Spirituality — there's an app for that! (but not a lot of research)


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The iTunes App Store contains over six thousand apps related to spirituality and religion. The ACM digital library, however, contains only 98 works that address this topic from the perspective of human-computer interaction (HCI). Despite high-profile calls for research in the area, the HCI community has produced only 19 research works focused on the topic, almost half of which are the work of one person and her colleagues. In this paper we provide an overview of the relevant HCI research in this area, a partial inventory of spiritually oriented apps in the iTunes US App Store, and a comparison of research and real-world developments. We discuss the gaps in the HCI literature on techno-spiritual practices and speculate about some of the difficulties and challenges that face the HCI community in conducting research in this area.

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  • This talk is about a preliminary analysis that we conducted to explore some differences between techno-spirituality in the wild and existing human-computer interaction research on the subject.
  • We were struck by Genevieve Bell’s CHI 2010 keynote, in which she described spirituality as one of three major underexplored areas of HCI research (along with sex and sport) and urged the CHI community to devote more research to the use of technology in spirituality and religion. So we looked at the research and at some of the available technology.
  • First, a quick note about terminology. Although they are related, spirituality and religion are not the same thing. I won’t go into the long, involved discussion here, so let me just say that for our purposes, we treat spirituality as the internal aspect and religion as the external one. Connelly, R, Light, K. (2003) Exploring the “new” frontier of spirituality in health care: identifying the dangers. J Religion Health. 42, pp. 35-45.
  • “ Larger than yourself” means different things to different people.
  • The research on HCI and techno-spirituality is fairly sparse in the ACM Digital Library. We found only 98 works that even mention the topic. Of these, 22 are focused on it as a primary area of interest. 19 of these are research works; the others are panels or SIG session reports. And of the 19, more than 40% are the work of one person and her colleagues.
  • We found that the technologies studied in the HCI research literature tend to fall into one of three groups, according to the purposes they served and how they were used. The first is institutional: These technologies support religious organisations in doing their work.
  • The second is utilitarian: These technologies support spiritual practice without directly participating in the experience.
  • Experiential technologies not only facilitate subjective experience, but are directly involved in the experiences themselves.
  • As of early December 2012, the US App Store contained more than 6000 iPhone and iPad apps tagged with general keywords for spirituality and religion. We inventoried the ones that had average customer ratings of at least four out of five stars, and eliminated the duplicates.
  • The App Store offers products with many uses and purposes that are not well covered by the HCI literature — if they are covered at all. Here are a few examples.
  • Sacred texts, in both texual and audio formats, in single languages and with translations. (The titles that appear above the images are the names of the apps depicted.)
  • Meditation apps, for mindfulness and for meditating on a topic.
  • Daily inspirations, verses, readings, quotes, lessons…
  • Educating your kids and yourself, both by instruction and by storytelling.
  • Personal spiritual growth, both in general and in a faith.
  • Exchange of prayer requests and prayers. Our first impression is that these are mostly Christian.
  • Quizzes and games, mostly about a specific faith.
  • Teachings and sermons from individual spiritual and religious leaders.
  • Aids for memorising texts, prayers, etc. This type of app emerged as an important use when we later searched for Islamic apps.
  • Communications include radio stations, music, news sources, magazines, and podcasts. This type of app emerged as a major group when we later searched for Christian apps. This category does not include apps for specific churches and other congregations, as those are covered under the “institutional” use we mentioned earlier.
  • Our analysis reveals that techno-spiritual products far outpace HCI research. People are using technology to support spiritual and religious practices, in ways that the HCI community is not studying. What’s behind this gap?
  • We’ve thought about some possible reasons for this discrepancy.
  • Do we overlook it or ignore it because it’s not relevant to our own lives? As a population, academics and scientists do tend to be less religious than average. Maybe we just don’t think of it as important?
  • Does it seem an overly sensitive topic to ask people about? Some people do have strong negative reactions to even discussing it.
  • Is it the difficulty of studying it? Recent advances in methodology have helped, but subjective experience is still pretty hard to study. We need to have empathy for the participants in our studies, and be in relationship with them. We have to be willling to introspect about our own experience. And the subjective aspects of spirituality can be exceedingly difficult for people to express.
  • Maybe we feel concerned that we’d be seen to have a religious agenda. Mark and I are very sympathetic with this; in fact, I worry about it sometimes. Yet we are confident that the objections can be countered.
  • Could it be considered an unscientific topic? HCI researchers are very open to other types of qualitative research. Is this really different? Do we fear that studying a topic that involves beliefs might imply that we share those beliefs or give them credibility?
  • Perhaps it’s just a matter of lack of funding. Or maybe not.
  • We took great inspiration from a paper on HCI and sexuality, presented at last year’s CHI. (The reference is in our paper.) Instead of conducting a discourse analysis as they did, we inventoried a large collection of techno-spiritual products and compared the coverage. We are currently adding apps tagged for specific faith traditions and beginning to analyse them. Next we will look at user comments and design features of highly rated experiential apps.
  • Thank you!
  • Spirituality — there's an app for that! (but not a lot of research)

    1. 1. Spirituality:There’s an App for That!(but not a lot of research)Elizabeth Buie and Mark Blythe@ebuie @markblytheNorthumbria UniversityDepartment of Design
    2. 2. Great Exhortations Genevieve Bell, CHI 2010(keynote) Three main underexploredareas of HCI research:» Sex» Sport» SpiritualityThis paper looks at spirituality —HCI research vs. “in the wild”
    3. 3. “Spirituality” vs. “Religion” Spirituality» “…the essential, core, central, integratingdimension or domain of life … the deepest partof a person’s life” (Connelly & Light, 2003, p. 37)» A feeling of connection with something largerthan oneself Religion» Beliefs, practices and ethics» Often derived from a religious body or faithtradition» Formal worship
    4. 4. “Larger than yourself” can mean many different things.
    5. 5. HCI research:fairly sparse98mentionsof spirituality or religionin ACM Digital Library22focused on it19research works8by oneperson
    6. 6. Research: Three types of useInstitutional: Support religious institutions inspreading their message and fostering members’spiritual growthExample: Large displays for religious services inAmerican mega-churches (Wyche, Medynskiy & Grinter, 2007)Example: Ministers’ useof computer tech forpastoral activities (Wyche,Hayes, Harvel & Grinter, 2006)
    7. 7. Research: Three types of usePractical: Support spiritual practice withoutdirectly participating in the experienceExample: Sabbath home automation in OrthodoxJewish households(Woodruff, Augustin &Foucault, 2007)
    8. 8. Research: Three types of useExperiential: Directly facilitate subjectiveexperienceExample: AltarNation for shared meditation in anonline community (Hlubinka, Beaudin, Tapia & An, 2002)Example: Sonic Cradleto facilitate mindfulnessmeditation (Vidyarthi, Riecke& Gromala, 2012)
    9. 9. Apps abound!A wide variety of usesand purposes* These do not include apps tagged onlyfor specific faiths.More than 6000* iPhone &iPad apps tagged withspiritually oriented keywordsOver 1500* with 4-starratings or better (out of 5)
    10. 10. Examples of uses “in the wild” Sacred texts Meditations Daily inspirations, verses, prayers, devotionals Education (adults and children) and stories Personal spiritual growth Prayer exchanges Quizzes and games Individual leaders Memorisation aids TV/radio, music, news, magazines, podcasts
    11. 11. Use: Sacred textsBhagavad-Gita HebrewBible AcroBible Listen theHoly Quran
    12. 12. Use: MeditationsBIA MeditationCatholic Meditationsfor Lent
    13. 13. Use: Daily inspirations, etc.Daily LightDaily Satsang
    14. 14. Use: Education and storiesOT39 Old TestamentFlashcards SikhNet AudioStories for Kids
    15. 15. Use: Personal spiritual growthAwakening JoyMuslim Purification
    16. 16. Use: Prayer exchangesPrayerWorksPrayerPartner
    17. 17. Use: Quizzes and gamesTorahificBible Trivia
    18. 18. Use: Individual leadersEddie L. LongRadhanath Swami
    19. 19. Use: Memorisation aidsLDS Scripture PowerMemorizationDivine Names – Memorizethe 99 names of Allah
    20. 20. Use: CommunicationsTathaastu MagazineThe Bridge RadioHay House Radio
    21. 21. Summary: A Huge IncongruityTechno-spiritual apps far outpace HCI research.The iTunes App Store offers several thousandapps for spirituality & religion.Yet the ACM Digital Library contains fewer thantwenty research works on HCI and techno-spirituality.Why might this be?
    22. 22. Why might this be?????????????Irrelevant?Not funded?Difficult?Sensitive?Risky?Unscientific??
    23. 23. Why: Irrelevant? Academics and scientists are, overall, lessreligious than the general population. Are HCI researchers simply notinterested because spirituality andreligion don’t relate to our lives?
    24. 24. Why: Sensitive? Religion is among the topics “notdiscussed” in polite company. Spirituality and religion can be sensitivetopics to ask people about. Some religious leaders threaten harm topeople who portray their faith in waysthey dislike.
    25. 25. Why: Difficult? Studying subjective experience is hard,even with recent advances inmethodology. Objective observation must give way toempathy and relationship. Spirituality and religion can be difficultfor people to articulate.
    26. 26. Why: Professionally risky? Do HCI researchers worry about beingaccused of bringing a religious agendato our work? Mark and I confess to having more thana little sympathy with this concern. Yet we are confident that aprofessional, academic approach canovercome the objections.
    27. 27. Why: Unscientific? Is the study of HCI and religionsomehow different from otherqualitative research that we conduct? Do researchers think that studyingreligion might give scientific credibilityto the religious beliefs?It does not.
    28. 28. Why: Not funded? Research agendas often are set bygovernment councils, which determinewhat topics to fund. We can address spirituality within topicsthat are currently funded. Other sources of funding may be available.Funding alone is not the issue.
    29. 29. Inspiration, activities & plansInspiration: Kannabiran, Bardzell & Bardzell’sCHI 2012 paper on HCI and sexualityAdaptation: Omitted discourse analysis;added comparison with large collection of appsActivities: Adding apps tagged for specific faithtraditions; analysing inventoryPlans: Focus on highly rated experiential apps;analyse user comments and identify salientdesign features
    30. 30. The bottom lineAny aspect of life that uses technologyis fair game for HCI research.Any area of life that touches so manyof the world’s people and usestechnology so heavily can be a subjectfor HCI research.Indeed, it must be. 
    31. 31. Merci!Elizabeth Buie and Mark Blythe@ebuie       @markblytheNorthumbria UniversityPhotograph by Elizabeth Buie