In his book TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information (Harmony Books/Crown/Random House), Erik Davis describes writing as the first magical information tool. It's amazing "that a piece of paper with artificial glyphs scratched on it sends thoughts unbidden" into our minds, a process as miraculous "as a talking stone." In the past, Erik has helped the stone talk by covering music, technology, religion and contemporary culture for such publications as Spin, Rolling Stone, Gnosis, and the Village Voice.
gregory tm TechGnosis is an unbelievable compendium, a cross-comparative history of information technology, the history of gnosticism, and magical texts going back as far as the Greek god Hermes. The book also illustrates how the technology and mysticism are fused, and how we put a godlike faith in our tools of information technology. Can you tell us the story of this text?
Erik: It really began in college, with my senior thesis, which was on Philip K. Dick and postmodern gnosticism. I was really interested in the way science fiction managed to fuse both of these themes, how technologies were changing and opening up all these ideas, strange paradoxes and paranoid visions. Dick was immersed in these kinds of ideas and at the same time he was kind of a paranoid visionary. He was very attracted to gnosticism as well as a lot of religious ideas, and these things were sort of co-mingling and creating this kind of postmodern mysticism, which on the one hand emphasizes these visions and on the other hand is tied up with ancient kinds of religious questions.
I did some theoretical work, all that kind of quasi-pretentious stuff you do in college... and I didn't really want to continue on in the shackles of academia, so it made sense for me to become a freelance writer and continue to find the means to pursue these themes, allowing my obsessions with popular culture to sort of guide me over the course of the next ten years. While I was writing about music or culture, I was always attracted towards the mythical or mystical, and the ways in which these themes came up in our highly secular, commoditized, technological consumer culture.
gregory tm It's interesting you mention Philip K. Dick. I've always been very interested in what it is that he experienced, in terms of an information overload/mystical-god-like experience, during the period that is memorialized by the VALIS trilogy. When you wrote your thesis, did you have a chance to speak with anyone who actually knew Dick?
Erik: I didn't actually speak with anyone first-hand, but I read interviews and letters, and I did manage to correspond with people who actually knew him. So I did actually feel a great deal of resonance and sympathy with what he experienced. I felt a real powerful charge with him, a fairly intuitive understanding of what he may have experienced I believe he definitely experienced something, the question is whether or not it had something to do with a somatic breakdown within his central nervous system or whether it was something that we would describe as a valid religious experience. And that tensionbetween psychosis and a meaningful religious experienceis what forms the crux of interpretation between madness and a truly godlike experience in these secular times.
Authentic spirituality is always bound up with these other questionsit's pretty easy to interpret all out-of-the-ordinary phenomena as just "something that happens to our brains," since most experience is hardwired for all of us, to one degree or another. Different cultures at different times produce extreme states of both being and interpretation; Dick was living in Northern California in the early '70s, taking lots of speed, hanging out with Black Panthersand that milieu is just ripe for the kind of paranoia that would produce an experience like this.
Mix all of these things together on their own and you have something pretty significant, but on top of that, dump one of the most innovative science fiction thinkers of this century and someone for whom quasi-religious philosophical experiences held a great deal of interest, and you really have the possibility that the brain created his experience just as much as his experience created what his brain saw. From my perspective, it's less important whether his vision was genuine or a totally crackpot explosion of serotonin, but what emerged from these experiences and what they say about life in the postmodern era.
So, who's your own personal Jesus?
gregory tm What would you say is your own personal spirituality?
Erik: Well, that's a kinda tricky question. I'm very interested in the history of religion and the various practices that people are drawn to...
gregory tm The reason I ask is that I wasn't aware that I was a techgnostic until I read your bookI've certainly never used that term, and yet there seems to be an undercurrent within cyberculture that in addition to having our own myths and legends, we also have our own spirituality. It includes the machine as a icon and the Internet as the ÜberGod that we all worship every time we answer our email, as if the seemingly random flow of new data that comes to us through the Net is really some preordained synchronicity of a divine plan that's always out of reach. I can't even really say that I've had much of a conversation with anyone about these sorts of ideasfor those who know, it's obvious, for those who don't know, it's too difficult to explain. And yet, by giving it a name, it seems to have taken on a greater meaning.
Erik: It's true, and the fact of the matter is that no matter what we call it, there are glyphs of this discussion happening in far greater numbers than you would actually imagine, I think. Even just four or five years ago, all these ideas were mostly underground, but now as they've risen to the surface, it's become a cliché before it had time to really gain ground for thoughtful discussion.
I think when you get beyond the surface business level of the people trying to make sense of how info-tech is going to effect the economy and really get into the heads of the creative people who are making it happen, then you see it's a pretty pervasive worldview at this point in time. Peel back the top layer of Silicon Valley and you find all sorts of weird ideassome of which I appreciate and have opened me up, and others of which I feel rather suspicious of.
gregory tm Arthur C. Clarke once said that "Any good technology is indistinguishable from magic." In the course of doing your research, was it your intention to show a correlation between magic and technology in a very real wayin other words, since it seems magic, does technology require a least a form of a leap of faith in order to get it off the ground?
Erik: I would have to say that the question of metaphor is really the answer to those types of questionswe can split hairs forever between what is magic and what is technology. The point is that we continually create objects and processes that replicate our abilities and allow them to travel great distances; this is certainly the case with electricity. As soon as we harness the force of energy, we immediately convert energy into communication, which is altogether different process entirely, to some degree. The power lies in the ability of a thing to send messages, rather than merely send electricity.
On one level, a lot of the questions I am drawing are metaphors between magical thinking and computer thinking. The kind of occult language that arises from within hacker worlds and video games says a great deal about how we map unknown spaces, and what appears over and over again are these castle and dungeon-type metaphors; I don't think that it's any accident that these are the metaphors that people glommed onto when they were looking for ways to map information space. For themselves, they may have just been metaphors, but the fact is that we needed metaphors to map this space, and these were the kinds of ideas that people chose. We cannot organize this space on a purely rational basisyou can try to do that, lists of files, etc.
But when you're trying to take the human psyche and put it somewhere within the space of this limitless horizon of dataspace, there needs to be something that gives us a sense of its scope. A list of algorithms won't give most people a sense of the power of a computerbut throw a desktop environment up there and suddenly they realize they can organize their files, and that box on their desks becomes an immensely powerful tool to them. Spatial organizers that have a lot of juice and hold the imagination pretty well tend to be magical metaphors.