Designing reverent spaces in a tech driven future

Our reliance on personal tech means an increasingly irreverent, digital public life. But how can technology help aid us to design reverent spaces for meditation and remembrance? Jonathan Cohen, director of technology at experience design studio G&A, offers some ideas

Reverent or memorial spaces have been part of us forever. These places are crucial to cultural heritage and preservation, because they are where emotional, communal expressions of that culture exist.

When we feel loss or grief, a memorial space for loved ones provides a place where we can feel their presence, a tangible form for the intangible. When feeling uneasy or worried about the world, a place of worship brings validation and solace. When feeling thankful to a leader or pioneer who fought for our rights, a place for gathering brings honour and respect. Only a larger, artistic statement made in those spaces – a song, an experience, a ritual – helps us feel clarity, feel peace, feel redemption.

These sites are in the millions; many are older than recorded time. South Africa’s Rising Star Caves was a ritual burial site for a species of hominin called Homo naledi over 236,000 years ago. Some of the oldest found monuments called mustatils were built by communities in Ancient Northwest Arabia around 5,000 BC. Mecca, birthplace of the prophet Muhammad, is Islam’s most sacred space and pilgrimage for millions each year. The death camps of the Holocaust are now museums for studying cultural atrocities and diaspora. Mexico’s Día de los Muertos honours the dead with decorated altars called ofrendas. Ellis Island, Gettysburg, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the 9/11 Memorial, the Grand Canyon, and the Alamo are all reverent spaces intrinsic to American identity.

Although our personal tech and social media can interfere with real-world experience, people are no less reverent today than a thousand years ago, and we will always cherish these places.

Many of us are now conditioned to experience public life with our mobile devices: we see something interesting, pull out our phones, take a photo or video, post it (or don’t), and repeat. This cultural shift has been studied as pervasive and corrosive, culminating with the infamous rise of and backlash against Instagram Museums. Aside from mobile devices, institutions have often been reluctant to adopt new technology, such as interactive displays and interfaces, mobile integration, AR/VR, and now AI. Many fear tech will cheapen cultural experiences like museums or monuments.

But I’ve found the opposite. Advancing technology helps broaden the toolkit with which to build authentic reverent experiences.