BEE-LINE TO THE FUTURE: Papergadgets

Robert Bee
Robert Bee's picture

I’m fascinated by the intersection of ancient superstitions and modern technology. MIC gadget, which is a website about Chinese gadgets and life in contemporary China, posted an interesting article, “Chinese Families Burn Paper Gadgets to Honor the Dead” (http://micgadget.com/11949/chinese-families-burn-paper-gadgets-to-honor-...).
During Qingming Festival, people in China make sacrifices to their ancestors. They burn paper versions of money, luxury items, and electronic devices to honor their ancestors. One of the most popular paper devices is the iPad 2. The device is so coveted that the paper version often sells out forcing many people to burn paper iPad 1s because of the extensive demand for fake iPad 2s.
Imagine you’re in the afterlife, and you have to settle for the original, heavier, and slower iPad 1 because your lazy good for nothing son-in-law didn’t get to the fake electronics store before they sold out of the iPad 2. You would have to console yourself with haunting your living relatives until they placate you. You could float before them in your dead horror and moan, “Burn an iPad 2 for me! And a new MacBook Air paper laptop! And a Motorola Xoom in case Android takes off!”
Click through to MIC’s website; it’s filled with pictures of paper cell phones and other gadgets you can burn for the benefit of your deceased loved ones. You can buy a paper iPad and case as a set; you can burn a paper iPhone, a massage chair, or a flat screen TV. It’s a good idea to burn a paper dollhouse with decorated furniture so your deceased relatives will have a place to relax and live in the next life.
I’m not making fun of these traditions by the way; I find it bizarre and fascinating the way the human mind can contain within itself endless contradictions, simultaneously believing in modern science and ancient superstitions.
I would love to know how seriously the Chinese take this tradition. Do they burn iPads because it’s just a tradition, or they actually believe their ancestors will get a fancy iPad in the next life?
I’m also aware that these notions of the afterlife are common in many cultures. The Egyptians used to bury people with their favorite possessions and slaves so they would be comfortable in the afterlife. They even buried people with food so they would have something to eat when they crossed over.
This confluence between ancient religion and modern technology does not show up in enough SF, which tends to be a materialistic, scientific genre that sees religion as a morass of superstition blocking progress. Ian MacDonald is probably the only writer currently mining this type of material. MacDonald has recently set SF novels in near future Turkey, India, and Brazil, often showing the intersections between future technology and older belief systems. The fact that Macdonald treats religions like Hinduism as a complex source of ideas and culture rather than satirizing or dismissing them makes his SF quite vibrant.

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Robert Bee is a professional librarian and freelance writer operating out of New Jersey. He can be reached at rightrob@republibot.com

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