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

Overview

Exploring the mystical impulses behind our obsession with information technology, TechGnosis presents a fascinating and passionately original perspective on technoculture.

Today we often assume that the triumph of technological rationality has condemned the spiritual imagination to the trash heap of history. But as Erik Davis explains, religious impulses and magical dreams permeate the history of technology. Ranging from the printing press to ...
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Overview

Exploring the mystical impulses behind our obsession with information technology, TechGnosis presents a fascinating and passionately original perspective on technoculture.

Today we often assume that the triumph of technological rationality has condemned the spiritual imagination to the trash heap of history. But as Erik Davis explains, religious impulses and magical dreams permeate the history of technology. Ranging from the printing press to the telegraph, from radio to the Internet, David peels away the utilitarian shell of technology to reveal the mystical and millennialist fervor that attends each new communications breakthrough. As he unveils the hidden history of techno-mysticism, Davis shows how the religious imagination continues to feed the utopian dreams, apocalyptic visions, and alien obsessions that populate today's technological unconscious.
In these pages, Davis offers a lucid, playful, and astonishingly erudite journey through our hyper-mediated environment. Anyone grappling with the morphing boundaries and terminal speed of our present moment will want to take the ride.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780609804742
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 11/16/1999
  • Edition description: 1 PBK ED
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 6.15 (w) x 9.22 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Erik Davis has written for Wired, The Village Voice, Details, Spin, Gnosis, Rolling Stone, Lingua Franca, and The Nation and has lectured internationally on topics related to cyberculture and the fringes of religion. He lives in San Francisco.
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Read an Excerpt

From "Introduction: Crossed Wires"

This book is written in the shadow of the millennium, that arbitrary but incontestable line that the Western imagination has drawn in the sands of time. It is also written in the conviction that one hardly needs to be decked out in a Biblical sandwich-board or wired to the gills with the latest cyborg gear to feel the glittering void of possibility and threat growing at the heart of our profoundly technologized society. Even as many of us spend our days, in that now universal Californiaism, surfing the datastream, we can hardly ignore the deeper, more powerful and more ominous undertows that tug beneath the froth of our lives and labors.
        
You know the scene. Social structures the world over are melting down and mutating, making way for a global McVillage, a Gaian brain, and a whole heap of cultural chaos. The emperor of technoscience has achieved dominion, though his clothes are growing more threadbare by the moment, the once noble costume of Progress barely concealing far more naked ambitions. Across the globe, ferocious post-perestroika capitalism yanks the rug out from under the nation-state, while the planet spits up signs and symptoms
of serious distress. Boundaries dissolve, as we drift into the no-man's zones between synthetic and organic life, between actual and virtual environments, between local communities and global flows of goods, information, labor and capital. With pills modifying personality, machines modifying bodies, and synthetic pleasures and networked minds engineering a more fluid and invented sense of self, the boundaries of our identities are mutating as well. Thehorizon melts into a limitless question mark, and like the cartographers of old, we glimpse yawning monstrosities and mind-forged utopias beyond the edge of our paltry and provisional maps.
        
Regardless of how secular our ultramodern condition appears, the velocity and mutability of the times invokes a certain supernatural quality that must be seen, at least in part, through the lenses of religious thought and the fantastic storehouse of the archetypal imagination. Inside the United States, within whose high-tech bosom I quite self-consciously write, the spirit has definitely made a comeback—if it could be said to have ever left this giddy, gold-rush land, where most people believe in the
Lord and his coming kingdom, and more than you'd guess believe in UFOs. Today God has become one of Time's favorite cover-boys, and a Black Muslim numerologist can lead the most imaginative march on the nation's capital since the yippies tried to levitate the Pentagon. Self-help maestros and corporate consultants promulgate New Age therapies, as strains of Buddhism both scientific and technicolor seep through the intelligentsia, and half the guests on Oprah pop up wearing angel pins. The recent surge of interest
in alternative medicine has injected non-Western and ad hoc spiritual practices into the mainstream, while deep ecologists turn up the boil on the nature mysticism long simmering in the American soul. This rich confusion is even more evident in our brash popular culture, where science-fiction films, digital environments, and urban tribes are reconfiguring old archetypes and imaginings within a vivid comic-book frame. From the X-Files to occult computer games, from Xena the Warrior Princess to Magic: the Gathering playing cards, the pagan and the paranormal have colonized the twilight zones of pop media.
        
These signs are not just evidence of a media culture exploiting the crude power of the irrational. They reflect the fact that people inhabiting all frequencies of the socio-economic spectrum are intentionally reaching for some of the oldest navigational tools known to humankind: sacred ritual and metaphysical speculation, spiritual regimen and natural spell. For some superficial spiritual consumers, this means pre-packaged answers to the thorny questions of life; but for many others, the quest for meaning and
connection has led both individuals and communities to construct meaningful frameworks for their lives, worldviews that actually deepen their willingness and ability to face the strangeness of our days.
        
So here we are: a hyper-technological and cynically postmodern culture seemingly drawn like a passel of moths toward the guttering flames of the sacred. And it is with this apparent paradox in mind that I have written TechGnosis: a secret history of the mystical impulses that continue to spark and sustain the West's obsession with technology, and especially with its technologies of communication.
        
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 has with the clatter of Rock'em Sock'em Robots. Historians and sociologists inform us that the West's mystical heritage of occult dreamings, spiritual transformations, and apocalyptic visions crashed on the dry shores of the modern age. According to this narrative, technology has helped disenchant the world, forcing the ancestral symbolic networks of old to give way to the omniverous and secular game-plans of economic development, skeptical inquiry, and material progress.
        
The old phantasms and metaphysical longings did not exactly disappear, however. In many cases, they disguised themselves and went
underground, worming their way into the cultural, psychological, and mythological motivations that form the foundations of the modern world. As we will see throughout this book, [...] mystical impulses sometimes body-snatched the very technologies that supposedly helped yank them fromthe stage in the first place. And it is these techno-mystical impulses—sometimes sublimated, sometimes acknowledged, sometimes masked in the pop detritus of science fiction or video games—that TechGnosis seeks to
uncork.
        
For well over a century, the dominant images of technology have been industrial: the extraction and exploitation of natural resources, the mechanization of work through the assembly line, and the bureaucratic command-and-control systems favored by large and impersonal institutions. Lewis Mumford called this industrial image of technology the "myth of the machine," a myth which insists on the authority of technical and scientific elites, and in the intrinsic value of efficiency, unrestrained technological development, and economic expansion. As many historians and sociologists have recognized, this secular image was framed all along by Christian myths: the Biblical call to conquer nature, the Protestant work-ethic, and, in particular, the millennialist vision of a New Jerusalem, the earthly paradise that the book of Revelation claims will crown the course of history. Despite a century of Hiroshimas, Bhopals and Chernobyls, this myth of an engineered utopia still propels the ideology of technological progress, with its perennial promises of freedom, prosperity, and release from disease and want.
        
Today a new, less mechanized myth has sprung from the brow of the industrial mega-machine: the myth of information, of electric minds and boundless databases, computer forecasts and hypertext libraries, immersive media dreams and a planetary blip-culture woven together with global telecommunication nets. Certainly this myth still rides atop the same mechanical behemoth that lurched out of Europe's chilly bogs centuries ago and conquered the globe, but for the most part, TechGnosis will focus on information technologies alone by placing them in their own, more spectral light. For of all technologies, it is the technologies of information and
communication that most mold and shape the source of all mystical glimmerings: the human self.
        
From the moment that humans began etching grooves into ancient wizard bones to mark the cycles of the moon, the process of encoding thought and experience into a vehicle of expression has influenced the changing nature of the self. Information technology tweaks our perceptions, communicates our picture of the world to one another, and constructs remarkable and sometimes insidious forms of control over the cultural stories that shape our sense of the world. The moment we invent a significant new device for communication—talking drums, papyrus scrolls, printed books, crystal sets, computers, pagers—we partially reconstruct
the self and its world, creating new opportunities (and new traps) for thought, perception, and social experience.
        
By their very nature, the technologies of information and communication—"media" in the broad sense of the term—are
techno-cultural hybrids. On the one hand, they are crafted things, material mechanisms that are conceived, constructed, and exploited for gain. But media technologies are also animated by something that has nothing to do with matter or technique. More than any other invention, information technology transcends its status as a thing, simply because it allows for the incorporeal encoding and transmission of mind and meaning. In a sense, this hybridity reflects the age-old sibling rivalry between form and
content: the material and technical structure of media impose formal constraints on communication, even as the immediacy of communication continues to challenge formal limitations as it crackles from soul to soul, pushing the envelope of intelligence, art, and information flow. By creating a new interface between the self, the other, and the world beyond, media technologies thus become part of the self, the other, and the world beyond. They form the building blocks, and even in some sense the foundation, for what we now increasingly think of as "the social construction of reality."


From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix
Introduction: crossed wires 1
I Imagining technologies 10
II The alchemical fire 39
III The gnostic infonaut 76
IV Techgnosis, american-style 102
V The spiritual cyborg 129
VI A most enchanting machine 164
VII Cyberspace: the virtual craft 190
VIII The alien call 225
IX Datapocalypse 253
X Third mind from the sun 289
XI The path is a network 319
Endnotes 337
Index 346
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