The ghosts in our machines

Erik Davis' new book 'TechGnosis' traces the secret mysticism that motivates our love-affair with technology.

Published October 6, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

In one of the metaphors on which Western civilization was built, Plato suggested that we are all in the position of prisoners, chained in a cave. Things we believe we see in the world outside are -- if we could see the truth -- only shadows cast on the walls of our prison. The real things, whose shadows we see, can never appear to us unless we crawl from our caves of illusion and embodiment.

In a more thoroughly technological world than Plato's, the myth needs a little updating. So imagine us still huddled in the cave, but this time, behind us, are the machines we have made. The light comes from the fire we have made in the middle of the cave. It is flickering and partial, and casts tall shuddering shadows on the wall. It is these shadows, not the machines themselves, that we see and believe are real.

Erik Davis' new book, "TechGnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information," is a history of this second cave, where communication technologies appear in the light of our dreams. It is a hugely ambitious undertaking, beginning with alphabetic writing and ending in the outer reaches of cyberspace. Plato's own cave is neatly folded in: The belief in a world of unchanging reality where only the ideal forms of everything are found was, Davis argues, partly a consequence of the use of writing. For writing preserves spoken language, one of the most ephemeral and shapeless of all the ways we think, and this deeply transforms the way users think about it. A writer must believe that there is a single perfect timeless form for every sentence -- that's the one we're trying to chip away to, and that we never quite reach or hear for very long. So why shouldn't everything in the world have this same quality of indwelling, occluded perfection?

This is not to say that Plato's cave is just an elaborate metaphor about writing. The relationships between technologies and ideas of technology are more complex. And the real interest of "TechGnosis" lies in the connections it explores between technology and religion. This is a tiny subject when "religion" is understood by most atheists and agnostics to mean a particularly narrow-minded and lowbrow form of Protestant Christianity. On that definition there are no interesting connections. Today's fundamentalists are adept at using technology: The last time I asked a search engine, there were far more people on the Web being "sanctified by" someone than being "fucked by" anyone. But there is no real interconnection between these two worlds.

The fun comes when you define religion more loosely, to include all the forms of shifty but warming illumination from the fire in the center of the cave. Chief among these, says Davis, is Gnosticism -- originally a set of early Christian heresies that held that the world we live in is the illusory creation of an evil demigod, and that true knowledge will release us into the true, good, higher world made by the real God.

As a theory to build a book on, this has the advantage that we don't really know what the Gnostics believed, back when they really flourished in the first centuries of the Christian era; quite possibly they didn't know, either. Heresy, like tax evasion, is an invention of bureaucracies: Without large sets of written rules about what you may or may not believe (or withhold from the government), things proceed in a less organized fashion. Since Gnosticism never became a state religion, there can have been no central authoritative canon of gnostic beliefs. This disorganized quality makes Gnosticism a natural source for postmodern eclectics, like the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, whose novels posit a vast gnostic universe in which the hero stumbles around looking for the secret illumination that will release him.

Nonetheless, we can extract some genuine Gnostic themes from the documents we have (most written by their enemies). In fact this vagueness makes it easier for us to be genuine Gnostics than it is to follow any more well-specified religion. We know too much about the peculiar beliefs of most early Christians to be able to share them; Gnosticism is a more open standard, capable of many implementations. One of the few things on which it insists is that we are spirits, trapped in a dark universe of matter, from which only knowledge can free us.

This is a deeply elitist vision, but that is not the only reason it appeals to geeks. The work is long and arduous -- as anyone knows who has wrestled with Unix. But the liberation at the end is worth everything. There are some marvelous quotes in this book from the moments when it seemed that technology would bring the light to everyone it blessed, and allow us all to assume our true, angelic natures. "All the inhabitants of the earth [will be] brought into one intellectual neighborhood, and be at the same time perfectly freed from those contaminations which might under other circumstances be received." That was the impact that Samuel Morse's telegraph was meant to have in 1846, not the Internet 150 years later. Or there is Scientific American's enthusiasm for the telephone, which, it was clear in 1880, would bring about "nothing less than a new organization of society -- a state of things in which every individual, however secluded, will have at call every other individual in the community."

Gnosticism, says Davis, is a deeply American religion, because "the American self is a Gnostic self: it believes on a deep and abiding level, that authenticity arises from independence, an independence that is at once natural, sovereign and solitary."

The passage is illuminating not just for what it says, but how it says it. "TechGnosis" is a book that is constantly dazzling, pummeling and thundering at the reader, as if the rush of argument were sweeping us down rapids, twirling madly in the froth, banging on rocks with every paragraph. I wish I'd written it myself. But I also wish it had been aggressively edited. Most books that need editing do so because they are too long and say too little; this one is too short and says too much. The experience of reading it is curiously like spending hours online: If you don't make constant notes, all you're left with at the end is the knowledge that you have had an experience, without more than the vaguest notion of what this experience actually was. One might say of Davis' own argument what he says of the marriage of Buddhism and cyberspace -- that "the path is a net," without beginning or end.

There is so much to make notes about! The edges of my copy of "TechGnosis" are almost completely buried in a neon fur of Post-its, each stuck on a notable quote or idea. Davis gives us wonderful early chapters on the understanding of electricity as the fluid of life or the soul-stuff of the universe. The ways in which this understanding is expressed change, but the "metaphysics of information culture," as the author calls them, remain remarkably constant over the centuries -- and the more powerful for being largely invisible.

The really difficult trick that Davis pulls off is to take technology and culture equally seriously and to write about them in an equally knowledgeable way. He has read everyone -- and though from time to time I wish he could forget that, his unwillingness to impose a unifying vision on his material is really a strength. He doesn't talk as if technology could ever be freed from culture, or seen without it, and this is tremendously important. He is particularly fine on the ambiguities of science fiction, which is at least as much about transcendence as it is about gadgetry; and on the way in which the more gadget-laden, masculine and shallow the genre becomes, the more it displays a raw aching for transcendence -- as if we could get to heaven if only we built a large enough rocket.

In one spectacular piece of cultural deconstruction, Davis examines the curiously pedestrian beliefs of the Heaven's Gate cultists, which were almost entirely a translation into technology of the mythologies of the first century A.D. Their central belief, after all, was that if we learn the hidden knowledge, we can go home to the stars. This would involve leaving the husk of the body behind -- but that is what almost all religions except Christianity have taught about enlightenment. And almost everyone nowadays accepts the idea of passing into a higher, or spiritual, state, in which disembodied spirits talk to each other like the soundless angels made of light in C. S. Lewis' science fiction. That's what we go online for -- even onto AOL.

The identification between souls and software, which is profoundly gnostic, seems also completely scientific. Software is the completely immaterial animating stuff that makes hardware live. It is made out of something called "information," which is as mystical as the knowledge that Gnostics sought. Of course, in 100 years' time our children, or theirs, ought to be able to look back on such ideas with the patronizing incomprehension that we now feel for the Victorian crazes of spiritualism and Christian Science. Their mistakes will be quite different. But they, too, will see the technology around them largely by the shadows their imagination makes it cast on the walls of the cave that surrounds us all.

By Andrew Brown

Andrew Brown is a writer and journalist in Britain. His book "The Darwin Wars" is published in the U.S. by Simon and Schuster.

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