One View personal essay

Me, Myself, and iPod

Technology’s impact on religion.     

By Rachel Wagner

How we communicate and interact with one another is rapidly changing. Thus, how we experience religion and understand our individual selves in relationship to religion is also immersed in a deep paradigm shift. Technology, it seems, 
is playing an important role in this transformation.

Today, spiritual questing is 
largely a personal matter, shaped 
by individual desire and curiosity — and can often be undertaken online. The modern 
religious quest may be influenced as much by media as 
by religious authority. Today’s 
religiously minded person can become a sort of “bricoleur,” influenced by religious perspectives from a host of options gathered online and via conversation with others that 
reflect his or her current desires, 
preferences, and activities. You can learn something about others by asking them what they watch, what they stream, and even what 
links they post on blogs or social media 
pages. Our identities are in many ways as fluid and “streaming” as the mobile devices we carry. 

The iPod, then, and devices like it, may be viewed as an apt (app) model for the contemporary hybrid, wired, and plural self. An iPod contains within it a number of different applications, or “apps,” chosen by the owner, which presumably reflect in a palpable way the identity formation work of the owner.

In terms of religious identity, there are apps 
that offer digital props for religious rituals — for example, apps with digital prayer beads. There are apps that replicate actual religious 
rituals such as the Catholic Stations of the Cross. There are apps for engagement with sacred texts such as the “Bible Shaker” app that works somewhat like a digital religious eightball, offering random passages related loosely to user-input themes. There are communication apps such as the app for delivering prayers to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, as well as an app to “text” God. There are apps that utilize GPS technology 
to locate the most precise direction of Mecca or Jerusalem. Other apps provide additional 
support by noting appropriate times for prayer recitation, ritual, or other activities. 
The selection of these apps can be seen as 
a form of religious, if not also ritualistic, 
activity — a sort of lived metaphor of self-programming. The problematic implications of such self-designed religious identity for 
mainstream institutionalized religious authority are obvious.

Today’s media market is permeated by more and more of these options for consumption. By picking and choosing from what’s being offered, we continually create and recreate ourselves. The religious self is constantly engaging, weighing, processing, accepting, or rejecting religious and identity-shaping ideas that flow to and through it, much as programs flow through digital systems. This fluidity of self is also reflected in the many modes of identity (avatar) 
crafting and representation we engage in online in our games, online worlds, virtual personas, even our Facebook pages. These are overlapping “digital masks” that reveal things about us at the same time that they hide other parts of who we are.

Some scholars of religious 
dialogue might prefer us to run one application as our primary operating system (Christianity or Buddhism, for example) and utilize the others only from within this preprogrammed framework. However, the technology itself invites no favorites. Religion today is as fluid as the technology we use, whether we like it or not. And the constructed “iPod selves” that we craft to encounter various religions (or media items, or other people’s digital selves) refuse to be static, requiring of us constant critical engagement and self-inquiry. Religion will never be the same again.


Rachel Wagner is an assistant professor of religion. 
Her newest book, Godwired: Religion, Ritual, and Virtual Reality (Routledge) explores the intersection of religious studies and virtual reality. It is expected to be published in 2011.