Public Theologies of Technology and Presence (PTTP) is a three-year initiative, launched in 2018 and funded by the Henry Luce Foundation, that gathers and funds a cohort of leading scholars of religion, theologians, and journalists for their work addressing a pressing concern of contemporary life: the ways in which technologies reshape human relationships and alter how people are or are not “present” with each other. It has produced rich and diverse scholarship that can be viewed on the IBS website here.
The Institute of Buddhist Studies is lucky to have helped host this initiative, organized and directed by research associate Dr. Steven Barrie Anthony. In this interview, he reflects on the project as it winds down, and the meaningful questions, conversations and scholarship it produced during its three-year period.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Can you explain a bit about the initiative?
The initiative centers the idea that religion scholars and theologians are well suited to identify, theorize, and help consumers and technologists navigate the deeper questions that technologies raise. It gathers religion scholars and theologians from across the academic disciplines and religious traditions, and journalists, and funds their research and publication projects that take up these questions. The initiative seeks to hold space, to maintain a frame, within which this work can take place.
Collaboration among the grantees has been a cornerstone of the three-year initiative, as has an emphasis on public engagement, and on developing ways of teaching about technology through the prism of religion. Our meetings have also involved dialogue with technologists and others from a wide range of technology firms such as Google, IDEO, OpenAI, Headspace, Twitch, Neuralink, and NAVA.
In designing and directing the initiative, I’ve received invaluable support from PTTP’s Advisory Board of religion scholars, journalists, and technologists. The Institute of Buddhist Studies hosted the initiative, and the Henry Luce Foundation generously funded the whole endeavor. PTTP Grantee publications, Capstone Conference presentations, and a technology and presence pedagogy podcast and syllabi can now be viewed on the IBS website.
How did the idea come to you, and how did you develop it?
I’ve been interested in the spiritual and interpersonal dimensions of technologies for as long as I can remember—see for instance this piece in which I talk about my early experience of technologies’ spiritual and interpersonal dimensions. So the germ of this interest has been there right along. It began to take further shape when I was a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, on the technology and culture beat. My conversations with technologists, scholars, and consumers, if given the time and space to percolate and evolve, invariably opened out into deep feelings, meanings, and questions that sought articulation—feelings and questions about what it means to be human and what it means to be present with others. It did not seem like a leap to begin thinking about technologies in the register of religion and spirituality. While dominant popular narratives about consumer technologies tend to focus on what a given technology does for consumers practically and in the moment—better screens, faster speeds, newfangled connections with friends, more immersive experiences—it became clear that a deep well of more reflective feeling about technologies’ impacts on human presence hums beneath the surface.
For instance, one of my Times stories about the ubiquity of camera phones migrated into territory of Buddhist inter-being and the interpersonally malleable nature of memory. Stories about the onslaught of “timing devices,” and the music service Pandora, arced similarly, moving from a given technology’s practical dimensions to its more human and interpersonal implications, hopes and sorrows. The rhythm involved moving from the technology as a utilitarian object to the fundamentally human and spiritual levels of experience that it evokes and helps to shape. More recently in my career, as a religion scholar and a psychoanalyst, I have often returned to thinking about technologies’ currents, to the idea that technologies activate or engage deep parts of us—whether for good or for ill, whether toward spiritual and interpersonal depth or away from these. In order to understand technologies more than technically or instrumentally, to unpack these currents and effects, it behooves us to explore the technologies and their impacts at these levels.
This initiative involves scholars from many institutions and across disciplines. What was it like selecting the participants?
It was important to us that our grantee class was diverse such as in terms of academic disciplines, religious traditions, and the projects taken up. Toward this end we distributed the request for proposals broadly across academic and journalistic networks, and we were thrilled with the number and quality of proposals we received—more than 120 proposals for 16 slots. Many applicants were researching and publishing in veins related to religion, technology, and human presence. While applicants were interested in the PTTP funding, I think the more significant draw was their interest in becoming part of a fertile cross-disciplinary effort to explore these themes collaboratively and in applied ways, and to engage publicly, and with technologists
I wish we could have funded many more projects. Going through the selection process gave me and the Selection Committee a redoubled sense that scholars of religion and theologians have a great store of energy and creativity regarding addressing technologies’ impacts. As one of our Selection Committee members wrote to me afterwards, “I am virtually blown away by the quality of the applications received. In many years of reading such applications I’ve never seen anything like this.” Based on my experience with PTTP, I enthusiastically encourage other institutions and funders to expand their support of scholarship and journalism at the religion and technology nexus. It’s clear that there is a tremendous amount of energy and creativity here.
120 applicants for 16 slots! There really was strong interest in this. What was the role of collaboration in this project?
In my experience this was the most important element of the initiative. Collaboration across disciplines and traditions and between scholars and journalists lent new energy to the research projects and reframed grantees’ long-held positions. For instance, one lively conversation that evolved across the course of our conferences was between grantees Ilia Delio, who tends toward a more optimistic theological view of artificial intelligence and its human implications; and Noreen Herzfeld, who is more critical of AI’s relational impacts. As you’ll see in their final conference presentations, this dialogue influenced them both, and the rest of us as well. In line with PTTP’s collaborative spirit, Drs. Delio and Herzfeld are currently at work coediting a volume of PTTP grantee essays, and organizing a conference around this.
Other examples of PTTP collaborations include: grantee Sigal Samuel’s article for The Atlantic, “The Witches of Baltimore,” which emerged from her engagement with fellow grantee Margarita Guillory’s research on “Africana religion in the digital age”; grantees Gregory Grieve and Beverley McGuire’s coauthored article on meditation apps and Buddhist mindfulness for The Conversation; and Stuart Sarbacker’s San Francisco Chronicle opinion essay on “second-wave psychedelic ethics,” which Dr. Sarbacker honed during an op/ed-writing workshop for grantees, led by Advisory Board member and Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Bob Sipchen.
The fact that human interaction turned entirely virtual last year seems very prescient on your part. How did COVID impact this research? Did the initiative adapt in any other ways?
In some ways the pandemic inconvenienced our initiative as everyone has been inconvenienced these past years. For instance, we had to move our last in-person conference to Zoom. I think I can speak for the grantees and other participants when I say that we felt the loss of being present with each other physically in the same spaces—the loss of the natural in-between moments in meetings, eye contact, casual conversations that can be as important and generative as the formal presentations themselves. At the same time, I’d say that the final PTTP conference felt alive and meaningful, stemming I think from the connections and collaborations that the grantees have established with each other over these past three years.
One benefit to PTTP happening during a pandemic is that the work has taken on new urgency and utility. The project of working toward meaningful human presence within technology rockets to the fore. Everyone feels the grief and possibility within technological shifts in presence, in varying ratios. PTTP projects can provide some tools for us as we think through and navigate these shifts. Especially useful is the grantees’ focus on the deep underlying questions, the spiritual and relational dilemmas underlying technologies’ surface-level uses and promises.
The pandemic has thrown us viscerally and experientially into the thick of these questions, into the social and spiritual grief and yearning. But the germ of the transition has been there all along.
In terms of applying PTTP insights to the COVID world, several grantees are collaborating on a project that they’re calling, “Prioritizing Presence in a Post-Pandemic World.” They will be publishing a White Paper on this theme in 2022, which will be available on the PTTP website.
Are there any projects that stuck out to you that you’d like to highlight?
It’s difficult to highlight particular projects given the breadth and depth of work that the grantees have undertaken. Their projects draw on the study and practice of Buddhism, Catholicism, Judaism, Hinduism, and Africana religions, among others, to address technologies such as cryptocurrency, artificial intelligence, human augmentation, surveillance technologies, video games, social media, and onward. The projects offer new and exciting insights into technologies’ impacts on human relationships, including on friendships, introspective abilities, sexual relationships, moral attentions, and capacities for relational authenticity.
I would suggest that people interested in exploring PTTP work, both completed and ongoing, should head over to the PTTP website. You might check out the many books and articles listed in the “Publications and Outputs” section, which includes both scholarly books and articles and grantee essays in popular outlets such as the New York Times, The Atlantic, Vox, Tricycle, Aeon, and the San Francisco Chronicle. For a window into PTTP conferences, check out the videotaped presentations featured in the website’s “Capstone Conference Presentations” section.
For professors and other educators interested in teaching about technology through the prism of religion scholarship, check PTTP’s “Pedagogy Project,” hosted on the website. This resource includes a series of podcast interviews with PTTP grantees about their pedagogical strategies for teaching these themes, along with syllabi for the courses they discuss. Educators may also be interested in grantee Kevin Healey’s PTTP-supported volume, coauthored with Robert Woods, Jr., Ethics and Religion in the Age of Social Media: Digital Proverbs for Responsible Citizens.
Where is your own work headed?
The PTTP initiative continues until the end of 2021, with some collaborative projects persisting into 2022. But my role as director and convener is ending. It’s been a deeply thought-provoking process—and I intend to keep returning to PTTP work as a font of inspiration and discourse.
My own work these days is particularly focused on the clinical. I’m a psychoanalyst with a psychotherapy private practice in the Bay Area.
My research and writing lives at the juncture of contemporary psychoanalysis, religious studies, and technology. I’ve lately been arguing for the benefit of attuned attention to spirituality in clinical work, especially to “spiritual but not religious” experience, which is surprisingly quiet in clinical settings. I have an article coming out shortly in Psychoanalytic Inquiry along these lines.
In my view there are meaningful points of contact between psychoanalysis and religious studies that can enrich our understanding of technologies’ deeper meanings and impacts. A talk I gave recently on a UC Berkeley panel, which I called “Spirituality and Psychotherapy in Technological Spaces,” suggests some of these directions.