Books In Review

TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information

Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 93 (May 1999): 64-67.

The Archetypes in the Machine

TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information. By Erik Davis. Harmony. 368 pp. $25.

Reviewed by John J. Reilly

Early on in this fascinating survey of the spiritual dimension of cyberculture, Erik Davis observes that "the spiritual imagination seizes information technology for its own purposes." The spiritual imagination was not born yesterday; it is the ancient homeland of hermeticism, alchemy, and shamanism. Researchers into modern occultism have been astonished by the high percentage of their subjects who work in computer–related industries. It seems that these ancient ways of thinking work better in cyberspace, where consensual realities can be easily constructed. However, just because something is constructed does not mean that it is controlled. If you believe Davis, Hermes Trismegistus is the ruling spirit of the Internet. The god of communication is known to be a trickster.

The first principle of cyberculture is autonomy, for reasons that are more logical than mystical. That irritating prefix, "cyber," is derived from the Greek word for "pilot," and it can be applied to any kind of self–regulating system. The trick is just to use the output of the system, which is the system’s own behavior, for the new input that directs the system’s next action. Some such process of autonomous guidance underlies systems from self–regulating valves, as in flush toilets, to the autopilots on jet aircraft.

The paradigm case of a cybernetic control system is Adam Smith’s "Invisible Hand." Wages are inputs that determine consumer prices, which are inputs for material costs, which are inputs for wages, and good luck predicting what these linked loops will do. That is the other major point about cybernetic systems: simple though their components may be, their behavior quickly takes on a life of its own.

While purely mechanical systems can be self–regulating to some degree, cybernetic principles apply most thoroughly when only information is being manipulated. The Internet is the most conspicuous application of information theory today, though the author notes many other ways in which the "triumph of technique" so deplored by Jacques Ellul both antedated the Internet and provides the context in which it now operates. The spiritual techniques of G. I. Gurdjieff and of the Church of Scientology, for instance, which involve the close monitoring of subjective states in order to produce new states, have a strong cybernetic flavor. The significance of computers is that we now have technologies that let us externalize and share subjective states in ways that had not previously been possible. Computer networks, in effect, permit the creation of "public spaces" in which magic works.

The most colorful, and certainly the most harmless, example of a virtual world is a MUD, or Multi–User Dungeon. As the name implies, MUDers are people who are very interested in sword–and–sorcery fiction and who also have access to computer networks that can link them together in real time. Early MUDs were primitive affairs where the moves in a game appeared simply as text. The MUD program generates a narrative that prompts the players to choose from a set of possible actions. Choosing one, you type in the name of your opponent and the appropriate magic word. If you chose correctly, the MUD informs you that he has been turned into a frog. Your online persona, called an "avatar," can acquire powers and weapons as the game progresses. Finally, a player might join the demiurges (more prosaically known as "systems operators," or "sysops") who control the "laws" of the MUD world.

This cultivation of the imagination with the hope of affecting an intersubjective reality is exactly what ritual magicians do, and a surprising number of them choose to do it online. Technopaganism is, probably, a minor factor in the religious life of "meat space" (cyberspeak for the real world), but it is a characteristic feature of spiritual life online. Just as you can play games with other players online, so you can hold rituals in private chat rooms where you attempt to influence real pagan gods.

Technopagans actually rank among the conservatives of cyber religion. "Chaos wizards," by contrast, are as skeptical about traditional magic as they are about the physical sciences. Such persons do not strongly distinguish ceremonies conducted online from their private psychological exercises, making cyberspace and the imagination seamless. What makes all this of more than folkloric interest is that cyberspace seems to have much the same effect on any human activity conducted online, whether magic, economics, or politics.

Online communities tend to throw off whatever restraints the real world imposes on them. The Internet interprets regulation the way it would interpret physical damage to a node in the system: it finds a way to work around it. No wonder that the leading political philosophy among heavy Internet users should be libertarianism.

Online libertarianism rejects hierarchy, of course. A hierarchy is just a broadcast system, a primitive structure in which a single sender spreads information to passive receivers. The whole point of the Internet, in contrast, is that it is a network, where every point is equally sender and receiver. Online libertarianism also rejects democracy, at least to the extent that democracy implies government with coercive powers. Voluntary associations of network points may act together to keep the network running, but beyond that, government is illegitimate.

Davis is aware that "gnosticism" has become a cussword, and takes some care to distinguish the capitalized "Gnosis" of late antiquity from the gnostic–like movements of the spirit that have appeared in more recent times. Still, it is hard to find a better term to describe the total rejection, indeed the principled total rejection, of the restraints of society, God, and physics that flourishes online. The term "gnosticism" further commends itself because there are so few other kinds of ideology that occasion the literally cosmic paranoia often found on the Internet.

Gnostics of all sorts free themselves by identifying the hidden powers of this world that have sought to keep them deluded. The fact that some theory or report comes from a source without official authority actually recommends it, since official sources are part of the machinery of delusion. Before the Internet, such conjectures could spread only in an underground literature. Today, in contrast, anonymous rumors spread online instantly and universally. There are daily reports of terrorist conspiracies, of cover–ups of extraterrestrial contact, of UN troops being secretly stationed on American soil. However, there is nothing that the online world more dreads, or is more willing to credit, than the systematic use of mass psychology for the purposes of political control. In a purely mental world, after all, all control is thought control. The conspiracy theories most characteristic of online culture tend to impute the darkest spiritual wickedness to the conspirators.

Among the archetypical themes to which information culture gives new body, not least is the apocalypse. It should be emphasized that in this regard, as in many others, the content of the Internet is surprisingly conservative. There is more talk of the Second Coming of Christ than of any other eschatological event. However, even conventional premillennialism has a special flavor online. What amount to wire services have sprung up that do nothing but spread rumors of the Antichrist and reinterpret ordinary news as "signs of the times." Also, there are forms of the eschatological imagination that seem to have been waiting for the Internet to come along.

Teilhard de Chardin has become the patron saint of philosophers of the virtual world. His notion of a "noosphere," the region of mind just as the biosphere is the region of life, really does bear a striking resemblance to the Internet. (Teilhard shared Henri Bergson’s doubts about the equivalence of thought and information, but that is often overlooked.) Teilhard’s theology of history has more than a little to do with the widespread belief that the virtual world is moving toward a Singularity in the next century. Like Teilhard’s Omega Point but without the Christian gloss, the Singularity will absorb the material world and end history as we have known it.

Another variation on the gnostic theme has been taken up by people who call themselves "Extropians" or "Transhumanists." They embrace the idea that the mind is just a computer made out of meat. The destiny of the species, they say, is to have the brains of its members turned into information and uploaded into the pleroma of the Internet. Thus they hope to become ghosts in the world machine.

Discussions of the Internet are prone to more than their share of hype and scary stuff. Davis quotes Marshall McLuhan to the effect that artificial information environments are the mystical body of Antichrist. Davis himself says that "Every phase of human development has its dark side, but the midnight face of technological globalization is as black as pitch." On the other hand, Davis is also quite aware that the Internet as we know it today is less a new frontier than a strip–mall with bad zoning. Despite its claims of perfect autonomy our newly wired world is really part of a larger episode in intellectual history. Noting the peculiar aptness of the Internet to postmodern analysis, Davis observes: "The fact that Parisian intellectuals and the new machines were unknowingly moving in tandem is itself evidence of the larger choreographies of history that such theorists deny."

Cybergnosticism is even more futile than earlier gnosticisms. The point of gnosticism is freedom from constraints, but the essence of cyber–technology is that any self–regulating system soon develops unexpected properties of its own. If you flee from the familiar bonds of matter, you will soon become enmeshed in unexpected structures of logic. That, I take it, is the meaning of the sentence with which TechGnosis ends: "Prometheus is hell–bent in the cockpit, but Hermes has snuck into Mission Control, and the matrix is ablaze with entangling tongues."

John J. Reilly is a member of the Center of Millennial Studies at Boston University. He is the author, most recently, of The Perennial Apocalypse (Online Originals,