Physicality for Digital Ritual

The Lost Ritual of the Physical

Social ritual is largely lost in the digital scenarios.

For example, the ritual of lending/borrowing physical books is lost in the digital scenario. So are the resulting mutual appreciation and social intimacy.

When you lend an eBook to me, the act of kindness or friendship is barely visible. The very physicality of your handing me the book  (and my taking it over) is the ritual quality that realizes your intention and my appreciation. It’s part of our mutual understanding of being and becoming in that social interaction.

When the acts of virtuous social intention are difficult to see and experience, the intended cultural effects deteriorate in profound ways. Emails are subtly more insensitive and inhumane; gameplay is much less a social activity; words of love and hate are casually abused; sometimes we simply monologize more and communicate less.

I miss that ritual, whose social and cultural value contributes to the integrity of social interactions.

Why don’t / can’t we have the digital equivalent of that physical ritual – a digital ritual that reprises the value-adding physicality?


The Challenges of Digital Ritual

There are at least three challenges to creating digital rituals:

  1. The functional sequence no longer happens in real time
  2. The digital medium creates a level of indirection. It becomes a mediator between you and me – the participants of the ritual. The immediacy of the social interaction is weakened. TODO: The physical ritual involves two parties (you and me) with one bi-directional relation; the digital ritual involves three parties (you, me, and the digital medium) with three bi-directional relations.
  3. Our strive for convenience can often hinder the good intentions (as well as the humane side of concerns)


  1. We need to design the digital ritual with the time discrepancy in mind.
  2. We need to design the digital medium into the ritual itself, as a third participant.
  3. We need to design to nudge people to the more humane interactions.


Bringing Physicality Back to Digital Ritual

Here are some clues to the approaches we could take:

1. Digital agent as a ‘first-class citizen’

Digital ritual can easily be and often is asynchronous – where you and me are not interacting in an instant, linear manner. We rely on the digital medium, say a website or app, to help connect and streamline our ritual sequence.

The issue is that, when not designed properly, the social benefit of the ritual could be disrupted or eliminated by the inhuman way the medium handles the interactions.

Therefore, we need to treat the digital medium as a third entity that acts as a mediator between the two receiving nodes – you and me – of the interaction.

It needs to interact and communicate with both ends of the ritual in a humane way.

Regarding the medium itself as a third entity (a digital agent, often with AI capability nowadays) helps us elaborate further on how we can make it more humane.

A chatbot represents, while an input form only presents.

Sometimes bringing in the middleman helps.

2. Ritual by design

The digital interactions needed to complete the action demand a ritual experience.

Gesture based human-computer interfaces (either on a 2D touchscreen or a 3D environment) provide a much richer foundation for rituals.

3. Digital nudge

Let the interaction become as personal as possible, with a more humane touch.

Facilitate the interactions by promoting the use or realization of social/cultural motifs.

For example, by default, prompt and encourage the user to write a personal message before digital lending/sending/borrowing, and tweak the rhetorics and tone to justify or reassure the actions:

“You’re about to lend your book XXX to Julia,
please leave a personal message to her

(just so she knows it’s not your cat
or your careless auntie)”

[Audio Message]
[Video Message]
[Text Message]

And Julia at the receiving end could get something like this:

“Noah has lent you his book XXX
with a personal video message”

[ready-to-play video section]

All those details matter. They are the cues and clues to more humane interactions.



Being digital is not just about being virtual. As we have more digital interactions, social and cultural rituals are becoming more important for us to sustain the humane touch and to keep social interactions sane and harmonious.

Physicality can be implemented in digital rituals. Start from attending to details.

Technology can’t be humane, but it can keep us humans so.



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