetrate the legalese of user agreements. I am much more likely to throw those lemons out the rickshaw than try to understand vedic astrology. We can, however, start to critically examine the current narratives of AI/ML against a history of global narratives of AI/Ml, such as those collected by the Global AI Narratives team at the University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Future of Intelligence. As their research shows, we have been telling ourselves stories about AI for centuries, this is no new phenomenon. Perhaps this is what the tech entrepreneurs understood, and the visit to Nainital was simply to confirm what they already knew: that ultimately what people want is to believe that they are in the care of something greater than themselves.

Dr Tina Basi

[1] https://www.channel4.com/programmes/humans

[2] https://youtu.be/J9gUIhkzNDk

[3] https://www.forbes.com/sites/abehal/2016/08/19/indias-30b-spiritual-market-and-the-woman-thats-tapping-into-it/#38528fb2109e

[4] https://onlineprasad.com


Tina is a sociologist, based at the London School of Economics and Political Science where she teaches on the MSc Culture and Society programme. Tina also leads on developing social science impact at the University of Cambridge, managing the ESRC Impact Accelerator Account.

Tina has devoted her career to sociological practice and began by working as an industrial ethnographer for Intel Corporation. From there she has worked on ethnographic research projects across public and private sector for clients such as the Facebook, Department of Health, Ministry of Justice, Westminster Council, the Design Council, GlaxoSmithKline, and Bacardi Global Brands. Going beyond explorations of the ways in which society, culture, technology, and innovation intersect, Tina researches, writes, and teaches on the ways in which related processes disrupt, alter, and shape each other. She has previously guest lectured at the Royal College of Art.

She has a PhD from the University of Leeds in Sociology and Gender Studies, funded by an ESRC scholarship. Her doctoral research has been published by Routledge and is titled, Women, Identity, and India’s Call Centre Industry (2009) and was nominated for the Phillip Abrahams Memorial Prize by the British Sociological Association.

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