Deus Ex Machina vs. Electric Gaia

Deus Ex Machina vs. Electric Gaia

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 The emergence of cyberspace is undoubtedly creating a wave of religious enthusiasm. Partly, the infinity that cyberspace creates, functions as an ideal mechanism for the projection of our fondest hopes and deepest fears. It therefore generates an extraordinary amount of cultural energy, the fusion of techno-utopianism, the desire for the spiritual liberation from the constraints of matter, and the ‘end of the millenium’ fears for the end of the world … what author Michael Grosso calls the Technocalyps.

 This fusion of cyberspace and spirituality is not just an accident. Spiritual schools of thoughts have traditionally dealt with the navigation of immaterial worlds (the astral and subtle planes of existence) and with magical techniques to mold such a world to human desires. Cyberspace does function as a magical realm where all is possible (especially in its VR a variant) and what better interface technique than the magical incantations, as Vernon Vinge so brilliantly described in “True Names”. It is very likely that the scientists, engineers, artists and architects who are building our virtual worlds, will look for inspiration in the magical incantations of the past, as the new means of navigations for the future.

 Spiritual commentators have noted the similarities between the Tim Berners Lee’s interconnected WWW and Indra’s Web, between the Web’s function as a global repository of human knowledge and the Akashic Records, and between the global conversation in newsgroups and the Noosphere of Teilhard de Chardin. Spiritual groups have been busily sacralising cyberspace, starting with Mark Pesce’s techno-paganistic ‘Zero Circle’ (the Axis Mundi of the shamans), and even Tibetan monks have consecrated cyberspace, while the Jungian-inspired PsyberNet is busily psycho-analysing the ‘soul of cyberspace’.

 But not all spiritualists are equally enthusiastic about the emergence of cyberspace. Spiritual tradition is strongly divided between a pessimistic and a optimistic school. The pessimistic interpretation of the Philosophia Perennis, with spokesmen like Rene Guenon, Fritjof Schuon, Julius Evola, sees human evolution as essentially going downhill, straight from a mythical golden age of high spiritual consciousness (Eden, Atlantis) to today’s end time, the ‘kali yuga’ or ‘Apocalyps’. For such commentators modernity is an unmitigated disaster. Technology, by externalising human muscle power in machines, and human memory and thought processes in computers, is weakening the Inner Man, destroying the very possibility of salvation through meditative and concentrative practices. For them, technology is a misguided Luciferian revolt against all limits imposed upon mankind by our Universe (‘Nature’ or ‘God’). Technology is nothing less than a misguided magical program, they say, emulating spiritual powers (out of body experiences, communicating over distance, etc…) through external means. The end result of mankind’s Technological Program, will be the creation of a ‘god-in-the-machine’. The future Net, coupled with immensely powerful Artificial Intelligences, will evolve into a ‘Machine-God’, a Deus-Ex-Machina, a kind of technological Anti-Christ, that will enslave us all.

 Not so, says the positive school of the Wisdom Tradition, who, with spokespersons as Hegel, Teilhard de Chardin, and today’s Ken Wilber, see a definitive broadening of human consciousness throughout history. Consciousness, from a low point at the creation of a totally unconcscious Nature, has slowly evolved through unicellular organisms, through the various life forms, to end up with the birth of humans who equally grow in the depth and breadth of their Awareness. Humans already went from tribal to national consciousness, mainly through the effects of the printing press. And today the internet is creating the necessary material base for the emergence of a planetary awareness. They agree with the Spiritual Pessimists that cyberspace is a collective externalisation of our minds (the concept of a Noosphere), and say that it functions as a nervous system for our planet, that becomes aware of itself through networked humans. In short, what the Net is creating is Electric Gaia, a new stage in human civilisation, both materially and spiritually.

 It is interesting to note that this spiritual debate is mirrored by the secular religions of Technology, with the Utopian visions of the Extropians representing the extreme optimistic side of the debate, and the neo-Luddite deep ecologists representing the negative critique of technology. However, in a strange and ironic dialectic, it is the future vision of the Extropians, with their desires for a Technological Ubermensch, that confirm the worst visions of the spiritual Pessimists; and it is the harmonious model of deep ecology which illustrates the hopes of the school of Teilhard de Chardin!

 In this major debate about the meaning of technology, spiritualists are blazing the trail for the rest of us. While scientists and engineers are focusing on the ‘how’ questions, spiritualists are already tackling head-on the ‘why’ questions. The extreme points of view represent the Yin and the Yang of technology, the two sides of the coin, the vivogenic and pathogenic aspects of the virtual living environments that we are creating. Thus, answering the important question of whether ‘prana travels the wires’, is an inquiry into the fundamental ‘human-friendliness’ of the Machine-God that we are undoubtedly creating. It is thus a debate that should involve the rest of us as well.

 — Michel Bauwens