Digital Cults: Reboot Your Epiphanies

In the 19th century, the populations from Melanesia saw a bunch of ships, with white people on board, carrying a lot of goods, called, generically, cargos. In their culture, white was also the colour of the dead people, so they assumed that those ships were the ships of the dead, returning their deserved goods. And the colonists quickly realised that they were treated like mithological characters. So was born one of the most recent religions, called cargo-cult.

A religious movement doesn’t necessarily have to be old. It can be as effective as an old one, if it correctly replaces and enhances (sometimes) the need for catharsis. An epiphany can be a momentarily lost of conscience at a rock concert, or even a happiness boost from a family reunion. As long as it touches your inner chords and make them sing, it does the job.

In a world where the actual spiritual connection has lost its privileged space – the church – the epiphanies are held in a digital space and form. On the internet, at the computer, by holding your BlackBerry or Palm. As long as it touches your inner chords and make them sing.

I am not talking about those well-known cults that are using the digital media to gather followers, featuring TV shows of priests, gurus, and so on. Those are traditionals religions. I am talking about movements or so-called organisations that most of the time doesn’t even know that they are acting on a religious field. The Open Source fans. The Linux movement. The Apple fans. The GTD followers. To name only a few.

Wow, this guy is losing it! I heard you :-). Well, maybe. Or maybe not. All those organisations shares specific characteristics, that make them candidates for a digital cult.

They have a mythical beginning. The Linux community have that 1991 post on minix group. The Apple fans have the Lisa computer built into “Steve Jobs’ garage”. The GTD have an “Old Testament” called “Getting Things Done” by David Allen. The Open Source fans have the GNU general public License written in 1989 by Richard Stallman. All those movememnts relies on a specific historical moment, when “it all began”. This is a very common treat in all religions, and accounts for the “hyatus” or “breaking with the past” moment, that all religions must have, in order to actually give something new to the world. By precisely locating in time those moments of the beginning, the followers of the digital cults are creating a personal, parallel, and sacral history.

They all have a prophet. They don’t know that they are prophets, and most of the time they don’t act like ones. But they are perceived like prophets by the followers. Richard Stallman, Linus Torvalds, Steve Jobs or David Allen. They are the guys that holds the connection to the sacral world that they promised, described, and, finally, offered to the followers. Each word and attitude of those digital prophets makes history and creates rituals. Not always, but most of the time.

And, of course, the prophets have ministers. Alan Cox was one of the maintainers of the Linux kernel, and he is an ardent supporter for the Linux movement. Merlin Mann from is one of the best known followers of the GTD methodology. Each movement creates liders that become famous for their contribution to the original system. Sometimes they become even more famous than the original prophets…

They all have epiphanies. Epiphanies are seldom the same. But they give to the follower a sense of freedom, a glimpse of happiness and identitiy, and, finally, a short slice of catharsis. Between a fresh Linux release and a new iPod launch there is no much of a difference. They both makes the eager fan happy. Period. By giving, in the form of a digital stream, or digital tool, or process, what they promises: a new release, a new gadget, a new podcast with the creator of the system, those epiphanies are actual steps towards the redemption of the follower. Epiphanies may be consumed on popular media, such was the iPhone launch, or just by neutral torrents, that pours bit by bit, the new release of a Linux kernel into one’s hard-disk. Or you can just hear them, on your iPod, if they are podcasts. Some digital cults establish rules for their epiphanies: “release early and often” is the Fedora line for a continuous and rythmic ritual. Some are just using advertisments or other form of continous communication. But for all of them, having cyclic epiphanies in form of a virtual or real gathering and sharing, is a key component.

And, finally, they all give redemption to the followers. Meaning they free the followers from a sin. And by sin I understand the lack of productivity (GTD), the use of unappropriate software for the job (Linux or Apple), or any other form of unhappiness that followers may have. There is an obvious problem that each system solves. This is why they become popular, because they account for something that needs to be solved on a larger scale. Or, even better, redemption can be the gain of a new identitiy, see the gadget-related religions, like iPod, Blackberry, or other devices. Wearing one of them makes you a different person. Really.

Day by day, in a society where religion tends to be confused with history, and the real benefit of it (epiphanies and redemption), confused with empty rituals performed yearly (if so), the digital cults had becomed the most subtle and powerful religion act. Day by day, we reboot our epiphanies, hoping for – and having, most of the time – th redemption that they promise. Here and now.

[tags]religion, digital cults, linux, apple, gtd, epiphany[/tags]

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