Last modified October 11, 2006 by Nik

pt VI: Sacralising Cyberspace

Some Thoughts on the Relationship between Technology and Spirituality, by Michel Bauwens

Stewart Brand, founder of the legendary Whole Earth Review and author of ‘The Media Lab’, outlined a history of personal computing which showed a strong relationship between the pioneering forces of technology and the counter-culture of the sixties. Both endeavours shared the goal of giving ‘power to the people’ and of ‘augmenting the possibilities of the individual’. While it is true that the internet was originally a U.S. Department of Defence project, one has to admit that the internet shares this strong link with the counter-cultural movement. One of the elements of this social movement was a spiritual revival, due on the one hand to the import of eastern religions and practices, and probably also to the discovery and broader use of mind-altering drugs. The special characteristics of the internet, where anyone can be a publisher at moderate cost, insures that many alternative spiritual forces are finding a home on the internet and are using it to further their spiritual aims. The link between the counter-culture, spiritual interests, and cyberspace, can be seen in the prominence of individuals such as John Perry Barlow and Mitch Kapor. Barlow has a major in comparative religion and is the former lyricist of the Grateful Dead;

Kapor, former CEO of Lotus, is a former teacher of Transcendental Meditation and still a practising Buddhist. Both are leaders of the movement for civil rights in cyberspace (through their leadership of the Electronic Frontier Foundation) and combine their humanitarian activism and their spiritual concerns in a hopeful vision of the possibilities of cyberspace. Howard Rheingold, the influential author of the book about ‘Virtual Communities’ and long-time former editor of the Whole Earth Review, is another example of the California counter-culture, which has now matured in cyberspace.

Certainly, the internet is also used by traditional spiritual forces. The Christian fundamentalists, the Jewish Hasidim, and the Islam are present. The Catholic Church is following suit, and the various schools of Buddhism are particularly active. The latter have a very active ‘Cyber-Sangha’ (community), but most traditional schools would use the internet as an auxiliary tool, as a simple addition to their physical activities.

Some spiritual movements which share the positive spiritual interpretation outlined above are taking a much more active role in cyberspace. Very prominently active are the techno-pagans. It might surprise some observers that a pre-christian nature religion may find the internet of interest, but this is actually very much the case. Pagans are of course an urban phenomenon, precisely amongst the social classes that are natural users of the internet. They use the internet not only as a self-organising tool, but as a new space that has to be sacralised. For example, Mark Pesce, the creator of the Virtual Reality Modelling Language, has created a Zero Circle on the internet, which involved a shamanic ritual. Every 3D-object will have to position itself against this spiritual ‘Axis Mundi’ or ‘Center of the World’. Similarly, Tibetan monks from the Namgyal Institute in Ithaca, NY have consecrated cyberspace on February 8th. From a spiritual view such rituals are very important as they create sacred spaces where the divine forces can be present. Marc Pesce argues that cyberspace will contain a lot of ‘pathogenic’ spaces detrimental to our mental well-being, and that ‘vivogenic’ spaces have to be created as a counter force. Among the active techno-pagans there are quite a few experimenting with cyber-rituals and collective meditation using the internet as a focal point. This has led to a lively debate on specialised mailing lists such as Techspirit-L about the topic of ‘Does Prana Travel the Wires’. The debate centers about the fact of the transmission of spiritual energy. Does it need physical presence to transmit itself, or, as it concerns immaterial energy anyway, can it be transmitted through the ‘wires’? Some clearly believe that cyberspace can be used for bona fide spiritual practices, such as for example Alexander Besher, author of the science-fiction book ‘RIM’, who argues for the creation of Spiritual Spaces throughout cyberspace, through the practice of Feng Shui, the Chinese Taoist art of creating ‘right’ spaces and buildings. It should also be noted that one can now witness the creation of specific cyber-religions. Though many are indeed ‘tongue-in-cheek’, a few initiatives are serious attempts to create a new kind of virtual spiritual community. Also, the book of Douglas Rushkoff, Cyberia, has outlined the fusion of the internet and the psychedelic and House music communities into a kind of spiritualised youth culture which aims at spiritual awareness through the combined use of ecstatic techno-music, hallucinogenic substances, and communication in a collective mental realm, i.e. cyberspace. Terence McKenna and the ever-present Timothy Leary are very much popular in these circles. McKenna in particular has written very cogently argued books about the need for a new alliance between technology and nature, what he calls the ‘Archaic Revival’.

From the above, we can indeed conclude that there is an active spiritual life in cyberspace, and that there is indeed a specific cyber-spirituality being developed. While every medium has indeed influenced human cultural practice, including religion and spirituality (cfr. TV preachers), it is surprising that the internet creates new types of social movements which take their very identity from cyberspace. So, while we don’t have radio-fascism and TV-feminism, we do notice movements like cyber-feminism, cyber-marxism, and specific cyber-spiritual movements. This is a further confirmation of the fact that the internet is not just a medium, but a real ‘space’, a digital environment for the life of the mind.

pt VII: Some Further Parallels