I first noticed Erik Davis in the early '90s when I read a piece he'd written about UFO literature for the Village Voice. It was the first uncynical yet smart piece about this phenomenon I'd encountered since I'd stumbled across Jung's writings on the subject many years before, and his poetic use of language in the expository form was nothing short of exquisite. Since then, Davis has kept his sharp yet expansive intelligence focused on the various flavors of millennial strangeness that permeate our digitized era.
His new book, "TechGnosis," casts a wide net, elucidating both the historical context and the meaning behind digital Gnosticism, technopaganism, William Gibson's voodoo-haunted visions of cyberspace, the Extropians' dreams of disembodied immortality, cyberdelia and most of the other odd phantoms of mind and spirit that seem to turn on the strange tribes at the edges of technoculture. This territory has been explored before by the likes of Douglas Rushkoff and Mark Dery, but it has never been so eloquently explained. Last month I sat down with Davis to talk about his work.
On the fringes of technoculture, there's always been a link between digital technology and spirituality, or mysticism. Most commentators have written it off as mere eccentricity, but your book manages to make it all sound rather reasonable. Still, if you had to explain what that link is briefly, what would you say?
"TechGnosis" sets out to prove that technology and spirituality don't exist in totally separate regions of human culture. That's just not true. Modern technology is built on premodern dreams -- whether Christian hopes for the New Jerusalem or animist ideas about electricity and the life force. Those dreams now lurk in the margins, in what I call the technological unconscious, but they continue to inform the fantasies, expectations and ideas that surround technology. For example, modern advertising is essentially a magical system of inducements deployed through technology. And it's not simply an accident that occult material, however hackneyed, figures so predominantly in computer games.
You're talking here primarily about technology emerging from spirituality. What about the reverse of that? Over the last century or so, human beings have taken flight, projected their voices and images across space and time and done a whole host of other things that earlier humans would have found (in the words of Arthur C. Clarke) "indistinguishable from magic." And these things have stirred the transcendental hopes and imaginings of moderns as well. But are they actually magic?
Well, that's a tricky question. It depends what you mean by magic. Ioan Couliano, the religious scholar who was Mircea Eliade's greatest student, made the point that modern technology realizes dreams first imagined by earlier generations of magicians. That's one way of interpreting Clarke's famous quip. The fact that these things came about through the rational exploitation of natural law may be less important than we tend to think, because the social and cultural effects of technologies are often quite irrational, even mythical. One of the main aims of my book is to illustrate this. On the other hand, even if 20th century technology mobilizes these transcendental imaginings, subconsciously or not, they are also simultaneously "profane" and utterly removed from the sacred in any traditional sense. That's the Promethean irony, the dark parody, of technomysticism. Jacques Ellul made this point as well: The machine generates ecstasy, but mechanizes it as well.
On the other hand, if combinations of digital technology, biotech, nanotech and other technoscientific forces are modifying who or what we are, what is sacred or profane might be up for grabs. Also, from the point of view of the jester or prankster -- whose spirit you frequently cite -- the profane is frequently sacred because it punctures the pomposity that gets attached to sacredness.
Well, you're of course plugged into the playful animating spirit of "TechGnosis." The archetypes that dominate technological culture today are either angelic or demonic -- the New Jerusalem of the technoutopians or the evil Faustian Frankenstein monsters of the Neo-Luddites. But in my view, technology is more like a trickster: It scrambles established codes, overturns truths and constantly hoodwinks us with unintended consequences. And that's especially true of communication technology. Remember, Hermes, the Greek god of messages, is both a trickster and a magician.
All the technological developments you name are pointing towards a future where mind -- whatever that is, and we shouldn't think for a moment that the cognitive scientists have any more of a clue than you do -- can manifest itself in matter with greater and greater ease. Obviously this means values are up for grabs. But I suspect that some basic human questions, common to both practical spirituality and modern humanism, will still play a vital role in guiding our increasingly technological society. The trickster is not the only god around.
What questions, what practices, and what gods are most likely to emerge in a technoculture?
We know that information technology is changing consciousness. But the way it's coupled with the current climate of late capitalism, it's happening in a mostly banal way. We find ourselves living with a more multitasking, scattered, data-rich and high-velocity mind. We need to work with that mind, but also to recognize its profound limitations. Attention is the key, and any practices that refine attention will become valued in a technoculture like ours.
Now, to put on my pointed prophet's hat for a brief moment, I'd say that fringe groups like Heaven's Gate and Aum Shinrikyo will continue to mix up apocalyptic expectations and technology. The possibilities of artificial life and machine consciousness will also stir up all sorts of fears, fantasies and polytheistic projections, as we become more and more seduced into anthropomorphizing our increasingly animated machines. But the real questions will be raised by biotechnology and genetic engineering. We really are becoming "post-human," and I can't see how we can face the extraordinary turbulence and terror of this moment without asking fundamental questions about what the hell we are here for in the first place. Hardheaded humanists want those questions answered in utterly utilitarian and scientific terms; my book suggests that this rationalist fantasy may be the biggest myth of all.
Do you have a personal technospiritual practice?
Well, as I explain in my book, I think one modern idea of spiritual practice -- techniques as opposed to beliefs or religious dogma -- emerges partly from our experience as people deeply influenced by the pragmatic and do-it-yourself spirit of technology. We are bricoleurs of the spirit. Even the Buddha talked about his path as a kind of raft provisionally lashed together from flotsam and weeds, only to be abandoned on the other side. I just think we never get to the other side, and that our raft is constantly leaking. And so I'm interested in studying anything that helps me understand how "I" come to be: neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, cultural history, even advertising.
I think we're only just beginning to explore the kinds of technologies -- like groupware, VR and advanced biofeedback -- that will really build interesting "platforms" for consciousness. Personally I'm no longer quite as interested in brain machines ... or even neurotropics.
Say it ain't so! (laughter)
Well, who knows what tomorrow will bring? I certainly haven't hung up the sword of psychedelia. But right now I'm really into more basic techniques that awaken and alter our immediate experience: meditation, breathwork and mindfulness of the feedback loops between body and mind. That kind of moment-to-moment attention to perception and experience applies to every aspect of life, including our deeply strange relationships with technology and media. I see the Web as a Rorschach blot, automobiles as surrogate selves. E-mail lists are amazing places to watch yourself: Why do you post? Who do you think you're responding to? Why is bug-eyed anger so close to the surface of digital disputes? Everything is grist for the mill. Even "South Park." Ummm ... scratch that. Especially "South Park."