Monday, February 11, 2013

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

Book Review: TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information By Erik Davis (Harmony Books 1998, updated 2nd Ed. 2004)

This book was an interesting ride through the realm of “techno-mysticism”, pop culture, and the history of our mythic engagement with technology. It is a thick tome often overly wordy and at times too poetically hip – but it does provide a rather thorough and detailed examination of the topics. He covers quite a lot of ground. Davis seems to jump around quite a bit then near the end of the book he mentions that he did that on purpose to fragment the info like parsed up html code. There are quite a few memorable quotes here – I will try to find a few for this review.

Early in the book he mentions man as the creator (of technologies) – homo faber, and suggests that all culture is techno-culture. He suggests Hermes as the most appropriate deity-symbol of the technology of communication – the main topic of the book. Of course, Hermes is a trickster:

“As I announced in the outset, technology is a trickster. We blame technologies for things that arise from our social structures, and skewed priorities; we expect magic satisfactions from machines that they simply cannot provide; and we remain consistently hoodwinked by their unintended consequences.”

Hermes is a master of stealth and a thief. He relies on his cunning as tricksters do. Davis sees Apollo as a god of pure science but Hermes as a god of technological innovation whose sacred place is the crossroads (likened to the node of a network). Crossroads, village borders, and household doorways were marked with a herm, a rectangular pole with the head of Hermes atop it often accompanied by an erect phallus. Here offerings were left but also stolen as it was considered good luck to steal them. Later it is thought that the herms became like bulletin boards – places where information was passed along – like communication nodes – thus the word trivia comes from “three roads”. The crossroads or border areas were liminal zones and early trade was ambiguous with the lines blurred between gift, magic, barter, and theft. Later as trade became more institutionalized Hermes became “he of the Agora” and he became patron of merchants. Davis also sees the internet as a liminal crossroads where magic is possible. He notes that the trickery and techno savvy of Hermes are the same impulse. Later, in the Hellenistic city of Alexandria, Hermes would combine with the Egyptian Thoth to become ‘the divine engineer’. Apparently, Alexandria was a city of technological achievements. Here even the popular mystery cults infused with esotericism were technologized with gadgets such as animated statues. One such innovating engineer was named Heron. Apparently, the religious and philosophical pluralism of Alexandria was so numerous that people could be overwhelmed with choices in settling down to a portfolio – a bit like today perhaps. Gods were combined and re-tooled in various ways. The hybrid Hermes Trismegistus is thought to be such a hybrid but was considered to be a man rather than a god. This legendary figure was ascribed technological powers and lived on in later Arabian Islamic Alchemy traditions as the originator of the lineage. An Arabian utopian magical tome called the Picatrix examines some of his attributes. In legend, it was the Egyptian Thoth who brought forth the first big technology, the machine of writing.

Socrates and Plato both wrote of this noting the blessing and curse aspects of the technology of writing. Indeed throughout this book we are confronted with the ambivalence of technology with its pros and cons of both improving and degrading life. Two themes that pervade throughout are utopia and its inversion dystopia. Writing and language have often been associated with magic and has been noted as a form of animism as we ascribe recognized symbolic powers to words. Alphabetic writing allowed for cultural changes, greater self-analysis and information transfer, and more detailed trade accounting. It became the most practical code. Plato was strongly influenced by it and in turn strongly influenced civilization through his writings. The Greek alphabet was the first to capture the nuances of vowels as the previous Canaanite/Phoenician versions stuck with consonants. Perhaps it was the growing prominence of the alphabet and written language dialogue that aided the transition from mythological-based metaphysics to philosophical-based metaphysics. Earlier, in stories among the Mesopotamians and Jews the written clay tablet was a fetishized object of magical power. Clay tablets gave way to papyrus and scrolls and eventually the practical codex (used among the early Christian Gnostics) which became the book. The technology of transmutation, an alchemy of the soul leading to gnosis, pervades the Platonic Corpus Hermeticum, a text from the 2nd to 4th century C.E. attributed to Hermes Trismegistus. The later re-introduction of texts like these exposed the new ideas that fueled the Renaissance. Neo-Platonism ruled again for awhile until it was overthrown by the mechanistic view of the universe favored and/or explained by such as Newton, Descartes, and perhaps Galileo. But magic did not disappear. It simply took up new forms to adapt to changing times.

The alchemical fire later became quantifiable energy and as the structure and function of electricity became known it found a new home. The author waxes much about what he calls the “electronic imaginary” exemplified by the synching of external and internal energies. In the 18th and 19th centuries electricity and magic manifested in various ways – animal magnetism, Mesmerism, hypnotism, etc. The experiments of Maxwell and Faraday confirmed the presence of “electromagnetic fields”. This formed a scientific basis for a relationship between matter and spirit, a concern of the so-called Gnostic cosmologies of the ancient Hellenistic Middle and Near East. Madame Blavatsky and the Theosophists embraced this connection and so a marriage of spiritual theory and speculative science was consummated. This continues into modern times in New Age doctrines. Medical theories based on a “vital power” would also proliferate as well as connect ancient doctrines with very similar ideas. Reich’s “orgonne” energy, Chinese “chi”, and Indian “prana” are a few of many examples. The magic of electricity began to show technological result with the telegraph. Now we could send messages over vast distances in a short amount of time. Marshall McLuhan in his book Understanding Media notes that this is the point where our nervous system began to be externalized but is also the advent of the Age of Anxiety. Indeed the author refers to McLuhan many times in the book and his theme of technology as a double-edged sword. The interplay of thoughts of utopia and dread does some to be a feature of technology and its corresponding anxiety. 19th century Spiritualism was connected to concepts of electricity early on and continues today in the form of clubs that investigate ghosts and paranormal activity with electronic devices. Then came the fear of electronic surveillance, electrocution of criminals, electronic weapons, the possibility of electronic communication with extraterrestrials, and more electronic utopia as home electricity, telephones, and radio and electronic music were born. Tesla was an electrical genius who invented many things and envisioned others like a resonant universal energy that has yet to happen. He also contemplated the potential for abuse of such powers.

Next we come to the story of so-called Gnosticism, a mystical mix of Christianity with components of Platonism, Hermeticism, and Judaism. There have been several attempts to connect the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Gnostic texts in 1945 to the end of World War II and the potential destruction of earth via nuclear weapons but I see these as mostly speculative apocalyptic nonsense. World events, esotericism, prophecies, discoveries, and conspiracy theory have long been linked in the speculative mind.

Davis refers to the 20th century as the Mythinformation Age – where was born the recognition of information as power and its subsequent quantification and packaging for sale. In the 1940’s came “information theory”, “an abstract technical analysis of messages and communication.” With its notions of coding, decoding, embedding,  probability, bandwidth, noise, and signal integrity – Information Theory was a “Big Idea” that paved the way to the more efficient and specific detailed signal paths and communication required in the Computer Age. Other Big Ideas like Chaos Theory and Complexity Theory also offer new ways to understand things that may have technological implications. The discovery of DNA and the genetic code in the 1950’s provided further analogy and example of the importance of information in biology. Life processes information.

The Gnostic/Hermetic symbol of the snake swallowing its tail – the Oroboros, is representative of the self-perpetuating cyclicity of nature. It can also represent the feedback loop, a key concept in systems theory and cybernetics. The father of cybernetics, Norbert Weiner, favored process over form, function over structure, as a better engineering model. Thus were blurred the lines between man and machine, between nature and artifice. Cognitive science, AI, complexity theory, and newer functional ideas like the study of networks have built upon the foundation of cybernetics. All of these tend to discover and examine patterns of information. Indeed pattern recognition is a big factor in sensual reality, as it was often necessary for survival. Perhaps there is even a feedback loop between evolving and recognizing pattern. In any case, cybernetics emphasized that both living beings and machines can be analyzed as systems of information flow.

Both Plato and the Gnostics wrote of the demiurge, the creator-god and Gnostic cosmology highlighted his morally indifferent ministers, the archons. These archons later became associated with shadowy figures behind the scenes, especially among conspiracy theorists, UFO cults, and New Age whackos. The Manichaean battle between Light and Dark, Good and Evil, has long been a part of Gnostic thought, and continues in the more paranoid circles. Augustine tried to put such ideas to rest when he declared that all was according to God’s plan and salvation was through God’s grace alone. Incidentally, his revelation came through a bibliomancy, opening a book randomly for divinatory purposes. The Gnostic notion of the Logos, the divine symbol, or Jesus as the great word, certainly suggests the subconscious reverence for the power of language and communication.  

Davis makes an interesting foray into the idea of early America as a place of frontiers to be tamed. He suggests that the American self is a gnostic self and that the new American secular freedoms enshrined in the Constitution and Bill of Rights exalt knowledge and freedom over belief and trust in tradition. The works of Harold Bloom and Peter Lamborn Wilson are mentioned. Early American freemasonry was rampant and very influential. In addition to some crazy and totally off-the-mark ideas about ancient cultures, elitism, and conspiracies, there was a spirit of being free from the fetters of exoteric traditionalism. Masons developed an esotericism emphasizing the divine builder, the engineer, as an archetypal model. Davis and others have suggested that it was perhaps this notion that informed the pioneer spirit of Americans. Opportunity and exploration of the vast geographic wilderness was possible. Struggle, longing, and anxiety were often a part of this questing. Later would come the electronic frontiers culminating in the digital and internet frontiers.

Davis gives a history of the early development of computer networking, bulletin boards, and the early internet. Denizens of the net have long sought complete freedom and autonomy from government meddling. John Perry Barlow was the first to describe the net with William Gibson’s term “cyberspace”. In Barlow’s words:

“Cyberspace consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications.”

He also referred to it as a “civilization of the mind.” Jungian Gnostic writer Stephen Hoeller sees the ancient Gnostics as spiritual libertarians, at the time seeking freedom from tyranny. Libertarians tend to abhor social engineering. On the fringes of libertarianism are the anarchists. Hakim Bey’s idea of the “Temporary Autonomous Zone” is an anarchist idea where a temporary space-time is set up outside the realm of societal norms, laws, and consumptive models. The internet also has a bit of this quality. Bey disagrees with Hoeller, and thinks that internet and technology enhance the mind-body split since we commune with ideas in cyberspace. William Gibson’s 1984 book – Neuromancer – predicted the development of the internet and some of its psychological aspects. Mark Dery’s book – Escape Velocity – describes late 20th century man as Homo Cyber, with the body becoming extraneous.

Davis explores an L.A. subculture called the Extropians who tout extropy, the opposite of entropy and who seek to circumvent the 2nd law of thermodynamics through technologies such as smart drugs, life-extension strategies, megavitamins, and other cognitive enhancement technologies. They seem to be a more technological and science-oriented type of New Ager without much of the “fluff” but with similar goals. They espouse a philosophy of “transhumanism”, seeking to evolve beyond current limitations. Davis spends several pages exploring the Extropians’ technological utopian fantasies and comparing them to Gnostic and Platonic notions.  Their notions could also be compared to Nietzsche’s uberman. Davis sees most techno-spiritual movements as Promethean. He also gives a sketch of Gurdjieff, considering him very Promethean. He compares and contrasts the more spiritual-oriented Gurdjieffian Work to that of the more materialistic Extropians. Both involve re-programming oneself toward self-realization.

Next he explores early Scientology, which in the beginning was quite technologically oriented. L. Ron Hubbard’s interest in science fiction no doubt shaped the cult. It was only later that the cult became more paranoid and controlling. Scientology was perhaps an early designer cult, with a homemade cosmology. I have always liked such an idea but one needs to keep a sense of humor and be skeptical about the ultimate reality of such things. Concerning technology the question remains – is technology our servant or have we become slaves to technology? I think a bit of both. The advent of hallucinogenic drug use in the midst of a technological society probably really brought things to a head. Drug culture, the human potentials movement, and technology seemed to form a mind-soup of new ways to experience reality. Later, things like biofeedback, brain machines, binaural beats, AI, and virtual reality offered milder psychedelic experiences. Then came the more consumeristic New Age movement with all of its affirmations, optimism, and light.  People like Charles Tart, John Lilly, and Timothy Leary made a study of altered states of consciousness. Davis seems to refer to these modern explorations as the Spiritual Cyborg archetype and cites the work of Gurdjieff, who died in 1949, as a precursor.

The next mutation from psychedelia would be cyberdelia. It even came from some of the same folk working in cahoots with new technologies. Bay Area Grateful Deadheads would network online in the mid-1980’s at a virtual community called the WELL – Whole Earth Lectric Link – founded by Whole Earth Catalog guy Stewart Brand and a friend of Wavy Gravy’s. Hackers may have been precursed in late-night computer labs at MIT among radicalized programmers. Do-it-yourselfers began putting together their own computer components. The late 80’s and early 90’s brought hip digital tech psychedelic mags like Mondo 2000 and eventually Wired (Davis wrote articles for Wired). We were now a technological society empowering and analyzing itself. Anthropologist Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah in his book – Magic, Science, Religion,, and the Scope of Rationality – saw different orderings of cultural reality. He contrasted two different versions, one based on causality (modern scientific techno-societies) and the other on participation (archaic and oral societies). Davis suggests that the fragmentation of modern media technology is bumping us back into a participatory reality of sorts. Walter Ong’s – Orality and Literacy – apparently came to a similar conclusion as did Marshall McLuhan. The domination of the mass media over our lives by trying to secretly influence our imaginations through such things as subliminal advertising and adoption of various values was a big subject in the 70’s up to about 10 or 15 years ago when more “self-programming” became available through expanded TV network availability, internet, social networks, netflicks, etc. We are now able to self-program a lot more than before. Even so, brand names and corporate identities still wield some power.

The advent of “media tribes” such as hackers, fans of various things, and e-groups have allowed people to band together. This is true of several minority interest groups. He has a section on “technopagans”. Indeed the amount of computer presence of pagan folk seemed well and above the actual amount of people that were really pagans. Davis gives a fairly accurate history of modern paganism that penetrates deeper than the norm with some of the more innovative types that often do not get mentioned. Also noted is the recognition of the power of ritual. He quotes Sam Webster who says that ritual is “the principal technology for programming the human organism.” Davis gives mention to everything from Starwood festival to pagan publications to Crowley and even on to TOPY, Thee Temple of Psychick Youth. Techno-pagans, techno-shamans, and techno-animists have popped up along with each new technology. Phillip K. Dick noted the word similarity of animism and animation. One could even see a version of the spirit world existing in the fantasy realms of film, animation, and computer games.

William Gibson’s 1984 book - Neuromancer offers this quote:

“Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination … A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system… Lines of light ranged in the non space of mind.”

The dazzling initiatory effects of “virtual realities” can be traced back to the Eleusinian Mysteries and the Orphic cults, says Davis. Ritual theatre designed to re-program has been around for quite a while. Gibson ends up favoring the African and Haitian model of the Voodou loas as most representative of cyber forces, likening them to spiritual forces akin to a kind of set of artificial intelligences. He sees Yoruban-style voodoo as a kind of “street religion” that is eminently practical, flexible, and survival oriented.

Next Davis forays into a comparison of Renaissance Hermetic “memory palaces” as ways to classify and store knowledge, or data. They noted that information is power and that memory (or readily handy data storage) is a key to manipulating information and wielding that power. Computer games have often been at the cutting edge of the “killer apps” and Davis gives an excellent history of the development of gaming from the pre-computer fascination with fantasy, sci-fi, and authors like Tolkien to the early D & D, RPGs, text adventures, and early games like Mortal Combat, Zork, and others. He compares the early games to the images and icons of Dante’s Divine Comedy. These visionary allegories can be compared to Neoplatonic concepts as well. Apparently, part of the adventure of these gaming adventures was in the programming itself, in designing the “memory palaces” that became the virtual worlds. The programmer and the hacker become like gods creating worlds. D & D evolved into the MUD, or multi-user dungeon, which allowed multiple players to co-evolve worlds and characters. Characters and avatars could morph into different forms with different qualities perhaps similar to those in Ovid’s Metamorphosis. As I am not a gamer I am only paraphrasing here. I see these connections but I can’t seem to forget that it is all pretend and maybe that ruins it for me. My younger friends and my son seem to love the modern games but I never got into them. Even in the old days when I tried D & D I could not get past that hurdle.

There is a section about our mythological concepts about aliens and of UFO cults. It was Carl Jung who first suggested that flying saucers were an archetypal part of our mythos. Certainly with sci-fi there is a conjunction of technology and fantasy technology with mythical-style thought. The notions of hidden cabals, secret chiefs, men in black, shadow governments, and unseen aliens certainly recall the ideas of the Gnostic archons as hidden architects. I think that people are affected by the images, scenarios, and fictional styles that are presented to them through pop culture. Much like ancient shamanistic societies we see in our imaginations what we are programmed to see by our available culture. Some quasi-conspiracy theorists like Robert Anton Wilson at least kept a sense of humor and favored clever psychology as a way to stimulate the imagination. Most conspiracy theories are really pretty whacko but there are many clever and thought-provoking sci-fi reality scenarios depicted in books, movies, and other media that bring a sense of “wow”. Sci-fi movies and series like Star Trek and others serve to stimulate the imagination. I think this is good for keeping the mind flexible and open. Robert Anton Wilson advocated such an approach as well noting that it is more healthy to dwell at the crossroads (what Davis calls the excluded middle) than to get trapped in “reality tunnels” of narrow-minded beliefs. However, I think that in the case of some of the more ridiculous alien scenarios one can have a mind that is too open!

There is a section about the Heaven’s Gate cult who committed ritual suicide in 1997 at the arrival of the comet Hale-Bopp thinking their newly released souls would catch a ride on the comet to their home in far out space. I have my own story on this. My good friend came to visit and we were looking on the internet for info about the comet. This was the first year we had internet. We found the website of the Heaven’s Gate cult and marveled a while over the oddity of it. This was the night before their suicide. My friend called me the next day to rant about it. Strangely, he seemed to have a sort of respect for them. As it turned out, six years later he would take his own life in a long-planned ritual suicide.

Apocalyptic cults, prophecy followers, and those who put their faith in ground-zero times like Y2K or even the 2012 BS seem to grow like weed patches. Such paranoia seems fed by medias which can now be self-programmed to some extent. Throughout this TechGnosis journey the interplay of the utopian and dystopian extremes of technology appear. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s 1984, and new interpretations of the prophecies of Nostradamus all point to a fascination with technological dystopia. These keep an anxiety about technology. More recently, and Davis does not mention this, there is the realization that global warming and climate change caused by the fossil fuels that powered our Industrial Revolution now threaten the planet. 

Davis notes that:

“Communication continues to attract us partly because it carries within it the seeds of communion: of overcoming loneliness and alienation, and of drawing us together in collective bodies based on compassion, intelligence, and mutual respect.”

Davis then goes on to Christianity, to discuss the Christian concept of spreading the “good news” of the doctrine through what others have called the evangelism meme. Advertisers do this as well and both have been successful simply due to making the doctrine or product very available and keeping it in the faces of the many. By simple statistics a certain percentage will succumb and thus the doctrine grows or the product proliferates. TV and radio evangelism populate the American media to its advantage and as a result a massive amount of even educated Americans eschew well-established science for religious dogma. Neil Stephenson, in his 1992 book Snow Crash talks about “Infocalypse” as the tendency of language and information systems to diverge and complexify. Early on it was the story of the “Babel-Infocalypse” when the Adamic tongue became mixed up and multiple and the archaic participatory way of being gave way to the causal and rational way. Authors like Phillip K. Dick, and historians like Michel Foucault, and others went on to sci-fi the past in their works about the development of language, the significance of past events, and hidden mechanisms of control. Apparently, Dick fancied composing his own theologies and novelizing them for our perusal. Perhaps he searched for meaning in composing his own stories, searching for the Gnostic archons in ideas arising from the mind, overall the most sophisticated of machines yet in his stories they often existed in the machines.

Next he examines the ideas of the Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin. His early ideas of planetary consciousness likely influence the various Gaian Mind ideas as well as countless New Agers and techno-utopians. He referred to the collective matrix of culture and communication as the “noosphere” which cloaked the biosphere itself like a skin. As well as foreshadowing Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis his noosphere foreshadowed the World Wide Web. Teilhard’s idea of the “Omega Point”, a supermind that can overcome entropy or a rapturous convergence of mind and matter, is still popular with optimistic New Agers who often talk about expansion of consciousness, raising the vibratory level, or entering a new evolutionary phase. Indeed many of us wonder about and actively and consciously pursue as best we can some evolutionary goals of our species as we see it. Simply aspiring to go beyond our current limitations is one way. It is likely that our cyber habits have changed us in some ways – the Homo cyber idea. MIT Sociologist Sherry Turkle in her book Life on the Screen thinks that our cyber virtual selves are “fragmented, fluid, and always under construction.” Other ideas of online group consciousness use terms like collective intelligence, collective brain, hypercortex, or knowledge space. Also explored are the surveillance aspects of things like reality TV, talk show tribunals, a 90’s online concept called T-Vision where one could zoom into detailed satellite imagery, and other collective mind type medias.

In a chapter called – The Path is a Network – Davis explores the archetype of the network. Indeed, quite recently the study of networks has been yielding some interesting scientific ideas regarding nodes and networks of networks. He gives an analysis of the Mahayana Buddhist idea from the Flower Ornament Sutra of the Net of Indra where in each eye of the net is a jewel, an infinite amount of them, and in each jewel is reflected every other jewel. This is virtually identical to the idea of holography. This is also another way to describe interdependence and interconnectedness of all things as well as the illusory nature of both time and space as quantum physics verifies. Buddhist awakening or enlightenment has been compared to gnosis. Indeed the Sanskrit word for wisdom – Jnana, or Prajna, has the very same Indo-European root as Gnosis. Buddhism is full of techniques or technologies for overcoming delusion. Mindfulness can be compared to Gurdjieffian work to dissolve the “I”, or ego. Davis explores the logic of Liebniz as a similarly holographic idea in his book Monadology where he talks about souls as nodes of perception called monads that contain within them representations of the whole cosmos. This is effectively a network of perception. Others talk of a network of consciousness. Davis examines ideas in several more books: Sadie Plant’s Zeros + Ones about women and technology and Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game a futuristic sci-fi yarn about a monastic society that plays an associative knowledge game where each connection is a node of a great network. Metaphysics becomes Netaphysics. He examines Terrence McKenna’s idea of the interplay between habit and novelty. Davis notes the power of media tech novelty in the 90’s even though in economic terms it burst in the tech bubble, or bubble. He also says:

“One of my goals in TechGnosis was to show how, over and over again, technical innovations in modern communications technology open up a crack in social reality”

The temporary euphoria eventually gets re-filled with business as usual, he says, as the novelty wears off back into old habits to use McKenna’s terminology. The more techno-utopian wave of the 90’s, he says, was converted to a dystopian trough in the aftermath of 9-11 as the old habits of paranoia and control returned with a vengeance. Apocalyptic thought and conspiracy theory strengthened with it.

TechGnosis was a great thought-ride but a long one. Perhaps it would have been better in two volumes.

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