Can Algorithms Satisfy the Human Need for Ritual?

The Startup Wife, a buzzy new novel, has been hailed as a serious exploration of modern spirituality. All it explores is a tech-fantasy of hyper-individualism and personal fulfillment.

Aug. 24 2021
About the author

Tara Isabella Burton is the author of Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World and the forthcoming Self-Made: Creating Our Identities from Da Vinci to the Kardashians. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The New York Times, National Geographic​Granta, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal.

In the British philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch’s 1985 novel The Good Apprentice, one of the book’s central characters, Stuart Cuno, is consumed by a single, central question: what does it mean to live meaningfully, richly, fully in a world where God does not seem to exist? “He just sits wrestling with himself,” Stuart’s father laments, “wondering what the purehearted young idealist does now.” He cannot be a soldier, the father laughs; he cannot be a priest. Rather: “He wants to be like Job, always in the wrong before God, only he’s got to do it without God.” Like many of the characters in Murdoch’s 26 novels, Stuart is obsessed, even addicted to, the idea of meaning: constantly balancing his desire to lead a good life with an aesthetic hunger for extremity: the desire to be the kind of character who lives in a world just a little bit richer, just a little bit more enchanted, than that of the bourgeois social order around him.

This question—how do we live a meaningful life in a seemingly godless world—seems even more pertinent now than it did during Murdoch’s lifetime. In America, at least, about a quarter of the population identifies as having no religious affiliation whatsoever; as many as 36 percent of young millennials and members of Generation Z feel the same way. As the philosopher Charles Taylor writes in A Secular Age, we have moved from “a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others.”

That’s not to say that our era—in America, at least—is secular, at least not in the sense colloquially used. (It’s worth noting that 72 percent of the self-proclaimed religiously unaffiliated do report believing in a higher power). Rather, what we have seen in the past few decades in a seismic shift in the kind of religion people are seeking out, the precise way in which they absorb, reimagine, and create new ideas of meaning, along with the rituals and (less often) communities to sustain them. As I write in my book, Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World, the predominant element of American religious culture is not a loss of faith but rather its transmogrification from an organized, institutional phenomenon to a more individualistic, intuition-based model. People are still as hungry for religion as ever—that hunger just looks a little different from the way it used to.

Meaning, purpose, ritual, community: all these traditional building blocks of organized religion are now raw content to be re-interpreted. In the past few decades—and, particularly, in the wake of the development of contemporary Internet culture, defined as it is by its emphasis on algorithmically motivated bespoke “curation,” religion has become less a locus of self-denial and more a site of self-creation: a place where we can mix and match from various spiritual and religious traditions (Tarot, yoga, witchcraft, wellness culture) in order to create emotionally, aesthetically, and spiritually fulfilling experiences: experiences that resonate with us.

This shift is predicated on two basic assumptions about human nature, assumptions encoded not just in contemporary online discourse but in the philosophical underpinnings of modern liberalism. The first is that we are at our core the ultimate arbiters of our own experiences: that we can rely on our own powers, whether of reason or emotion, to tell us what is true about the world and how to live. The second, intertwined with it, is that custom, culture, tradition—those established bodies that threaten to encroach upon our autonomy—are suspicious at best, and downright noxious at worst: we are least ourselves when we allow ourselves to be formed by other people. These attitudes have always had particular free reign in American religious discourse—society, for the 19th-century Transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, was nothing but a “conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members,” a “joint-stock company, in which the members agree . . . to surrender . . . liberty and culture.” But in the post-Internet landscape, they’ve taken on a particularly consumerist tilt: self-creation—through the judicious arrangement of our lives, including our moral and spiritual lives, around our affinities and desires—is the pathway to enlightenment. Faith, in this paradigm, is just one commodity to be bought and sold in the marketplace of experiences.


Few novels seem better placed to explore this new takeover of our spiritual lives than The Startup Wife, the buzzy new book by the former Granta Best Young British Novelist Tahmima Anam. Among the best-reviewed novels of summer 2021, The Startup Wife was hailed by Vogue as “a wise and wickedly funny novel about love, creativity, and the limitations of the tech-verse,” by Good Morning America‘s book club as “a whip-smart, funny, and searing look at the wild world of startups,” and by Publisher’s Weekly, in a rare starred review, as “spectacular, . . . a powerful statement on the consequences of public achievement on private happiness.” The book takes as its premise the unsettling, and sometimes dystopian, promise that underscores our new spiritual marketplace: what if someone made an app complex enough to design new, bespoke religious rituals for every single user? Or, to get at the heart of the novel’s premise: what if someone designed God as a service?

That’s precisely what the protagonists of The Startup Wife—two besotted newlyweds as in love with their dreams as with each other—are trying to do. Together, the romantically bohemian drifter Cyrus Jones and the hotshot coder Asha Ray, the narrator of the book, partner up with a mysterious incubator space called Utopia to found a start-up, called We Are Infinite (WAI), that uses Asha’s algorithms to help users craft hyper-specific, quasi-religious rituals to serve their every emotional need. The first user to try out WAI, a non-Jewish woman in search of a secular bar mitzvah-style ceremony to mark her son’s life, gets a ritual generated to incorporate her love of Daft Punk and traveling in Australia. Other users get a wedding for turtles, or a Ouija-board “resurrection” ceremony for Catholic fans of A.S. Byatt’s novel Possession; there are custom weddings, funerals, celebrations of birth and family.

The plausibility of the plot of Anam’s novel is predicated on two assumptions. The first is that, in this secular modern age of ours, people will still search for ways to gather and find meaning, so that an app like WAI could actually take off and make its founder into something of a modern messiah. The second, and far more unsettling assumption—all the more so for never being truly examined—is that making meaning into a consumer product requires a kind of divinization of the self. This implies the creation of communities and identity around affinities that are not so different from naked acquisitive desire. Certainly Asha, who came up with the idea for WAI first, sees the app as primarily a way to make rituals out of desires rather than a means by which those desires can be shaped or channeled into something higher.

Her account of this realization is telling. “In the morning,” Asha says, “I casually suggested to Cyrus that we should start a platform that allowed people without religion to practice a form of faith. I said I would customize the Empathy Module algorithm to create rituals around the things that people loved: their hobbies, their obsessions, their favorite characters in their favorite books. It would pull from history, from novels, from poetry and witchcraft. People could form micro-communities around their interests, and in this age of emptiness, it would give them a kind of virtual parish.”

All this is clever enough; Anam reads the trendlines. Yet what is striking, even unsettling, about The Startup Wife is its near-total lack of interest in the obvious question surrounding any discussion of human desires: is what we want good for us?

The Startup Wife is a novel that repeatedly demonstrates all the ways that our desires are bad for us, that what we think we want often leads us into alienated despair. And yet, perplexingly, The Startup Wife never fully seems aware that this is the story it’s telling. The main thrust of the narrative—and the one most often praised by reviewers—is that of feminist triumph over both racism and sexism: Asha, who is both female and South Asian, is continually overlooked by investors and the media alike in favor of her white, male husband, only to take her rightful place in the boardroom at the novel’s end.

Though well-meaning, we learn, Cyrus is weak, unwilling or unable to follow Asha’s consistently superior ideas, a moral failing that ultimately leads to the dissolution of both their business partnership and their marriage. It is a story, in other words, composed of capitalist-feminist bromides—a kind of lean-in, I’m-with-her style girlboss thinking that reads as dated even by the intentionally un-cutting-edge standards of chick lit.

Equal parts fulfillment fantasy and tech-world satire, The Startup Wife is predicated on the notion that the happiest possible ending is one that sees our heroine in a C-Suite. At its core, The Startup Wife is a novel about how someone gets exactly what she wants—to be, functionally, a global messiah presiding over the world’s largest culture—and about how this is in fact a moral triumph. As a result, The Startup Wife is more successful at revealing the moral and spiritual emptiness of our current era than in investigating any genuine form of idealism.

Asha, we learn early on, is someone we’re meant to root for. She is an underdog: the child of working-class Bangladeshi immigrants, mocked in high school for her “smelly” lunches. She is brilliant to the point of hyperbole (“Cyrus likes to call me the Coding Queen of Brattle Street, but right now Cambridge and my graduate school lab seem totally irrelevant,” Asha tells us early on; elsewhere someone reminds her, seemingly for the reader’s benefit, “you morphed into a cross between Snow White and Iron Man.”) She has all the right political opinions: in one passage, in which Asha meets a beautiful woman she worries might try to abscond with Cyrus’s affections, she cycles through them quickly: “When I see her I am immediately gripped by paranoia, imagining it’ll only be a matter of time before she and Cy screw each other’s brains out. Then I scold myself for a) doubting Cyrus, b) being unsisterly and assuming that all women are out to fuck each other over, c) making a kind of heteronormative assumption about Li Ann’s sexuality, and d) ruining the first day of my exciting new life. I get a grip and try to enjoy the moment.”

Yet the implicit narrative demand to root for Asha, as the novel goes on, requires us to buy into a system of capitalist fetishization of self-making that seems poised to be as bad for Asha as it is for, well, everyone else. Asha and Cyrus talk often about “remaking the world.” But the more we get into Asha’s head, the more it seems evident that Asha is less interested in remaking the world than simply ascending to the top of it. Her sense of self—including her love for her husband—is predicated entirely on external signifiers of social success. Her quick marriage to Cyrus—her high-school crush, the popular boy who never noticed the girl with the “smelly lunches”—reads as an attempt to legitimize her transformed self-understanding.

“The metamorphosis was this,” Asha tells us. “I was no longer the awkward new kid at school with the smelly lunchbox. I had taken the heaviness of my childhood—the story of my parents and their exile and those years above the pharmacy and all the striving I had to swallow—and I had turned it into fire-breathing. I was clever and awesome and, despite my less-than-stellar performance in Dr. Stein’s lab, beginning to understand my powers. This is the me that Cyrus met for the second time.” In other words, Cyrus is only ever, like the rituals she and he design together, a commodity: the happy ending that apotheosizes Asha’s personal brand as a successful woman who has it all.

It’s telling that, although The Startup Wife traces the rise and fall of WAI, Anam has little interest in the actual rituals of the organization—nor in the people who find meaning in them. (Asha, for what it’s worth, rarely seems interested in the rituals themselves; her interest in the project is always tied to its reflection of her husband’s genius). Indeed, the novel is rarely interested in other people at all, either as a historical collective or as a set of distinct consciousnesses outside of Asha’s mental aegis. Rather, The Startup Wife remains, stubbornly, a story about individual success, about female empowerment, and the triumph of a single dedicated heroine over a system she’s more interested in reshuffling than revolting against.

There is a version of The Startup Wife that could work: a version of the novel that leans into its heroine’s sheer capitalistic derangement, celebrating and parodying a boardroom Becky Sharp. Asha as anti-heroine, a woman whose solipsistic insistence on having-it-all transforms both her personal and professional life into a deranged apotheosis of contemporary best-self-ism. That novel, sometimes implicit within The Startup Wife as it actually exists, might well have the thematic heft and ironic distance to throw our “age of emptiness,” as Asha calls it, into relief. It would be a version of The Startup Wife that doesn’t want us to root for Asha but to fear her.

Alas, for whatever reason, The Startup Wife keeps bringing us back to the conventional, demanding that we see Asha as at worst the slightly flawed heroine of the romantic comedy (whose chief demerit, furthermore, is not having enough self-confidence), demanding that we elide or ignore her most interesting, yet most problematic qualities, which are the qualities that actually suggest something troubling about a society governed by desire, in which what we want shapes in turn whom we are trying to be. Asha remains a go-getter heroine; the novel’s villains are not internal to Asha’s troubled and contradictory desires but rather targets so easy and broadly-drawn they might as well be replaced wholesale with apposite description: sexist tech bros, the hapless-yet-overvalued white boy genius.

Thus, in an offensively on-the-nose eleventh-hour twist, the coronavirus pandemic kicks the global need for ritual into overdrive, a suitably chastened Cyrus hands over the reins of the company to Asha— telling the world there is “no better person” to guide WAI through the months of devastation to come—who promptly takes unimaginable global power as her proper due and easily dispenses with her husband along the way.

“The world is no longer a safe place—where will he go?,” Asha asks herself, wondering if maybe breaking up her with her fully repentant husband at the start of a pandemic might be a bad idea. “He should be here. I should let him stay. But I give myself the gift of not doing that. Instead, I allow him to make his way downstairs, to walk out of the building and onto the street.” Her ending is one of lurid empowerment: she “move[s] toward a future—uncertain and unknown—and of my own making.” Asha’s happy ending, a fantasy of hyper-individualism in which a pandemic is the catalyst for personal economic fulfillment, is a grotesque distortion of the liberal dream.


No book is required, of course, to be as morally serious as, say, the novels of Iris Murdoch—and, in its defense, The Startup Wife isn’t necessarily trying to rise above its breezy packaging. But The Startup Wife isn’t just unserious, it’s actively, even offensively, anti-serious. It insists that it’s telling a story about female empowerment, about marital conflict and the sexism of the boardroom, stories in which our desires and longings are only ever good, and in which the villains are only ever the beings that get in our way. It takes a compelling premise—the creation of a new world religion—and then ignores that and its implications completely, demanding instead that we spend much of the novel focusing on the individual creator even as millions of people within the novel’s world fall underneath WAI’s spell.

That the creator’s desires remain uninvestigated makes that choice of perspective even more unsettling. The Startup Wife operates on the assumption that its main characters have no inner life, have no moral hunger, have no genuine curiosity in meaning, even as its plot rests on the (rather more plausible) assumption that the human desire for the good life is palpable enough to sustain a global phenomenon. Most dystopias feature human beings in nightmarish circumstances; this particular dystopia extends to the imagining of human beings themselves: treating them without irony as mere cogs in the machine of Asha’s personal fulfillment.

Early on in the novel, shortly after making love, Asha and Cyrus joke about starting their own religion, one predicated on their desire for one another. “How about we just worship each other forever?” they say. The Startup Wife suggests Asha would be better off worshipping herself instead. In that, at least, Anam has captured something of the spirit of the age.

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