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Issue Seven


Issue Seven: Religion Online & Techno-Spiritualism

IS CYBERSPACE A SPIRITUAL SPACE?

By Margaret Wertheim <margarew@gte.net>

 

Many cyber-enthiusiasts have techno-religious yearnings and are convinced that cyberspace is a new kind a spiritual space. In her wonderful book, The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet, Margaret Wertheim traces the history of western notions of space and how these have been informed by cultural, and particularly religious, concerns. From Dante's Inferno to today's Internet, there's a connection in the dualistic Western conception where body and soul are seen as two distinct spheres. Within this tradition, the immaterial has always been equated with with the spiritual. Such a confusion is not without dangers, Wertheim argues . The following essay is a shortened and excerpted version of chapter seven of her book.

Margaret Wertheim is a science writer and commentator who has been particulary concerned with the relations between science and religion. Her previous book, Pythagoras Trousers, is a history of the relationship between physics and religion in Western culture.

Michel Bauwens


Whether or not the champions of cyberspace are formal religious believers, again and again we find in their discussions of the digital domain a "religious valorization of this realm, to use the apposite phrase of religious scholar Mircea Eliade. "You,ll be surprised at the amount of soul-data we'll have in this new space declares Kevin Kelly, executive editor of Wired in a forum in Harpers Magazine. (1) In his introduction to the influential collection of essays Cyberspace: First Steps, editor Michael Benedikt informs readers that "the impetus towards the Heavenly City remains. It is to be respected; indeed it can usefully flourish - in cyberspace. (2) Claims such as that by VR researcher Nicole Stenger that "cyberspace will feel like Paradise call to mind Eliade's notion that even in secular societies "man never succeeds in completely doing away with religious behavior (3), Whether or not that is true for "man in general, it certainly seems close to the mark for cybernautic man and woman.

The projection of religious dreams onto cyberspace is not something that I suggest we should be surprised by. As a new immaterial space, cyberspace makes an almost irresistible target for religious and spiritual longings. Both from our Greek and our Christian heritage Western culture has within it a deep current of dualism that has always associated immateriality with spiritually. Stenger herself explains how cyberspace fits this pattern. She cites with approval Eliade's view that for religious people space is not homogeneous, being divided into the distinct realms of "profane space and "sacred space. According to Stenger, since cyberspace is a different kind of space to the "profane space of the physical world, then it "definitely qualifies for Eliade's vision of sacred space. (4) She argues that indeed cyberspace creates the ideal conditions for what Eliade terms a heirophany, "an irruption of the sacred".(5)

Speaking of the dreams people project onto science and technology, philosopher Mary Midgley has written that "Attending to the workings of the scientific imagination is not a soft option. [This imagining] is not just harmless, licensed amusement. It plays a part in shaping the world-pictures that determine our standards of thought - the standards by which we judge what is possible and plausible. (6) As a subset of the scientific imagination, the cyber-imagination is becoming a powerful force in the contemporary cultural landscape, and we would do well to attend closely to its workings. What then are the particular forms of this emerging cyber-religiosity? What are the specific ideals these techno-spiritualists are beginning to judge as "possible and plausible.

And, what are we to make of all this?

Religious dreaming about cyberspace begins with the biblical vision of the Heavenly City from the Book of Revelation - the so-called "New Jerusalem - that transcendent crystalline polis whose entrance is the legendary pearly gates. A connection between cyberspace and the New Jerusalem has been spelled out explicitly by Michael Benedikt. In Cyberspace: First Steps, Benedikt explains that likeEden (which humanity experienced at the beginning of time), the New Jerusalem (which the viruous will experience at the end of time), is a place where man will walk in the fullness of God's grace. But there is a fundamental difference between these two poles of the Christian universe. As he puts it: "Where Eden (before the Fall) stands for our state of innocence, indeed ignorance, the Heavenly City stands for our state of wisdom and knowledge. (7) The New Jerusalem, then, is quintessentially a place of knowing, a place that, like cyberspace, Benedikt says is rooted in information.

In the Book of Revelation, this key feature of the Heavenly City is signaled by its highly structured geometry, which is glimpsed in the repeated use of twelves and fours and sevens in its description. In this sense the City suggests a glittering numerological puzzle, that in contrast to the wilderness of Eden is rigor and order incarnate - as Benedikt notes, it is "laid out like a beautiful equation. According to Benedikt, "the Heavenly City ... could come into existence only as a virtual reality. (8) Indeed, he says, it is nothing less than "a religious vision of cyberspace". While Benedikt sees the New Jerusalem as a Christian prevision of cyberspace, reciprocally he suggests that cyberspace could be a digital version of the Heavenly City. The impetus towards the Heavenly City remains. It is to be respected; indeed it can usefully flourish ... in cyberspace. (9)

On a purely visual level the most famous description of cyberspace - in Gibson's Neuromancer - does indeed bear an uncanny resemblance to the biblical Heavenly City. Here too we find a realm of geometry and light "sparkling, insubstantial, "laid out like a beautiful equation. Here too, is a weightless realm of radiance, where information itself is rendered into geometric form. Here too is a glittering city adorned with "jewels - the great corporate data bases that decorate the "matrix with a sparkling array of blue pyramids, green cubes, and pink rhomboids. Built from data, here is an idealized polis of crystalline order and mathematical rigor.

Most prominently, the Christian vision of the Heavenly City is a dream about transcendence. Transcendence over earthly squalor and chaos, and above all transcendence over the limitations of the body. For the elect in heaven, Revelations tells us, "God himself ... will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more; neither shall there be mourning for crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away. [Rev. 21:4] In Heaven, we are promised, the "sins of the flesh will be erased and men shall be like angels. Among many champions of cyberspace also we see an intense yearning for transcendence over the limitations of the body. Here too we witness a longing for the annihilation of pain, restriction, and even death.

Throughout Gibson's cyberpunk novels the body is disparaged as "meat, its prison-like nature contrasted with the limitless freedom that console cowboy enjoys in the infinite space of the matrix". Like the biblical Adam, Neuromancer's hero Case experiences his banishment from cyberspace as "the Fall". Expulsion from this digital paradise "imprisons him within his flesh" - a poor fate indeed after what Gibson has famously called the "the bodiless exaltation of cyberspace". From Jaron Lanier's claim that "this technology has the promise of transcending the body", to robotics expert Hans Moravec's hopes for a future in which we will "be freed from the bondage of a material body", the discourse about cyberspace thrums with what Arthur Kroker has dubbed "the will to virtuality".

Nothing epitomizes the cybernautic desire to transcend the body's limitations more than the fantasy of abandoning the flesh completely by downloading oneself to cyber-immortality. At the end of Neuromancer, a virtual version of Case is fed into the matrix to live forever in a little cyber-paradise. A similar fate awaits Gibson's next hero, Bobby Newmark, who at the end of Mona Lisa Overdrive is also uploaded to digital eternity. The dream of cyber-immortality was presaged in what is now recognized as the first cyber-fiction classic, Vernor Vigne's novella True Names. At the end of Vinge,s story, the woman behind the cyber-heroine, "the red witch Erythrina, is gradually transferring her personality into a cyberspace construct. "Every time I'm there', she tells us, "I transfer a little more of myself. The kernel is growing into a true Erythrina, who is also truly me.(10) A "me that will "live on forever in cyberspace after the physical woman dies.

Yet there is a paradox at work behind these dreams. Even though many cyberspace enthusiasts long to escape the limitations of the body, most also cling to the glories of physical incarnation. They may not like bodily finitude - especially the part about death - but at the same time they desire the sensations and the thrills of the flesh. In Case's tropical cyber-paradise, he relishes the warmth of the sun on his back and the feel of sand squishing beneath his feet. Above all, he delights in the ecstasy of sex with his cyber-girlfriend Linda Lee. He might not take his flesh into cyberspace, but Gibson's hero is vouchsafed the full complement of bodily pleasures. Cybernauts ambivalent regard for the body is indicated by the very metaphor of "surfing they have chosen. Who, more than a surfer, revels in the unique joy of bodily incarnation?

Commenting on this paradox Stephen Whittaker has described the typical cyberspace enthusiast as "someone who desires embodiment and disembodiment in the same instant. His ideal machine would address itself to his senses, yet free him from his body. His is a vision which loves sensorial possibility while hating bodily limits.11 In other words, he wants his cake and to eat it too - to enjoy the pleasures of the physical body, but without any of its weaknesses or restrictions.

Yet is this not also the promise of Christian eschatology? Repackaged in digital garb, this is the dream of the "glorified body that the heavenly elect can look forward to when Judgment Day comes. Jesus's resurrection from the grave has always been interpreted by orthodox theologians to mean that when the last trumpet sounds the virtuous will be resurrected in body as well as soul. "The person is not the soul alone, wrote Saint Bonaventure, "it is a composite. Thus it is established that [the person in heaven] must be there as a composite, that is, of soul and body. (12) In the eternal bliss of the Empyrean the Christian elect are thereby promised reunification with their material selves so that they may experience again the joy of their incarnated form. But this heavenly body will be a "glorified body, free from the limitations of the mortal flesh. In the words of Peter the Venerable, it will be a body that is "in every sense incorruptible.(13) Just what it meant to have a body in a place that was, strictly speaking, outside space and time, was a question that much vexed medieval scholars, but that was indeed the position on which all the great theologians insisted.

Medieval scholar Jeffrey Fisher has noted the parallels between this Christian vision and that of many cyberspace enthusiasts. Just as the Christian body returns in glorified form, so Fisher explains that in contemporary cybernautic dreaming the "body returns in a hypercoporeal synthesis. (14) "Hypercorporeal because like the glorified body of Christianity, this longed-for "cybernautic body is not apparently bound by any physical limitations. Like the heavenly Christian body, it too is seen as incorruptible, and ultimately indestructible. In many hack-and-slash MUD,s, for example, players who have been killed can simply reboot themselves. Get your head kicked off? No problem, just boot up another. Transcending the limits of the physical body, this cybernautic body has powers far beyond mortal means and " finds itself capable of amazing feats of knowledge and endurance.(15)

Such cybernautic dreams of transcending bodily limitations have been fueled by a fundamental philosophical shift of recent years, the growing view that man is defined not by the atoms of his body, but by an information code - the belief that our essence lies not in our matter, but in an immaterial pattern of data. The ease with which many cyber-fiction writers shuttle their characters in and out of cyberspace is premised on a belief that at core a human being is reducible to an array of data. While atoms can only construct the physical body, according to this cybernautic view, data can construct both body and mind. Indeed the above fantasies imply that in the end we will not need physical bodies at all, for we will be able to reconstruct ourselves totally in cyberspace. As long as these cyber-constructs are sufficiently detailed, Gibson et al suggest, the illusion of incarnation will be indistinguishable from the real material thing. What is astonishing here is that while transcending bodily limitations was once seen as theologically possible, increasingly it is viewed as technologically feasible. To quote N. Katherine Hayles, "perhaps not since the Middle Ages has the fantasy of leaving the body behind been so widely dispersed through the population, and never has it been so strongly linked with existing technologies" . (16)

Lest one imagine that cyber-immortality fantasies are just in the minds of science fiction writers, we should note that much of the underlying philosophy is emerging from such real-life fields as cognitive science and information theory. It's all part of the same imaginative flux that produces the dream of "artificial intelligence. What is human mental activity, these believers say, but a pattern of electrical signals in a network of neurons? Why should such a pattern not also be constructed in silicon? AI advocates insist that if computers can be "taught to do such tasks as parsing sentences and playing grand-master chess, it should only be a matter of time before they will be able to simulate the full complement of human mental activity.

In the futuristic worlds of many cyberpunk novels this goal has of course been realized. Gibson's matrix for example is inhabited by a slew of superhuman AI's; the eponymous Neuromancer is one of them. Far more than mere calculators, these computer constructs are personalities with their own emotions, desires, and egomaniacal goals. From the vision of creating an artificial mind inside a computer it is but a short step to imagining that a human mind also might be made to operate inside a machine. If both types of "mind are ultimately just patterns of data encoded in electr i cal signals, then why should we not be able to transfer one from wetware to hardware?

That is precisely the fantasy touted by Carnegie Mellon's Hans Moravec, a world renowned robotics expert. Moravec, who's lab designs robots with cutting edge vision and 3-D mapping capabilities, has suggested that digital mind-downloading will soon be possible. In his book Mind Children, Moravec imagines a scenario in which "a robot brain surgeon gradually transfers a human mind into a waiting computer. (17) As you lie there fully conscious, he describes how a robot surgeon would "open your brain case and begin downloading your mind layer by layer using "high-resolution magnetic resonance measurements and "arrays of magnetic and electric antennas. Gradually,as your brain is destroyed, your "real self - that is, your mind - would be transformed into a digital construct. Just how this is all supposed to happen is never really explained; but it is not the details that concern us, it is the overall fantasy.

Moravec is by no means the only scientist thinking along these lines. The mathematician and computer scientist Rudy Rucker has also envisaged downloading human minds to computers in his novels Wetware andSoftware. Another real-life champion of the mind-download is Mike Kelly, a Phd in computer science and member of the Extropian movement. Extropians give even science fiction writers a run for their money, because their goal is ultimately immortality in physical form. They imagine eternal life becoming possible through a cocktail of new technologies, ranging from genetic engineering to nanomachines capable of repairing individual cells. But as they wait for the day when their bodies can be immortalized, Kelly has suggested that they should download their minds into computers as a sort of cyber-waiting room for the main event. Like Kelly, most Extropians are technologically literate young men and women, many employed in fields such as computer science, neurobiology, and even rocket design. Among their heroes are Vinge and Moravec; Moravec gave the keynote address at their inaugural conference.

According to many cyber-immortalists, even if there was a catastrophic systems crash you wouldn,t necessarily "die, because you could always be restored from backup files kept offline. As in the New Jerusalem, death would be no more. In Mind Children, Moravec writes breathlessly about the day when we will all have backup copies of ourselves stored on computer tape. "Should you die, he says, "an active copy made from the tape could resume your life.18 True there would be a gap between the time when the backup copy had been made and the moment of your cyber-death, but in Moravec,s eyes "a small patch of amnesia is a trivial affair compared with the total loss of memory and function that results from death in the absence of a copy.

Transcendence, immortality, and resurrection - these are dreams beginning to awaken in the cyber-religious imagination. To paraphrase Midgley, these are the things some cyberspace enthusiasts are beginning to think of as "possible and plausible. Personally, I cannot imagine a worse fate than being downloaded into immortality in cyberspace. In Christianity, the elect are promised an eternity of bliss in the presence of ultimate grace, but what would be the fate of a cyber-elect? What would one _do_ in cyber-eternity? There are only so many times you can read the complete works of Shakespeare or Einstein, there are only a finite number of new languages to learn. And after that eternity is still forever. What I imagine is not bliss, but eons and eons of alt.gossip.royals, alt.sex.bestiality and every frat-boys homepage ramplings about the Chicago Bears and the Grateful Dead. Quite frankly, I would rather be dead.

Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of mind-download fantasies is the dream of reconstructing in cyberspace people who have already died. At the start of Gibson's Count Zero, a mercenary named Turner has just been blown to pieces by a bomb. While he waits for the medics to grow him a new body, Turner "himself (that is his mind) spends his time in a virtual reality simulation of a nineteenth century childhood. When his new body is ready his mind will be downloaded into it; in the meantime the otherwise dead Turner whiles away his time in cyberspace. Moravec too dreams of cyber-resurrection, but he goes even further, for he suggests that as a species we may be able to defeat death entirely. Here we are asked to imagine a brace of "superintelligent archaeologists armed with wonder-instruments. According to Moravec, these digital miracle workers should be able to perfect a process whereby "long-dead people can be resurrected in near-perfect detail at any stage of their life. (19) These undead would be brought back to life (a "wholesale resurrection, Moravec calls it) in a vast computer simulation. For medieval Christians, resurrection was promised when the Last Judgment comes, but if Moravec gets his way we can expect it well before then.

What we have here, with these visions of cyber-immortality and cyber-resurrection, can be seen as a repackaging of the classical Christian idea of a soul in digital form. The idea that the "essence of a person can be separated from their body and transformed into the ephemeral media of computer code is a clear repudiation of the materialist view that man is made of matter alone. Under the rubric of cyberspace, a major philosophical trend of the scientific era is thus being reversed. When the further claim is made that this immaterial self can survive the death of the body and "live on forever in some immaterial domain, we ar e back in the realm of medieval dualism. In the discourse about cyberspace we are thereby witnessing a return to dualism, a return to a belief that man is a bipolar being consisting of a mortal material body, and an immaterial "essence that is potentially immortal. This posited immortal self, this thing that can supposedly live on in the digital domain after our bodies die, this I dub the "cyber-soul.

It is an astonishing concept to find emerging from the realm of science and technology, but again I suggest this is not wholly an unexpected development. This posited cyber-soul may indeed be seen as the culmination of a tradition that has been informing Western science for over two thousand years, and which has at the same time had a significant influence on Christian thinking. I refer to that admixture of mathematics and mysticism which traces its origins to the sixth century BC and the enigmatic Greek philosopher Pythagoras of Samos. Whether they realize it or not, today's champions of mind-download not only follow in a Christian tradition, they are also heirs of the Samian master.

As the man who is credited with introducing the Greeks to mathematics, Pythagoras was one of the founders of the Western scientific enterprise. At the same time he was a religious fanatic who managed to fuse mathematics and mysticism into one of the most intriguing syntheses in intellectual history. A contemporary of the Buddha in India, of Zoroaster in Persia, of Confucius and Lao-Tsu in China, Pythagoras was a mystic of a uniquely Western stripe. Half a millennia before the birth of Christ, he formulated a radically dualistic philosophy of nature that continues to echo in cybernautic visions today. According to the Samian sage, the essence of reality lies not in matter - in the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water - but in the immaterial magic of numbers. For Pythagoras, the numbers were literally gods, and he associated them with the gods of the Greek pantheon. True reality, according to Pythagoras, was not the plane of matter, but the transcendent realm of these number-gods.

Now, according to Pythagoras, the soul too was essentially mathematical. It was the soul's ability to express things "ratio-nally - literally in terms of ratios - that was, to him, its primary characteristic. In Pythagorean cosmology, the true home of the s oul was the realm of the number-gods, and after death this is where all souls would return. Unfortunately, during our mortal lives this immortal spark is trapped within the prison of the body, from which it longs to be freed. For the Pythagorean, the aim of religious practice - which necessarily included the study of mathematics - was to free the soul from the shackles of the flesh that it might ascend as often as possible into the divine realm of the number-gods, above and beyond the material plane.

Even from this cursory description, we can immediately discern the Pythagorean undertones in contemporary cybernautic dreams. Whatever is downloaded into computers must be expressed in terms of numbers - to be precise, in terms of the numbers "zero" and "one". The infinitely malleable code of zeros and ones is the erector set from which all cyberspace constructs are built. Behind dreams of mind-download is thus a profoundly Pythagorean view. Like the ancient Pythagoreans, mind-download champions see the "essence of man as something that is numerically reducible - like the Pythagorean soul their "cyber-soul is ultimately mathematical in form. This cyber-soul's "true home" is not the realm of the "meat", but the "eternal domain" of digital data. We have here then a cyber-Pythagoreanism, a crypto-religion (to use another Elliade term), in which cyberspace reprises the role once accorded the transcendent space of the ancient number-gods.

Parallels between ancient Pythagoreanism and the new "cyber version go further. One of the central beliefs of ancient Pythagoreanism was the eternal return of the soul, a doctrine some believe Pythagoras took from India. Like Hindus, the Samian master believed the soul was continually reincarnated in a series of physical bodies; it was between these incarnations that it bided its time in the transcendent realm of the number-gods. A similar process of metempsychosis, also plays out in cyber-fiction, notably in Rudy Rucker's Wetware and Software. In these novels, after the main character is uploaded for storage in a central computer, he is periodically downloaded into a series of ever more sophisticated android bodies. As the centuries pass he is reincarnated again and again, his cyber-soul returning each time to the physical world after refreshing respites in a transcendent cyberspatial "Void".

But is there not something missing from this scenario of digital reincarnation? What about a moral or ethical context? In Hinduism, the form in which one is reincarnated in the next life depends on ones moral choices in past lives. For Hindus, metempsychosis is also a moral process - eventually there is supposed to be an end to the cycle of

reincarnation, when one attains "enlightenment and the rounds of reembodimen t finally cease. [In Christianity, where the soul is granted but a single incarnation, there is a much more draconian context because there is but one chance to make the "right moral choices, or pay the price for ever more.]

The ancient Pythagorean soul also was a aquintessentially moral entity, one in need of constant spiritual maintanance and cleansing, which Pythagoreans achieved through strict codes of behavior. Purification rituals, fasting, and rigorous adherence to dietary laws were all part of the aescetic Pythagorean life, all part of the proess by which one cleansed the soul, preparing it for encounter with the divine number-gods. [For Pythagoras, it should be noted, numbers themselves were invested with ethical qualities: four was the number of justice, for example, four being two times two, and hence representing balance.] The cyber-soul however has no moral context. In cyberspatial fantasies of reincarnation and immortality the soul,s eternity entails no ethical demands, no moral responsibilities. One gets the immortality pay-off of a religion, but without any of the obligations. For Pythagoras, such a separation of the soul from any moral framework would have been appalling - to take away the moral context would have been to bankrupt the whole system.

There is nothing new about techno-religious dreaming. As science historian David Noble has shown, in the Christian West champions of techno logy have been reading religious dreams into technological enterprises ever since the late Middle Ages. The interweaving of the technical arts with religious aspirations reached a crescendo in the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries , a time when science and its byproducts were seen as a key to the realization of a new, more truly Christian age. Indeed, for many Renaissance techno-utopians, technology provided humanity with the means to realize a New Jerusalem here on earth. Throughout these centuries, a stream of visionaries imagined the creation of earthly utopias brought about by the cultivation of science and the application of technology.

Thomas More's (original) "Utopia, Francis Bacon's "New Atlantis", Tommaso Campanella's "City of the Sun", and Johann Andrea's "Christianopolis" were all idealized Christian cities that were to be brought about by a new generation of spiritual men schooled in the scientific and technical arts.

For these men, Noble notes, technology was a means by which man could realize himself more fully as the imago dei - the image of god. One leading exponent of Renaissance techno-utopianism was the radical natural philosopher and religious reformer Giordano Bruno. As Bruno saw it, technology gave man the power "to fashion other natures, other courses, other orders than the natural one, thus,wrote Bruno, "he m ight in the end make himself god of the earth.20 At around the same time Johann Andreae, the purported author of the Rosicrucian manifestos, declared that it was man,s duty to practice the technical arts "in order that the human soul ....may unfold [itself] through different sorts of machinery. For Andrea, technology provided the means by which "the little spark of divinity remaining in us may shine brightly.21 If today "the technological enterprise ... remains suffused with religious belief, Noble writes, then it is hardly surprising, for "modern technology and religion have evolved together.22 The pattern of seeing new technology as a means to some kind of spiritual transcendence has been repeated so many times in Western history that commentator Erik Davis has coined the term "Techgnosis" as a generic description of the phenomena. 23

A techgnonstic spirit can, in particular, be discerned among many cyberspace enthusiasts. Here too we find a longing for union with some posited mystical All. A paradigmatic example is provided by Vinge,s True Names, in the climax of which we find the hero and heroine mind-melding with the entire global network. Here is Vinge's description:

"Every ship in the seas, every aircraft now making for safe landing, every one of the loans, payments, the meals of an entire race registered clearly on some part of [their] consciousness.... By the analogical rules of the covens, there was only one valid word for themselves in their present state: they were gods." 24

Though the details are mind-numbingly pedestrian, this is a classic description of gnosis, a fusion of the self with the All that results in a state of omniscience. A gnostic drive is also at work in Gibson,s Mona Lisa Overdrive, sequel to Neuromancer, where we read that "the mythform of cyberspace "involves the assumption of omniscience ... on the part of the matrix itself. Here, it is the matrix rather than the man that experiences the All; it then communicates this knowledge to its human interlocutors. According to David Thomas, the mythlogic expressed in Gibson's novel suggests that one of cyberspace's more fundamental social functions is to serve as a medium to communicate a form of gnosis, mystical knowledge about the nature of things and how they came to be what they are. 25

Bo th Vinge and Moravec imagine that in the glorious cyber-driven futures they foresee, not only immortality but also a kind of gnostic omniscience will be vouchsafed toeveryone. This then is the promise of cyber-religiosity: Through the networked power of silicon, we can all become as one with the All. Like Erythrina and Mr Slippery in True Names, we too will supposedly be able to transcend our mortal coils and see the world from a "god-like plane".

Yet again I suggest that we should be wary of such cyber-gnostic dreams, for again there is all-too-often here an element of moral evasion. Even in its non-electronic forms Gnosticism has often been problematic. With their focus on transcendence, Gnostics through the ages have often inclined towards a Manichean repudiation of the body, and along with that has been a tendency to disregard the concerns of the earthly world and earthly communities. Orthodox Christian theologians have long stressed that an essential reason for valuing life in the flesh is that on the physical plane we are bound into physical communities to whom we have obligations and responsibilities. Someone who does not value life in the body is less likely to feel obligated to contribute to their physical community: Why bother helping a sick friend if you believe that they would be better off dead? Why bother trying to extend life in the flesh if you think it is an evil to be transcended as quick ly as possible?

Orthodox Christianity has always affirmed the value of the body. Humanity was created in body as well as soul, the great medieval theologians asserted, and the duty of the Christian is to live life well in body as well as in spirit. Visions of cybergnosis and cyber-immortality are often at heart Manichaean, for we see here too a strong tendency to devalue life in the flesh. Michael Heim is right when he notes that Gibson's vision of cyberspace evokes "a contempt for earthy, earthly existence".26 Too often, cyber-religious dreaming suggests a tendency to abandon responsibility on the earthly plane. Why bother fighting for equal access to education in the physical world if in cyberspace we can all know everything? Why bother fighting for earthly social justice if you believe that in cyberspace we can all be as gods? What would be the point? Commentator Paulina Borsook has noted that the culture of the silicon valley cyber-elite is indeed imbued with a deeply self-serving libertarianism that shuns responsibility towards physical communities. It is a tendency that Borsook has termed "cyber-selfishness". 27

Behind the desire for cyber-immortality and cyber-gnosis, there is a not insignificant component of cyber-selfishness. Unlike "real religions that make ethical demands on their believers, cyber-religiosity has no moral precepts. Here, as I have said, one gets the payof fs of a religion without getting bogged down in reciprocal responsibilities. It is this desire for the personal pay-off of a religious system without any of the social demands that I find so troubling. In its quest for bodily transcendence, for immortality, and for union with some posited mystical cyberspatial All, the emerging "religion of cyberspace rehashes many of the most problematic aspects of Gnostic-Manichean-Platonist dualism. What is left out here is the element of community and one's obligations to the wider social whole.

 


References:

1 Kevin Kelly, quoted from Harpers Magazine Forum "What Are We Doing On-Line? Harpers Magazine, August 1995, P39

2 Benedikt, Michael. "Introduction. In Cyberspace: First Steps.P18

3 Elidae, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. Harcourt Brace, 1987. P23

4 Stenger, Nicole. "Mind is a Leaking Rainbow. In Cyberspace: First Steps. Ed. Michael Benedikt, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991. P55

5 Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane. P26

6 Midgley, Mary. Science as Salvation: A Modern Myth and its Meaning. London: Routledge, 1992. P15

7 Benedikt, Michael. "Introduction. In Cyberspace: First Steps . P15

8 Benedikt, Michael. Ibid. P15-16

9 Benedikt, Michael. Ibid. P18

10 Vinge, Vernor. True Names. New York: Baen Books, 1987. P142

11 Whittaker, Steven. "The Safe Abyss: What,s Wrong with Virtual Reality? in Border/Lines 33 , 1994. P45

12 Quoted in: Caroline Walker Bynam,Fragmentation and Redemption. New York: Zone Books, 1992. P256

13 Quoted in: Caroline Walker Bynam. Ibid. P264

14 Fisher, Jeffrey. "The Postmodern Paradiso: Dante, Cyberpunk, and the Technosophy of Cyberspace. In Internet Culture. ed. David Porter. New York: Routledge, 1997. P120

15 Fisher, Jeffrey. Ibid. P121

16 Hayles, N. Katherine. "The Seduction of Cyberspace in Rethinking Tecnologies. Ed. Verena Andermatt Conley. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993. P173

17 Moravec, Hans. Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988. P109-110

18 Moravec. Ibid. P119

19 Moravec. Ibid. P122

20 Giordano Bruno. "The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast, quoted in Benjamin Farrington, The Philosophy of Francis Bacon. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964. P27

21 Quoted in Francis Yates. The Rosicrucian Enlightenment. Boulder: Shambala Press, 1978. P119

22 Noble, David F. The Religion ofTechnology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997. P5

23 Davis, Erik. SeeTechgnosis: Myth Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information. New York: Harmon y Books, 1998.

24 Vinge, Vernor. True Names. P112

25 Thomas, David. "Old Rituals for New Space: Rites de Passage and William Gibson's Cultural Model of Cyberspace In Cyberspace: First Steps. P41

26 Michael Heim. "The Erotic Ontology of Cyberspace. In Cyberspace First Steps. P75

27 Borsook, Paulina. "Cyberselfish in Mother Jones , July/August 1996.


Margaret Wertheim has written about science and society for a wide variety of publications, including New Scientist, The Sciences, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Australian Review of Books. She is the author of "The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet", and "Pythagoras Trousers" - a history of the relationship between physics and religion in Western culture. She lectures widely at colleges and universities in America, and in 1998 was the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's official spokesperson for Science Week.

 

The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet, by Margaret Wertheim

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