Techgnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information
Author: Eric Davis
Publisher: New York: Harmony Books, 1998
Review Published: December 2001
"Information Technology's Gnostic Source"
Erik Davis is a freelance writer working out of San Francisco. He contributes frequently to many commercial magazines such as Wired, The Village Voice, Details, Spin, Gnosis, Rolling Stone, Lingua Franca, and The Nation. In the early 1990s, he began writing about religion, technology, and technoculture. Examples of his inquiries into this field include the articles "Tongues of Fire, Whirlwinds of Noise: Images of Spiritual Information" which appeared in the Spring 1992 issue of Gnosis, "A Computer, A Universe: Mapping an Online Cosmology" which was published in March 1993 in the Voice Literary Supplement, "Digital Dharma" which was printed in Wired in August of 1994, "Technopagans" also in Wired in July 1995, "Divine Invention: A review of The Religion of Technology by David Noble" which was printed in the Winter 1997 issue of the Voice Literary Supplement, and most recently "Databases of the Dead" which appeared in the July 1999 issue of Wired. (For more on Davis see: http://www.techgnosis.com).
The title of Erik Davis' 1999 book Techgnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information suggests an attempt to understand the underlying metaphysical constructions of our digital era. The connotation of the first part of the primary title, "Tech," is obvious meaning technology and Davis qualifies his use of "technology" in the course of his work as telecommunications technology or information technology (2). But "Gnosis" requires both a linguistic and historical explanation. "Gnosis" comes from the ancient Greek meaning "knowledge" but it also refers to a pre-Christian religious practice illuminated for modern scholarship by the discovery in the mid-20th century of the Nag Hammadi texts and the Dead Sea Scrolls. These texts contain some of the oldest and least redacted versions yet discovered of the several monographs that compose the Old Testament. Scholars have concluded from investigating them that early Christianity was strongly influenced by Gnosticism and its Platonic rejection of material existence. Davis' own basic definition of Gnosticism is: "A mystical mode of Christianity that arose in late antiquity, [which] held a rather sour view of material life, and embraced the direct individual experience of gnosis -- a mystical influx of self-knowledge with strong Platonic overtones" (77).
While the author's specific concern is not to investigate Gnosticism, he uses its metaphysical perspective to explain what he views to be the underlying mystical and spiritual impulses driving the cultural construction of information technologies. He quotes from literary and religious critic Harold Bloom's 1992 work The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation: "Gnosticism was (and is) a kind of information theory. Matter and energy are rejected, or at least placed under the sign of negation. Information becomes the emblem of salvation; the false Creation-Fall concerned matter and energy, but the Pleroma, or Fulness, the original Abyss, is all information" (96).
For Bloom, whose purpose is to define "American Religion" as Gnostic in sensibility, as with Davis, Gnosis is an "information anxiety," a need to know that has salvific consequence. Davis again quotes Bloom: "The American Religion does not believe or trust, it knows, though it wants always to know yet more. The American Religion manifests itself as an information anxiety, but that seems to me a better definition of nearly all religion than the attempts to see faith as a compulsive neurosis or as a drug" (103).
The religion of the country at the center of the information revolution, America, is Gnosticism. So while information technology may seem to derive from secular sources, the product of highly sophisticated applications of skeptical science, underlying its development are the millennialist impulses carried to the American continent by religious visionaries seeking utopia. And if utopia wasn't inherent in the American soil, it would be engineered by the ambitious pilgrims as they looked for Zion on Earth. For Davis, the mystical impulses of the early American religious visionaries haven't died in the face of modern secularism; rather these impulses have gone underground: "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 mythological motivations that form the foundation of the modern world" (3). And so Davis seeks to reconcile the paradoxical relationship between religion and technology. While it would seem that information technologies, as the children of modern skeptical secularism, ought to reject the metaphysical, they ironically embrace it.
Davis begins the first chapter, "Imagining Technologies," by pursuing the nature/culture debate. He draws from the work of the anthropologist of science Bruno Latour. Davis claims that Latour breaks through the nature/culture dichotomy by insisting that modern Western civilization, in its attempt to objectify nature, ironically broke through the cultural wall, weaving itself into a profound hybridity with nature. Davis quotes from Latour's We Have Never Been Modern: "It is not only the Bedouins and the !Kung who mix up transistors and traditional behaviors, plastic buckets and animal-skin vessels. What country could not be called 'a land of contrasts'? We have all reached the point of mixing up times. We have all become premodern again" (12).
The demarcation that the Enlightenment attempts to draw between the modern and the primitive is therefore an illusion. There never was a point at which human culture uprooted itself from the natural. And so it is as natural for modern sensibilities to be imbued with primeval metaphysical longings as it was for primitives. The Gnostic impulse to reject constraining material concerns and to seek instead pure immaterial knowledge can be found throughout human history. To prove his point, Davis charts in the first chapter this impulse from the Greek god Hermes, a messenger of information, to Hermes Trismegistus, the alchemical Gnostic, to Plato and the Hellenistic Neo-Platonists, who rejected the body in favor of the Forms and Ideas, to the Christian mystics with their direct Gnostic influence, and finally to the Humanist hermetics Pico and Ficino with their alchemical lore.
Much of the rest of Davis' work involves investigating in further depth each of the major themes outlined above as well as some minor themes. Chapter II, "The Alchemical Fire," pursues the immateriality of electricity from Enlightenment European thought to the alchemical visions of Nikola Tesla in early Twentieth Century America. Chapter III, "The Gnostic Infonaut," explores the Gnostic leanings of modern cybernetics and information theory as developed by Claude Shannon, Alan Turing, and Norbert Wiener. Already covered above and drawing on the work of Harold Bloom, Chapter IV, "Techgnosis: American Style," inquires how the religious imaginings of early American visionaries inform the information revolution. Also in this chapter, Davis explores the cultural formation of futurist discourses including those of the transhumanists and extropians. Chapter V, "The Spiritual Cyborg," investigates the ruminations of recent religious visionaries like G. I. Gurdjieff, L Ron Hubbard, and Timothy Leary whose theologies are intimately linked to technology. Chapter VI, "A Most Enchanting Machine," investigates the works of academic theorists Marshall McLuhan, Guy Debord, Theodor Adorno, Raymond Williams, Walter Ong, and Jacques Ellul and their contributions to understanding the influence of mystical impulse on telecommunications technology. This chapter also devotes some time to what Davis' coins the technopagan, a hybrid of technoculture and occult/pagan religious practice.
In Chapter VII, "Cyberspace: The Virtual Craft," Davis discusses the construction of "cyberspace" by author William Gibson, VRML designer Mark Pesce, and the creators of Multi-User Dungeons. He also cites author J.R.R. Tolkein's strong influence on "virtual reality" by writing the fantastical Lord of the Rings saga. Chapter VIII, "The Alien Call," investigates the contemporary obsession with UFOs and alien visitations. Specifically, he cites the Heaven's Gate cult as an example of the pervasive Gnostic influence in contemporary religious and technological culture. In Chapter IX, "Datapocalypse," Davis invokes the notion of "eschatechnology," a play on "eschatology," which means the study of the end. He explores how information technologies move towards a millennialist culmination. He also discusses the post-apocalyptic science fiction works of Philip K. Dick. In the penultimate Chapter X, "Third Mind from the Sun," Davis writes about the emergent "collective intelligence" theorized by Christian philosopher Tielhard de Chardin and cyberphilospher Pierre Levy. He then goes on to cite the possible negatives aspects of this move towards global consciousness. And the final chapter, "The Path is a Network," is Davis' attempt to describe a vision of contemporary spirituality. According to Davis' homepage for Techgnosis, the "network path" is a "global, pluralistic perspective capable of grappling with some of the forces that are currently tearing us apart: spirit and science, modernity and nihilism, technology and the human."
As demonstrated by this summary of the book's chapters, Davis' authorial curiosity ranges all over the map. Indeed, as the author states in the introduction, Techgnosis mimics the "hypertext" architecture of the Net itself. For in as broad and diverse a cultural territory as cyberspace, it is difficult to find an underlying impulse that unites this phenomena of the Information Age, the Internet, into a connected and functioning whole. The author's argument that cyberspace is as much a construction of the metaphysical imagination as it is of applied science is convincing. For it is difficult to find a discourse surrounding the Net that doesn't refer to utopia, ultimate possibility, or freedom from the constraints of the body. The source of these discourses in Davis' view is the Gnostic spark that galvanizes the datascape.
Nick Hales is a graduate student in the Master's Program in Communication, Culture, and Technology at Georgetown University. He received his B.A. at Idaho State University in History and English. He is currently researching the intersections between digital telecommunications technology and religion with specific emphasis on the Mormon church. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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