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

Author: Eric Davis
Publisher: New York: Harmony Books, 1998
Review Published: December 2001

 REVIEW 1: Susan Lewak
 REVIEW 2: Nick Hales

"Body and Soul in Cyberspace"

"Now, watch what she's doing," the primatology professor told his class of undergraduates, referring to the image on the large overhead: a chimpanzee stooping over a small mound of dirt. The students watched in anticipation, waiting for something monumental to happen. What they saw seemed less earth shattering: the female chimp lifted a small twig and began to poke it methodically into the mound of dirt. After a few jabs, she lifted the twig to her mouth and devoured the variety of insects which stuck to it as if it were velcro.

"What's the big deal Sue?" one of the students whispered to me, the T.A.

"Tool use," I said.

"What?" he asked.

"Technology," I replied.

The enthusiasm of the primatologist, in contrast to the bewilderment of some of the students, acts as a metaphor: the ever-present role of some form of technology in our lives, in contrast to our general lack of awareness of it. In other words, there has never been a time in human history when we have not been cyborgs, Donna Haraway's "hybrid of machine and organism." When the behavior appears ordinary (i.e. writing with a pencil, cooking with a pot, washing our bodies with soap), we do not ordinarily classify it as one of interaction with technology. When such an interaction removes us from the world of the ordinary, however, when we are forced to relinquish old habits in favor of new ones, we label the interfering organism as a technological beast. Thus, the suspect nature of writing in Plato's "Phaedrus," the cataclysmic reaction to Gutenberg's new technology, and the fervent debate associated with the role of information technology in modern times. Loss, or fear of impending loss, of existing technologies, of labor, of ways of life, of perhaps our very humanity, is the common theme.

As techno-journalist Erik Davis indicates in his groundbreaking text, TechGnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information, these fears are often instead a distortion of our "interactive" relationship with technology. Davis argues for the notion of "technomysticism," a hybrid of intellectual ingenuity in environmental adaptation and visualization of an internal abstract identity:

    My topic may seem rather obscure at first, for common sense tells us that mysticism has no more in common with technology than the twilight cry of wild swans with the clatter of Rock'em Sock'm Robots. Historians and sociologists inform us that the West's mystical heritage of occult dreamings, spiritual transformations, and apocalyptic visions crashed on the shore of modern age. According to this narrative, technology has helped disenchant the world, forcing the ancestral symbolic networks of old to give way to the crisp, secular game plans of economic development, sceptical inquiry, and material progress. But the old phantasms and metaphysical longings did not exactly disappear. In many cases, they disguised themselves and went underground, worming their way into the cultural, psychological, and mythical motivations that form the foundations of the modern world (2-3).

In the hip, fast paced, non-linear style of cyber-speak (forcing the reader to continually "hyper-link" between distant but related references), Davis attempts to cover the history of the relationship between human beings and technology from Classical Greece to the present. While his approach privileges Western thought and vision (with a few brief references to Hindu and Buddhist beliefs), his breadth of knowledge is remarkable. He "surfs" with relative ease from the complex theories of Deleuze and Foucault to Scientology, Dungeons and Dragons, and e-commerce.

The central tenant of his argument lies in the title "TechGnosis," or the role of Gnosticism in technological development. Gnosticism, a mystical branch of Christianity, revealed to the world only after 1945 when a series of ancient scrolls were recovered in Egypt, locates divinity within rather than through a series of historical forces. Davis argues that as it privileges a way of life which encourages intuitive development and self understanding, The Book of Genesis would not be viewed as telling the story of original sin, but rather as a mystical set-up: Adam and Eve were tricked into leaving the comforts of Eden in order to discover their divine essence through trial and hardship in the wilderness (99). In a similar vein, our travels through cyberspace replicate the "mythic structures and psychology of Gnosticism" (80). In other words, our relationship with technology on one level involves the belief in, and search for, a deeper sense of self and identity. Davis further backs this claim with the words of critic Harold Bloom who declares Gnosticism "a kind of information theory. Information becomes the emblem of salvation" (96).

Yet, Davis' argument reaches beyond cyberspace, and claims that with each stage of technological advancement, spiritual, mystical, and mythical movements simultaneously develop, often embedded within the heart of the new technology. One of the numerous examples he gives is the Theosophical Society, founded in 1875, which combined magic and Eastern mysticism in a hearty rejection of conventional Christianity. According to Davis, the interesting aspect of its development was the simultaneous explosion of electricity as a tangible good. The development of external electricity inspired dialogue of internal electricity -- or the existence of internal light and energy. Davis cites Oetinger, the founder of German Pietism, a conservative branch of theosophy, who "used the new scientific object of electricity to emphasize the rootedness of man's spiritual life in the organic structures and chemical processes of his bodily existence. Like other natural philosophers and mystics of his era, Oetinger recharged the ancient image of the animal soul in a bath of electrical fluid" (44-45).

In the same vein, Davis argues extensively in chapter 7, "Cyberspace, the Virtual Craft," that our ventures into cyberspace are extensively intertwined with spiritual and mystical motifs which represent the unity, rather than division of information technology with human essence. Focusing on cyberpunk, virtual reality and non-social (pre-1989) MUDs, Davis argues that our gradual move to cyberspace has been continually re-evaluated and understood through classic archetypal motifs. Davis cites Margaret Wertheim, who states "that by creating a space that follows the virtual laws of thought rather than the concrete laws of matter, cyberspace provides a cosmos where the psyche can once again live and breathe" (192). It is thus significant, for example, that the early, non-social MUDs drew heavily upon Tolkien-like worlds of sword and sorcery (also reflective of the D & D community which both developed and cultivated it). Even as social MUDs and MOOs developed during the 1990s, the process, Davis argues, also replicated a type of self-search as they "awakened a broader range of imaginal desires by allowing people to construct and experiment with new identities within a genuine social space" (222).

While TechGnosis can be understood as an elaborately researched and well documented discussion of the continual intertwining of technology with divine introspection, Davis chooses to ignore contemporary realities which contradict this vision: the deepening divide between the new haves and have-nots. Silicon Valley, the Mecca of cyber living, exemplifies this divide with unthinkable fortunes created instantaneously for a few, downsizing an everyday occurrence for the many.

Furthermore, cybertechnology is still the technology of the privileged rather than of the many, with a language mastered only through long-term exposure and education. The direct correlation between funding and the quality of computer software and hardware, as well as the need for extensive training in the concepts and language of cyberspace, all play a role in the accessibility (or lack there of) to this new technology. The fact that the charitable activities of Apple inventor Steve Wozniak, whose mission to bring computers to all elementary classrooms is virtually unknown, in contrast to the daily business decisions of his former partner Steve Jobs which is daily news, only serves to underscore the gap between new technology and humanist values.

These shortcomings, however, do not undermine the enormous value of Davis' work, nor his idea that technology can enhance rather than destroy spiritual and human values. Indeed, it creates hope for our certain multi-linear and virtual future, hope for the preservation of the essential characteristics, hope that the future virtual human will be a reality for all, rather than for the few.

Susan Lewak:
Susan Lewak received her B.A. in English Literature from Mount Holyoke College, and M.A. in Visual Anthropology from the University of Southern California. She is currently a graduate student in English at California State University, Los Angeles, where she is focusing on the intersections of fairy tales, fantasy, and cyberspace. 

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