False gods born from oceans of silicon, whispering cabalistic secrets while battling ancient and not-so-ancient philosophers bleeding demented words of light... Satanic machines faxing amongst themselves plans for raising an invisible web of instant knowledge? Alchemists outwitting arrogant Marvel superheroes in their game of seduction with the innocent dreams of the Last Man as its ultimate prize. This would be you, daydreaming while sitting behind your pc, slowly clicking through mazes of useless information. Or is this really just a dream?
According to Erik Davis, author of Techgnosis, this mythical dreamstuff is far more compatible with our technological reality than we usually give it credit for. This in itself should be enough to raise a number of eyebrows, because myth, magic and mysticism were supposed to have disappeared as soon as the technological mindset illuminated premodern superstitions. Was it not the growth of rationality and the consequent mechanization that disenchanted the world, as Max Weber presumed? In this exhaustive study Erik Davis shows that technology may never have been only about rationality, simply because it is a product of the human imagination. And as we know after Freud's hatchet job on Cartesian dualism, the human imagination never was a very rational place to begin with. Indeed, once we scratch the cool logical surface of technology, all sorts of interesting dreams, myths and hopes start to appear. Take a walk down the street and one sees people with cellular phones displaying behaviour (laughing for no apparent reason, talking out loud while nobody seems present) that until recently was the exclusive domain of madmen. In music, jungle producers like to think of themselves as scientists of sound, yet more than any ‘science' these musical mutations seem to fulfil Arthur C. Clarke's beautiful words that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. So in this sense a record like A Guy Called Gerald's Black Secret Technology becomes church music, awe-ful music full of majestic desire that forces the ghosts of technology to sing of hitherto unimaginable joy and pain. We are surrounded by logic machines, yet logic proved to be the dullest of masters. Luckily an excess of (techno)logic is a different matter altogether, capable of producing new irrational ecstasies, as J.G. Ballard showed in Crash, my personal favourite technomyth, one sadly absent from Techgnosis (and quite possibly the only one).
As we've come to expect, it was Marshall McLuhan who saw all this coming when he wrote: Our technology forces us to live mythically, but we continue to think fragmentarily, and on single, separate planes. McLuhan keeps reappearing throughout Techgnosis, always ready to point out new avenues of thought, always giving the strange impression that he foresaw everything through some drunken speculation. The other towering influence on Techgnosis is the science fiction author Philip K. Dick (on whom Davis wrote his thesis in college). The majority of people who aren't theology students and who have any idea what gnosis is do so because of v.a.l.i.s., the novel in which Dick reinvents a Gnostic worldview in an attempt to make sense of a religious experience he had in 1974, when a divine knowledge entered his consciousness through a pink laser.
But what is gnosis? Davis makes the distinction between gnosis, as a collection of archetypal and psychological patterns, and Gnosticism, an obscure and somewhat heterogeneous Christian sect, which held that the creator of the world was a minor deity. Sadly, this world he produced was a false reality, often perceived as a prison. The Gnostic sought mystical knowledge that would break through this illusion not only to know the real God, but also to know what this God knows. As Davis states, this framework lingers on: ''Today's techgnostics find themselves, consciously or not, surrounded by a complex set of ideas and images: transcendence through technology, a thirst for the ecstasy of information, a drive to engineer and perfect the incorporeal spark of the self.
The archetypal poster boy for the gnostic impulse is the Greek god Hermes, the messenger god, who incarnates speed and information but also is a thief and a gambler. It's this spirit that Davis invokes when, in his introduction, he proclaims technology to be a trickster, not necessarily evil or good but mischievous, a source of wisdom but never of absolute certainty. Hermes sets us on a path through pre-modern techgnosis, and before we know it we arrive at the gates of modernity, which are powered by the inspiring force of electricity. By then we know that techno-utopias mirror the New Jerusalem of Revelations, Plato's myth of the Cave is introduced and will never be fully shaken off, and the success of Christianity is explained by the transfer of information technology it made from papyrus scrolls (Torah) to codex book (Bible). These are random highlights shot off in the space of forty pages, a pace that never lets up through the whole book.
This rate of information sometimes dazzles the reader and dooms any attempt at a complete summary of the book as a foolish enterprise. One typical chapter starts with a discussion on virtual reality, connects with Roman memory tricks, moves on to computer games, contextualizes our contemporary days as the new Middle Ages, and leaps to a discussion of Tolkien, who is held responsible for Dungeons & Dragons, which is a sign of our postmodern tendency to have flexible identities. Although Techgnosis is written in a fairly accessible style (though with some rather puzzling Americanisms), it sometimes leaves you drained, as if you have been cornered at a party by a coked-out genius who bombards you with brilliant connections instead of silly dope wisdom. Many times I found myself still brooding on a certain idea when the text suddenly appeared to have made another warp-jump.
So an obvious point of criticism would be that this book overflows with information, that Davis should let his reader take a breath once in a while. Yet such protestations are in the end unnecessary; that typical puritanical constraint in the realm of ideas bores me and should disappear as soon as possible. Let's hail the importance of excess and rate intellectual indulgence higher than that tiresome just-the-facts-please attitude. Techgnosis, like recent books by Kodwo Eshun and Sadie Plant, more than anything resembles a connection machine, a model for a new fictional science which shoots speculative probes into future thought. As Davis writes in the introduction, You may think you are holding a conventional book, a solid and familiar chunk of infotech with chapters and endnotes and a linear argument about the mystical roots of technoculture. But that is really just a clever disguise. Once dissolved in your mindstream, Techgnosis, will become a resonating hypertext, one whose links leap between machines and dreams, information and spirit, the dustbin of history and the alembics of the soul. As with A Thousand Plateaus, the original connection machine, one hopefully finds parts that work and keeps coming back to them.
Yet the real feat of Techgnosis is that Davis never lets the, at times, rather esoteric material overpower him. His is a genuine curiosity which is quite infectious and makes him a pleasant guide, sceptical but respectful of all the ideas under scrutiny, whether those of such historical cranks as Mesmer, Gurdjieff and Teilhard du Chardin or of more recent ones like those loveable pony-tailed, iron-pumping tech-Nietzscheans known as the Extropians or the Heaven's Gate cult (with their ultra-hip blend of Trekology, personal Web pages and cool fashion statements).
Still, one thing puzzled me after I had finished the book and my head was filled with mystical vistas. As I looked out the window, boring old reality suddenly displayed a disturbing lack of angelic technologies ? Nothing more than some crappy cars flashing by. It has been said that the old image of the techno-utopia (beautiful, radiant cities full of futuristic clothing and flying transportation) has become obsolete, giving way to a growing invisible web of technologies hiding beneath the surface of everyday life. Which means that the imagination, again, is left with all the hard work.
translation laura martz