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The prayer companion: openness and specificity, materiality and spirituality

Lookup NU author(s): Professor John Bowers, Emeritus Professor Pete Wright


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In this paper we describe the Prayer Companion, a device we developed as a resource for the spiritual activity of a group of cloistered nuns. The device displays a stream of information sourced from RSS news feeds and social networking sites to suggest possible topics for prayers. The nuns have engaged with the device enthusiastically over the first ten months of an ongoing deployment, and, notwithstanding some initial irritation with the balance of content, report that it plays a significant and continuing role in their prayer life. We discuss how we balanced specificity in the design with a degree of openness for interpretation to create a resource that the nuns could both understand and appropriate, describe the importance of materiality to the device's successful adoption, consider its implications as a design for older people, and reflect on the example it provides of how computation may serve spirituality.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Gaver W, Blythe M, Boucher A, Jarvis N, Bowers J, Wright P

Publication type: Conference Proceedings (inc. Abstract)

Publication status: Published

Conference Name: CHI '10: The SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems

Year of Conference: 2010

Pages: 2055-2064

Publisher: ACM New York, NY, USA


DOI: 10.1145/1753326.1753640

Notes: The Prayer Companion is a cruciform device with a small embedded screen which has been introduced into a monastery of nuns in York who have taken a vow of enclosure. Wirelessly networked to the Internet, it displays sentences from a wide range of global newsfeeds and from sites where people can relate their experiences and emotions. The Prayer Companion has resourced the nuns' prayers of intercession with reports of up-to-date events and concerns for more than four years. Bowers was part of the team who developed the Prayer Companion and was in particular responsible for software design and co-authorship of an academic paper concerning it. The Prayer Companion was exhibited in Talk to Me at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA, 24th July - 7th November 2011, after which it was acquired by MoMA as part of its permanent collection, and exhibited again in Born out of Necessity, 2nd March 2012 - 28th January 2013. MoMA’s Senior Curator has presented the Prayer Companion in a design conference keynote as a new direction for the design of digital devices. The Prayer Companion has also been shown at the National Media Museum: National Media Museum (NMeM), Bradford Life Online gallery, 27th November 2012 - 27th May 2013. The Prayer Companion appeared in design magazines Icon and Creative Review as well as attracting media publicity from The Guardian, BBC World Service, Reuters and the international Catholic publication The Tablet. The Prayer Companion has also been cited as a paradigmatic example of 'critical design'. The Prayer Companion was developed in the RCUK's New Dynamics of Ageing Programme and involved long-term engagement with communities of older people, culminating in the design of devices that benefited the participants immediately and also serve as landmarks in the fields of design for spirituality and older people.

Library holdings: Search Newcastle University Library for this item

Sponsor(s): Association of Computing Machinery

ISBN: 9781605589299