Erik Davis is the author of TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, & Mysticism in the Age of Information (recently reissued by North Atlantic Books with a new afterword). An investigation into how our transcendental urges play out in the realm of high technology, it is a rare treat – both an exemplary work of scholarship and also a delightful read – a florid, fun, and virtuosic play of language. Even more impressive is that in our metamorphic times, this book has aged considerably well. TechGnosis is in ways more relevant today than it was in the rosy dawn of 1998, before The Matrix and the iPhone, Facebook, and Edward Snowden. We’re living in the future. Read this book and learn the territory.
Over a glitchy Google Hangout (you can watch both parts on YouTube), Erik and I discussed our culture’s highest hopes and darkest dreams for our collective future, and how they’ve both become more complicated since the turn of the Millennium.
If you imagine browser windows as a kind of portal in between dimensions – if you wonder when the apes and whales will open social media accounts – if you believe that we can find a way to surf the turbulence of our connected century with grace and humor – then read on…
(Thanks to Terra Celeste and Ivan Marko for transcribing this! This is about one-third of the full conversation. You can also read the transcript in its raw entirety here.)
Erik: I apologize for our developing-world level of internet connectivity. Here in San Francisco! That’s right, folks, you heard it right: I live in the city of San Francisco, the absolute white hot center of the technological creative mutation, and yet my internet’s kind of crappy.
Michael: Well, you know, San Francisco was where Skynet was headquartered in the last Terminator film, so it may just be that your home is becoming ever-more inimical to human existence.
Erik: And the Federation, too! In a way those were the two models, right? On the one hand, you have the Federation from Star Trek, where it’s a liberal, UN, kind of globalist model – we’re no longer fighting nation states, we’re still human beings, we have desires, we get to drink tea and explore the universe. That sounds pretty cool from a humanist point of view, and yet on the other side we have Skynet, which is of course a whole other ball of wax. In a way, isn’t that it? It’s the struggle between the Federation and Skynet.
Michael: It’s funny, ‘cause most of what I wanted to talk to you about today was about how your book -– which is a brilliant piece of writing – has aged since 1998. The new volume includes a new afterword from the 2004 edition, as well as a new afterword from the 2015 edition. One of the things that you discuss is the way that the expectation that we had of boundary dissolution and transcendence at the turn of the millennium has become more complex. Now, it’s more of just a general shifting and metamorphosis of the construction of new boundaries. And so, like in the most recent Star Trek films and Terminator films, we now have good Terminators that believe they are people and are willing to donate their heart to the dying members of the human resistance. You know, the actual human heart that these Terminators possess, in order spoof human security systems. And then, in the latest Star Trek film, the threat comes from within the Federation, from a black box military program. Our culture seems to be getting more and more comfortable with these liminal zones and these ethical complexities. Less naïve with respect to that kind of simple dyadic distinction.
Erik: Techgnosis first came out in ’98. I talk a lot about gnosticism in the book and about these ancient Christian heresies about the spark in us that can escape from this prison that’s run by evil demons who are fabricating reality. That ancient model of mysticism and theology just fits like a hand and glove in our digital era. And then the Matrix films come along and I was like, “Oh my God, so beautiful.” It was just a perfect expression, and I wrote about that in the afterword for the 2004 edition. Nowadays a lot of the topics that I wrote about are even more available and perceivable through popular culture because popular culture has gotten weirder, more full of occultism, more intense, even as, in some ways, it’s become more ordinary. A lot of these sort of topics were very fringe in the ’80s or even the ’90s, in the sense that you had to kinda dig for occultism, for Satanism, for people who believed that they were channeling deities. All this stuff was part of a subculture, an outsider culture. Whether we believed it or not doesn’t matter. In a way, it’s not that there are necessarily more people who believe in these things. It’s just that they’re more available, because of the way that popular culture introduces these ideas. We become fans of shows. Fantasy and science fiction have become the norm.
Michael: I’m sure you remember when James Cameron’s Avatar came out, and the Avatar world immediately took off within the LARPing community. And so you started to see this foreshadowing of a new dysphrenia, a psychological disorder of the possible fragmentation of worldspaces that we seem kind of doomed to experience with the advent of the true landing of virtual reality. These people were so just morose and desperate because they became so immersed in the Pandora world that they couldn’t readjust to their life as human beings. It’s sort of akin to my generation’s wave of acid burnouts, maybe. As we invest more and more of ourselves into this increasingly popular and available and sexy because it’s not just animated by our religious impulses, but it’s actively being advertised, and commercialized and sold to us. We’re really being encouraged to throw ourselves into these alternative worldspaces. And then there isn’t a landing pad for when we get back. So I feel like one of the lasting lessons of your book, one of the reasons that I feel its resonance remains, is because it allows a person to integrate those experiences. In a way, it functions as a manual for understanding our drives and the larger emotional matrix in which we play with new freedoms to explore occult realities.
Erik: That’s very well said, actually, because in conventional society, even very recently, these things have largely been shuttered out. My generation grew up in the shadow of the hippies, and those things were around, but they were very much part of the counterculture. They were either mocked or ignored in the New York Times reality, which is still kind of a good symbol for consensus reality. I’m not even sure if we have a consensus reality anymore, or if it’s not some crazy topological knot, but in the old days, it had a little bit more stability to it, and you would never see these things acknowledged. Or if they were, they were pathologized – it was crazy, it was absurd, it was narcissistic and navel-gazing. This was true for a whole range of things – meditation, esotericism, UFOs, psychedelics, the whole range of extraordinary experience that people wanted to seek and experience.
As someone who basically keeps my feet on the ground, I’m largely skeptical in temperament. I’m very anthropological in my approach, which means I like to go into environments and participate as I observe, that classic stance of participant-observation. And what’s come from that is a realization that you can plunge very deeply into very interesting, rich otherworlds that are full of magic and enchantment and bizarre synchronicities and wonderful downloads, but at the same time you can also trust the ability to return to the body, to the ordinary, to the conditions of human experience in an everyday way, and that those don’t have to be in conflict so much.
I think that these experiences are not only really valuable, but they’re absolutely necessary to understand what’s actually happening. Whether people acknowledge it or not, a lot of the time we are driven by desires to be in dreamworlds, to achieve unusual-states-of-consciousness, to find them inside ourselves and see the way that they’re driving us. There’s a strong kind of rationalist technologized way of thinking about experience that’s very pervasive now, that’s actually carried like a philosophical virus through the widespread notions of tweaking and controlling your experience, of making yourself more efficient or powerful. So for me it’s really important to keep portals open to the unknown, to the mystery, to the bizarre, because it’s precisely in those encounters that we see beyond the rationalistic frame, which often is, in my opinion, benighted. Instead, we can adopt a more open-ended, but not necessarily mystical, attitude to the whole range of otherworldly experiences.
Michael: There’s a through-line here in one of the last chapters of Coming into Being: Artifacts and Texts in the Evolution of Consciousness by William Irwin Thompson, someone whom I know that has inspired us both immensely. That books last chapter a chapter is about how the Ramayana tells how humans and animals allied to expel the demons from what we now take as take as mundane, everyday reality. Bill Thompson’s view was that the Electrical Imaginary descending back into our networked global civilization is opening a portal, and that the screen is literally a shamanic window through which these spirits are granted fresh access to our world. And then in your latest afterword you talk about how the irony of these ultra-hyper-realist-skeptic-atheist-revenge-of-the-enlightenment types is that you can’t actually create a complete model of the mundane world. You can’t perfectly map the enlightened cosmos without getting into all of the weird stuff, the out-of-body experiences, the UFO abductions. These things have to be explained in order to cast out all of the shadows, but the naïve attempt to cast them out is really just an invocation. It’s like the topological knot you mentioned earlier, where merely addressing them makes them a more vivid part of our reality.
Erik: Absolutely. I think that that’s part of the deeper logic behind the renaissance of psychedelics. In many ways, “psychedelics” as a topic is a key site in understanding how modern technological scientific people recover, rediscover, and repackage, if you will, these kinds of liminal states and otherworldly encounters, with their potential sources of meaning and spiritual experiences. I also think that one of the reasons we have seen such an incredible renaissance emerge so quickly is because it was an inevitable part of scientific logic. Science has to take the brain seriously, it has to take the experiences in the brain seriously. Psychedelics are clearly physical, material agents that produce somewhat regular phenomenological effects. We have to understand that if we’re going to understand the brain. Any reasonable scientist is going to say that. And, whoa, lo and behold, it actually seems to do some good. So the genie is out of the bottle, and the genie doesn’t mean that we’re going to return to some kind of mystical worldview. I don’t believe we are. I think we’re in a state of tremendous mixing, of a multidimensional view where we have to learn how to move between different kinds of frameworks, including occult and animist frameworks, including mystical or religious frameworks, but also including secular, critical, analytic frameworks – scientific in that classic sense as well. How to do that I don’t know. But I do know that it’s a multidimensional field and I think that that’s why we see this turn towards the very multidimensional psychedelics.
Michael: Yeah, definitely. That is, in the sense of the original articulation of TechGnosis. You’ve got that chapter, “The Path is a Network”. There is something about the way the network allows for this manifold, multifaceted appraisal of reality, that really breeds and encourages and nourishes multiperspectivism. And so, in a way, I think the inherently psychedelic nature of our age, and what’s become really just like much more imminently and vividly obvious and easy to spot about the mainstream culture in general, is that we don’t all agree. It’s a much deeper revelation of the same kind of cultural relativism that we started to experience through the global interchange and commerce a couple hundred years ago, but now it’s to the point where culture has splintered to such an extraordinary degree due to the fact that everyone at the dinner table is occupying their own iPhone reality portal, that the main yoga of at least the first half of the twentieth century seems to be the psychedelic yoga, of being able to take our ontological conclusions lightly, and to be able to juggle them and to adopt them when they’re appropriate but to treat them with the kind of middle-way balance of skepticism and sympathy that you have modeled for your readers.
Erik: Yeah, that’s a really important thing for me. Also, itIt also plays an important role in a lot of the stuff that we haven’t been talking about, which is the dark side of the tale. Probably my proudest thing about TechGnosis is that it first came out in 1998, so the book was written during the first internet bubble. This was the time when a truly millennialist set of ideas were held by many people working in technology, the new rules of the economy of abundance. That kind of utopian thinking.was partly legitimately believed. I knew a lot of these people, I was kinda part of that world, of people who were imagining the potential of virtual reality, of new kinds of political formations, people drawn together in new forms of community, etc. At the same time those ideas were also ruthlessly exploited by capitalist forces, which created essentially a kind of ponzi scheme of IPOs. And so, the sense that something new and different was actually happening was simultaneously exploited.
When I was writing TechGnosis, it would have been easy for someone to write a much more happy, fluffy vision of the connections between spirituality and technology. “Here we are, just around the corner, just about to break through!” But for me, that sense of transformation was always accompanied by a shadow. If you open the portal and you accept the existence of these half-fantastic beings, there are demons there as well. In our future visions now we feel the presence apocalyptic energies. There’s the sense of mass breakdown, of ecological collapse, or the rise of a fascist surveillance state. On some intimate level we know that every time we’re using a device we’re moving through a shadow realm where we don’t know what sorts of agents – entities, algorithms, human beings – are perceiving and making meaning out of our operations. That is an unnerving, uncanny situation, and it’s one that we have to live with.
We have to acknowledge that we do have these fears and terrors, and apocalyptic presumptions inside of us, inside our imaginations, inside our hearts, inside our stories, inside our cultural traditions. And so we have to be very careful about where and how we mix the apocalyptic templates that we carry in our imaginations with the actual real conditions that we find ourselves in. It’s very tricky, but I suspect it takes that same sort of balance of skepticism and sympathy into the shadow realm as well as the utopian, or at least poetic possibility. And in a lot of ways I feel that’s where we’re at. That’s part of why I do what I do, is to try to kind of map that ginger, open, but questioning space, because it seems like one of the places to try to navigate these very difficult issues.
Michael: So many people worship the idea of the return to nature, or Terence McKenna’s idea of an archaic revival, this sort of forward-escape atavism where we go all the way around and end up back where we started, transformed. But we’re also naïve to the lived reality of not being on the top of the food chain, and that’s absolutely part of this that comes back, it can’t be divorced from the rest of it. We long for the community of the tribal life that we left behind, for the openness, the permeability of the self that we experience. The last experiment of civilization was profoundly dissociative, isolated, and lonely, and as consequence, we have a totally pathological relationship to the natural world. But in restoring that, in the humility of science recognizing its ultimate ignorance, we move back into an age where we’re no longer able to kid ourselves quite so successfully about the dragons that we have swept under the map. They’re still there, and they’re in a way even more alive for us now.
In your interview with Vice, you said a god is just a fiction that everyone believes in. So in a way – and this is kind of Information Warfare 101 – even if the NSA did not have supercomputers inside that Utah data complex, the fact that they built it, and that it can be observed on Google Maps, holds this profound power over the human imagination, and so we’re all having to catch up really quickly to these magical concepts. Even if they’re not clothed in the language and trappings of magical traditions, we’re being reacquainted with the power of the symbol and the power of ritual, and the sway that an idea has over the population when it becomes harder and harder to verify things beyond the shadow of a doubt.
Erik: You could call it conspiracy thinking, although that gets defined in all sorts of ways, some of which I think are themselves forms of mind-gaming. Either way, we’re in a realm of mind-games, where perception is reality, and where the crafting of perception takes place on multiple levels through multiple agendas. Multiple agents are crafting reality in a more and more overt way, even as we’re technically learning to craft subjective experience more and more. Here we’re getting into the edge of Virtual Reality 2.0. I think that, again, familiarity with these occult or even animist liminal zones will help us navigate through the jungle that we’re in. I mean, I can totally understand why people want to drop out of this thing. Like, fully drop out – whether into criminal underworlds, into darknet trafficking, or whether they go off the grid, or try to monkey-wrench the show. Those desires makes a lot of sense to me. It’s not who I am, it’s not where I am, but I can resonate with that. So, as long as I’m still participating in this network world that we’re sharing, that we’re fabricating, that the machines are fabricating, that we’re sharing with the machines, we have to develop that kind of light step.
You also mentioned a sense of the larger ecological framework that we’re in. As we look at what’s happening with technology, as we try to understand what’s happening with communication and human civilization, it’s impossible to extricate it from this larger ecological condition of crisis and no-going-back. It really feels like what we’re being asked to do, ethically and imaginatively, is to extend our ability to sympathize, to engage with, and even just to leave a space open for that which is outside of us, outside of the human frame, outside of the human story. That Outside may be technology, in the sense of the algorithmic intelligences that are already beginning to swamp our world, as well as the complex institutions and networks that are distributing these things. But that Outside also supports a more ecological and even cosmic view. We’re on a planet, the planet’s changing rapidly, spinning in space. All of those larger views, I think, are what we’re called upon to connect with.
I think one of my greater fears or concerns – I mean, I have so many, but just talking specifically about technology, and how people use it – is that it’s very easy to stay within a kind of human narcissistic world through media, especially social media, and the internet. I see people putting their energy into virtual or technological information circuitry, getting absorbed into a mass-cybernetic web of media, with its transmission of human stories and human perceptions and human egos and identification and projection. The whole game is so absorbing, so seductive, so fascinating, so enervating, that it can drown out our ability to wrestle with the non-human – whether it’s technology, geology, animals, capital flows. We need to become better post-humans, not narcissistic post-humans seeking our pleasure buttons, figuring out the best way to design some kind of crazy experience. That’s great, it’s part of the whole picture, but we have to also really think about what does it mean to live in a profoundly interwoven cosmos that necessarily draws us out of our narrow human egoic frame.
Michael: I totally agree. So, in light of that, I’m really fascinated by what you might have to say on recent developments on the interspecies internet – have you heard much about this? There was a TED talk about it a year or two ago.
Erik: I think I know what you mean. Why don’t you set it up?
Michael: A couple of years ago, Vint Cerf, Peter Gabriel, and a couple other people – dolphin researchers, bonobo researchers, and technologists – came forward at a TED conference to launch the idea that we can get into the sensorium of other animals and understand the way they experience things well enough to create computer interfaces for them that perform something like “Babel Fish” or Google Translate, so that we can communicate – whether it’s through music, symbols, or something else – with some of these other animals that we know have high intelligence and a sense of self.
I was really excited about being a part of this in some way, just throwing my bid into this process, and then I started thinking about how it got more complex. Because, what’s really going on here is that we can scarcely recognize a world beyond ourselves without immediately attempting to colonize it with our technological bid for control. To reference George Dvorsky of io9, there’s something really beautiful in his fascination with animal uplift, and his vision of our ethical responsibility to involve non-human species in the fate of the planet – which is currently being decided by human parliamentary action. The dolphins should get a vote. The gorillas should get a vote. And the only way that they can get a vote is to involve them in the technological infrastructure that we’re creating that is allows us the hope and the opportunity for that Star Trek world government. At the same time, it enfolds them into our own personal and transpersonal nightmare that we just discussed, and ultimately they may not want to participate in our uniquely human breed of insanity.
Erik: Yeah, that’s very well put. You know, we keep stumbling onto this Faustian bargain. It increasingly seems to describe these kinds of situations. There are people who believe that we can design a good enough system where, even despite its flaws, we’re drawing in others to decisions about the best and most ethical thing to do. And at the same time you’re going to have people who are just, like, gagging in their throats. It’s like, after all of the violence we have exerted on the animal world, to do this is the final, most nihilistic violence – to draw them into this madness! And you could have the same discussion about the desire to colonize planets. How could we not get excited about the idea of human beings on Mars or even robots landing on asteroids? It’s just totally fascinating and wonderful, and yet it’s pretty easy to see what that would look like as an industry, and the kinds of problems that would arise in the way that seems stitched into the nature of human beings. Sometime you can almost be Christian about it. It’s a kind of original sin, a way of, like, always fighting and competing and outmaneuvering and exploiting and trying to create elites. All these things that civilization has been doing since the get-go, since we stepped outside of the Paleolithic life and made a pact with writing and social organization, with pyramidical structures. It’s an old, old, old pact, and it’s deeply religious. Our religion is fundamentally bound up with the mythology of the state.
And so, where I stumble now is…where is the state? Is it everywhere? Is it nowhere? Are we at a point where that whole relationship is shifting? Is it worth extending hope into these things, or is it reasonable to say, “Look, we just keep doing the same horrible thing over and over again, so let’s just tear it down.”
Getting back to the specific question about animals, though. I really buy that radical democratic notion in a lot of ways. Turning to the Outside, whether it’s animals or elements of technology or geological forces, is part of what democracy means. Part of the constitution in Ecuador recognizes the rights of nature. Not just nature, but “Pachamama” – and, as people who are interested in medicine work and indigenous worldviews know, Pachamama is a goddess. It’s a way of understanding and relating to the fecund, beneficent giving quality of the earth, in a spiritual light, or a personhood light, or an animist light, whatever you want to call it. And that’s part of the constitution, part of a legal document. The thinking behind that document is, “Look, it’s just extending the idea of rights, which is a modern construct. The notion of inalienable rights emerges at a certain point in Western history, it gets installed into governmental and legal forms. Initially it’s just for white men with property, then it’s just for men, then women get it, then people of color, whatever – you have this spreading of the notion of rights, so that now we are called upon to spread it into the environment as well.” Very tricky, very complicated, very confusing. What does it mean, to give nature a voice? Is “nature”, or Pachamama, even the right word? And at the same time, that seems like a very vital and significant mutation in the operating system of the state. You’ve got to factor in these others, even though exactly how that happens is so difficult to understand. So again, here we go! Plunging into the Faustian bargain!
Michael: It’s very much related to a book that I feel stands in a fun balance with yours. It came out this last year by Christian Schwägerl. It’s called The Anthropocene, and if you haven’t read it I highly recommend the read (editor’s note: Shwägerl has a number of excerpts published on Reality Sandwich). It ignores the mystical dimensions of things. Schwägerl lives in Berlin, and he’s very much operating from a secular, European Union, modern global ecological sensibility. But the whole idea of his book is that the last remaining wild places are, in a sense, artifacts, because they only exist due to the determination of the human hand to preserve them. That there is no real wilderness anymore on our planet, at least in the natural world. Everything is indoors, and we have to find a way to first recognize that the so-called “Human Age” is actually tilting us into this much more profound, complex, and difficult relationship with the non-human world.
But we do have to find a way to express that world in our own language and our own systems – for example, by honoring what he calls “ecosystem services” in our economy, not factoring out that the water cycle, the carbon cycle, and all of these supporting systems that have an order of magnitude greater economic value than anything we’re trading on the stock market. They must be preserved at literally all costs. But he is ethically divided by the question, “Do we have to talk about the rainforest in terms of its monetary value in order to save it?”
Erik: That’s the crux. I’m glad you brought up this topic of wilderness, because I think it’s a good way to reflect on one of the problems we face. On the one hand, we have the wild – what the wild represents, what it means to be wild, what it means to stumble across the wild in your life, We are talking the unknown, the mystery, the chaos, a kind of Dionysian encounter, an intensity that takes you beyond reason, whether it’s experienced in a natural environment or in your head, or in the city. There’s something about wildness that’s profound to human beings. It has a lot to do with what people seek when they’re spiritual seekers, when they’re religious, when they are plumbing the depths. When people question the autonomy or imperial demands of reason, it’s often in the name of some kind of wild – whether it’s the sacred or the archaic or the nonhuman.
At the same time, you can sit down and go, “But this whole idea of wilderness, of natural wilderness, well, it’s a construct, it’s part of the European imagination, and that imagination is over. It’s not doing anyone any good anymore.” Some very serious environmentalists will argue that ideas of wilderness or even “nature” are actually in the way. The argument is that the religious and spiritual ideas about nature that were such an important part of twentieth century environmentalism actually get in the way of the process of introducing these non-human factors into the system in a way that would actually force the system to recognize and negotiate with them, rather than pretending in this abstract, insidious way that they don’t exist. And I don’t know what to do with that tension between these two “wildernesses”. All I know is that it’s incredibly vital in whatever way that we keep a portal open to the wild.
In that sense I’m very different than rationalist people who think we just need to introduce everything into the system – that it has to be drawn into the logic of capital, it has to be commodified, it has to be seen. That the way to deal with pollution is to create carbon debt and to introduce it into the financial system. But that solution is a house of cards. I have a slightly, perhaps darker view that whatever tumult lies ahead, whatever sorts of forms of chaos we confront, whether they’re through a highly developed technological society that manages to keep things going, or whether society is forced to reorganize in the face of a major hiccups and breakdowns, whatever the thing is, the more that we are actually able to handle the wild, the chaos, the unknown, the mystery, the others, the whispers on the edge of our vision, the better we’ll be able to actually navigate that situation on an individual and a cultural level. There is a problem with the rational, reasonable, incorporate-everything logic, with its call to squeeze everything for its monetary value, to quantify everything, to quantify the self. All of that may be fine and well, but only as long as it keeps a space open for those kinds of encounters, for that kind of imagination, for that kind of risk and vulnerability.
But that’s often what doesn’t happen. So, in a way, my work, not just in TechGnosis, but in all the writing and conversations that I’ve done and continue to do is about riding these edges. I just want to keep those portals open, to keep the spaces open, so that people don’t feel like they have to be fools in order to engage these broader ways of seeing the world. That’s why it’s really important to keep those portals, those edges open.
Read more by Erik Davis here.
Read more by Michael Garfield here.