First Monday - Spirituality and Technology
First Monday
Spirituality and Technology: Exploring the Relationship

by MICHEL BAUWENS

Abstract
This essay first looks at some of the social and cultural changes associated with the notion of a Digital Revolution, the result of the growth of the Internet and the emergence of 'cyberspace'. It then examines some basic 'spiritual' attitudes and how various debates within and between different schools of thought are changing attitudes about technology. Technology can be seen both as a degenerate practice and/or as a means to bring mankind to a higher level of consciousness or to a more well-developed civilization. Finally, the essay will discuss some of the emergent spiritual practices on the Internet itself.

Content
The Digital Revolution, Virtualization, and the Emergence of Cyberspace
The Wisdom Tradition
The God Project
Electric Gaia
A Sacramental Cyberspace
Conclusion
Notes

The world is utterly and irreversibly changing right now thanks to the exponential growth of the Internet, a new global communications tool linking humans together in real time as never before. This sort of massive computer networking changes human relationships with time and space in a fundamental way. It is not an exaggeration to remark that much of the world is experiencing an important shift in the way in which it works.

Consider simply the effect of computer networks on the speed of knowledge transfer, and hence on the speed of cultural and technological evolution. Before the invention of the written word, it was not possible to codify knowledge nor to save it over time. 'When an old man dies', says an African saying, 'a library goes up in flames.' In pre-literate times, progress depended on the capacities of humans to remember and hence, progress was very slow.

With writing, but especially with the mass-produced book in the last century, knowledge became independent of its bearer and independent of Time. Knowledge was still fixed in physical objects however, so it was not yet independent of Space.

With computer networks, and with an increasing migration to wireless styles of communicating, knowledge is being liberated of the constraints of Space. When a network appears in a home, an organization, in a city or state or country, every innovation, every creative thought, every possible solution to a given problem, becomes widely and nearly instantly available over the course of the network.

This sort of computer network will accelerate the growth of culture and science. It will permit a greater diversity of science and culture, representing the ideas and emotions of many more groups of people, to become available to larger and more diverse audiences. At one time, it may have required thousands of years to double our collective knowledge about the world. Now, according to some calculations based on the mathematical study of 'novelty', it seems that this doubling time has been reduced to less than three years, at least in certain knowledge domains such as engineering. There indeed is some speculation that a hypothetical point in the not too distant future will occur, called the Singularity. At this point, knowledge will double in a single moment, leaving mankind utterly unable to even understand what is happening. According to some, we are indeed creating a world that is totally 'Out of Control' [1].

In this essay, I will first look at some of the social and cultural changes associated with the notion of a Digital Revolution. Then I will examine some basic spiritual attitudes and how various debates within and between different schools of thought are changing attitudes about technology. In this context, I will describe how technology is seen both as a degenerate practice and as a means to bring mankind to a higher level of consciousness or to a more well-developed civilization. I will also discuss some of the emergent spiritual practices on the Internet itself. But first, some comments on the notion of the Digital Revolution.

The Digital Revolution, Virtualization, and the Emergence of Cyberspace
I mentioned how networks change relationships with time and space, and alter fundamentally social, political, and economic conditions. Liberating ourselves from the constraints of space means change in our definitions of territory, which in turn has serious implications for the ways in which we define law and politics. It also alters the way we explain community and human settlements, which traditionally have been based on the need to be close to physical products and the centralized structures of power. The recent growth of "tele"- activities points out this rise of new kinds of communities and social structures, in "tele"-education, "tele"- shopping, and "tele"-working.

It is possible that quite a few of the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution in the last century are being reversed at the end of this century. A great deal of recent growth in employment may be attributable to teleworking [2]. It has been reported that 9.1 million Americans already telecommute; this number is expected to increase by 15 percent annually [3]. Production technologies increase the efficiencies in creating material products with less manpower. Four decades ago, a third of the U. S. labor force worked in manufacturing; now it is less than 17 percent [4].

In the thirties, under influence of organizational advances like Taylorism, manual labor was heavily reduced and gradually expelled from the production process. In the last decade, a similar process is now in progress for 'routine' intellectual work. Many organizations are analyzing processes under the theme of "re-engineering" to further take advantage of technology and eliminate routine procedures [5]. The effect of the digital revolution on how we organize and experience work will be very important. Some analysts seriously argue that concepts of work, employment, and the job are altering forever [6].

Part of this digital revolution involves virtualization. Virtualization is just the latest step in the ways in which humans have transformed the material world for their own needs. In the agrarian age, nature and matter were transformed by first physical labor and then mechanical devices, tools to alter matter (and thus we had 'matter' vs. 'matter'). During the Industrial Revolution, the expenditure of energy was a new factor in the production process, energy in the form of processed fuels (and thus we had: matter vs 'matter + energy'). Tools, powered by new energy sources, led to a quantum leap in productivity.

Now a new factor has been added to this equation, information. Today, the natural world is being transformed not only by using matter and energy, but also by information, leading to a new explosion of productivity. In one way, virtualization is the increased substitution of matter by information. This substitution has profound consequences for the relations of humankind to nature, between humans and other humans, and between humans and machines. This new layer of information is becoming increasingly prominent as virtualization intensifies.

In the past, the credo of science, the industrial world, and materialism was simply "if I can't touch it, it is not real." Today, it is nearly reversed to the point where it could be said "if you can touch it, it's not real." Information has become more important, in political, economic, social, and philosophical terms, than material objects.

This alteration has affected leisure time. Many find watching nature documentaries on television more preferable than real walks in the woods. This process has been intensified by new cyberspace media. For many, the Internet is not just a continuation of traditional mass media, but a new shift. The Internet, unlike other media, represents a new collective mental space. Hence the notion of cyberspace, a parallel 'virtual' world, co-existing in tandem with real world. Over the long term of human existence, our prehistoric ancestors existed principally in a natural environment. Civilized humanity occupied an invented architectural environment. Our descendants may principally live in a digital environment (mentally speaking, that is), where they will spend a great deal of time, working and playing. If this digital revolution is altering civilization, it will also impact our metaphysical imagination, the basic building blocks of our experience.

The Wisdom Tradition
What are the reactions of spiritual schools of thought towards this digital revolution? Let me digress by examining the notion of the 'Wisdom Tradition' itself. If I define spirituality as the means through which mankind finds meaning in its relationship to the totality of the external world, I can then examine the most basic human activities and decipher their relationships to man's place in the universe.

In the modern world, there clearly is a divorce between those who subscribe to a belief in an Absolute or Supreme Being, those who accept the existence of non-material realms and beings, and those in the rationalist or scientific camps. Within the camp of the spiritualists, there are many great differences in terms of methodology and approaches. In very general terms, we can distinguish paths based on 'the concepts of "belief" and "faith," and those based on concrete experiences. Some distinguish between "exoteric" religion, based on belief and aimed at those without concrete experiences, and the "esoteric" tradition, for those who do indeed have experience with the "divine." This body of knowledge, known as the "Tradition," "Philosophia Perennis," or the "Wisdom Tradition," is considered to be the foundation of an enormously diverse corpus of religious thought [7]. That such a tradition itself would exist, is subject to debate, but an increasing number of scholars do accept it (Ken Wilber, Huston Smith, Aldous Huxley, Rene Guenon, Julius Evola, ...).

I accept that there is a Wisdom Tradition but in my personal analysis, there are two main interpretative schools within it. This contradiction has an impact on the meaning and role of technology in the psychological and spiritual development of mankind. I will call these two schools of thought the "pessimistic" and the "optimistic" interpretations of the Wisdom Tradition.

The pessimistic view sees human history as progressive degeneration or regression. Some writers, like Rene Guenon and Julius Evola, argue that a 'spiritual golden age' existed only in the mythical past (though for them, it is evidently not 'mythical' but 'real'). Early mankind, in this perspective, was more developed spiritually than current civilization. It is argued that the first ruling classes were primarily spiritual and over time corrupted into the military and merchant classes. Support for this spiritual loss is also based on an interpretation that many sacred texts argue for a gradual loss of consciousness over time. This continual loss of the spiritual culminates in world destruction. Hence, for traditional Hindu scholars, we are now in the Kali Yuga age, before the destruction of the earth, and the beginning of a new cycle.

The 'optimistic' school of thought, as exemplified in the works of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, takes an evolutionary approach. These philosophers generally agree that there has indeed been a fall, at the creation of the Cosmos and our universe, when divine consciousness was lost in unconscious matter. But from that point on, there has been progress towards ever higher levels of complexity and consciousness.

This basic attitude towards spirituality and life colors spiritual points of view. Pessimism leads to dualism, a fundamental split between the human and the divine; or Gnosticism, where there will always remain a split between the Knower and the Known; or towards negative attitudes of the body. Indeed, pessimistic spiritual practices emphasize "you're not (fill in the blank)," as in "you're not your body" or "you're not your mind." Optimistic spiritual practices avoid this duality through mysticism or simply a fusion with the divine or in a positive approach towards the body and the self. Optimistic techniques teach that an individual is more than a sum of their parts, as in "you're more than your ego" or "you're more than your body." In reality, most existing spiritual schools contain both pessimistic and optimistic elements, but it is very instructive to look at these schools and practices simply from these more 'radical' perspectives.

Hence, man's technology, and especially the current cyberspatial phase, can be seen from one view as a 'Luciferian' God Project, an attempt to usurp 'God' and to liberate man from all limits imposed by Nature. Alternatively, technological advances can be viewed as the means to spark the evolution of mankind towards higher levels of collective consciousness. I will continue my exploration on the meaning of technology inspired by these two points of view, as a God Project and as Electric Gaia.

The God Project
Metaphorically, technology perhaps started mythically when Adam ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. At that moment, mankind said "we can do it on our own and we want to understand the meaning of it all." The very first tools enhanced our mastery over Nature rather than encouraged our harmony with it. For spiritualists, there are two ways of approaching knowledge, one which will lead to holiness or wholeness, the other to a false, arrogant, and destructive mastery over nature. The first approach is based on the idea that mankind is created as an image of God. By discovering our inner being, we discover our God-like aspects. Spiritual practice will therefore give us aspects of the powers of the divine. To some, technology is simply a crude substitute for spiritual powers. Technology indeed is magic; as Arthur C. Clarke said, "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

Pessimists see the inner way strengthening human character, arguing that technology progressively weakens humanity. This interpretation would fit with Marshall McLuhan's thesis that technology extends our senses. The more we extend technology and thus our external senses, the less need for inner senses. This technosphere is increasingly becoming inimical to both our bodies and minds.

Pioneers in artificial intelligence, such as Marvin Minsky and in nanotechnology such as Eric Drexler, predict a world where both body and mind become obsolete. This world, a combination of technologies and genetic engineering, could lead to some sort of post-human world.

A group of young scientists called the Extropians have carefully looked at these technological promises. They are examining techniques to double life spans by special diets and to deep- freeze bodies via cryogenics. With computers, they are studying ways to download human memories into computers and to upload digital memory into human brains, a mechanical merger known as cyborgism.

The Extropians, in their faith in technology, may represent a kind of 'Technological Unconscious' in Western civilization. They ask the fundamental question: What does mankind really want? In their view, it is entirely possible to create an immortal 'trans'- human, capable of controlling nature and ultimately the Universe.

If the complex worldwide computer networks will soon be inhabited by artificial intelligences and sophisticated agents, there may be a point of such complexity that the network itself is no longer manageable by human intelligence. Some see this condition leading to the invention of a Machine-God, a Deus Ex Machina, in direct competition with a concept of a Supreme Being of some spiritualists. Some spiritualists would see the birth of this Machine- God as proof of technology as ultimately Luciferian. Others might see this event as the actual Technological Singularity, which might be painted by some as the "End of History" or the "End of Mankind." To spiritual pessimists, this event would equate to the coming of their versions of the Anti-Christ.

Spiritual pessimists are not alone in their assessment. Their dim view of technology is shared by neo-Luddittes and some 'deep ecologists'. Spiritual pessimists and neo-Luddittes dream of their Utopia in the past. Spiritual optimists and technological utopians see a Utopia in the (near) future.

For these spiritualists, the optimism imbedded in the Wisdom Tradition would point out that technology is simply one more step in the unfolding of mankind's consciousness.

Electric Gaia
This perspective subscribes to the view that at the creation of the Cosmos, divine consciousness "fell." At first, Nature itself could not be conscious. Life evolved, leading to the eventual development of uniquely self-conscious beings called humans. Through this latest manifestation of life, Nature and the Cosmos become conscious and aware of itself.

The process of increasing consciousness in mankind is slow. Mankind evolved through stages, from magical to mythical to rational consciousness, and from tribal through political (nation-state based) to planetary consciousness. For planetary consciousness to truly become widespread, a material basis, and thus certain tools are needed. Hence, technology can be seen as a necessary adjunct to make improvements in consciousness possible.

Some might argue that there have been and are certain humans who have already achieved higher states of global or universal consciousness. History is indeed littered with stories of these personalities but for most of mankind, these humans have been anomalies. For the mass of humanity, help is needed, and it is precisely technology that, to some, drives consciousness forward. It could be argued that political consciousness could not have been achieved without the printing press. Others see only a real planetary consciousness with the creation of truly a worldwide communication network, accessible to all, anywhere and at any time.

Universalization may have started with the print media and extended itself with primitive electronic tools such as the telegraph, telephone, radio, and television. Only now is there a medium that combines both personal and mass media, extending human thought to much of the world. The Internet is a tool that broadens awareness and allows mankind to invent a noosphere, a collective mental space.

Optimists see the Internet ultimately evolving into a global brain, connecting much of mankind together. These optimists read a prediction of this sort of state in philosophers like Hegel and Teilhard de Chardin. Their enthusiasm is shared by many working in cyberspace. Certainly, it provides one kind of explanation for the extraordinary amount of creative and cultural energy generated with this medium known as the Internet.

In terms of this cultural energy, the construction of cyberspace can be compared to that other collective project of mankind, i.e. the construction of the cathedrals in western Europe five hundred years ago. Like those cathedrals, cyberspace is a parallel world to reality. In the Middle Ages, it was possible to escape ever so momentarily the world into the glass and stone, spiritual world of the Church. Now, parallel to the reality, there is a virtual world, described by John Perry Barlow as a"new locale of human community ... [where] ... people were deaf, dumb, and blind" existing in a "town [that] had neither seasons nor sunsets nor smells." [8]

Many see cyberspace as a utopian social and political project, a generator of a kind of utopian energy [9]. For many, in a time of great political frictions and when traditional religions are either moribund or hijacked by reactionary social forces, cyberspace is seen as the apex of freedom. Cyberspace to these is an organizational tool to create utopian virtual communities [10]. Cyberspace is seen as a place for utopian hopes for a better world. In this context, it is not surprising that cyberspace is also a domain for spiritual movements, especially those with a positive interpretation of history.

A Sacramental Cyberspace
Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Review and author of the book "The Media Lab," argued that there is a strong relationship between the pioneering forces of technology and the sixties counterculture [11]. One of the components of the counterculture three decades ago was an increased interest in spiritual matters, especially non-Western religions and practices. Many alternative spiritual groups, some dating back to the '60s, have found a place on the Internet, using it to further their aims [12].

The Internet is also used by traditional religions and groups including Christian fundamentalists, Judaism, and Islam [13]. The Roman Catholic Church and various schools of Buddhism are particularly active [14]. Among, Buddhists, there is an active "Cyber- Sangha" community [15]. However, most traditional schools use the Internet as an auxiliary tool, a simple addition to their other activities.

There are some movements that are taking a very active role in cyberspace such as the techno-pagans. They use the Internet not only as a self-organizing tool but as a new space that has to be ritualized. For example, Mark Pesce, one of the creators of the Virtual Reality Modeling Language, has developed a Zero Circle on the Internet and used a shamanic ritual to 'sacralise' it [16]. Every three dimensional object will have to position itself against this spiritual "Axis Mundi" or "Center of the World." Similarly, Tibetan monks at the Namgyal Institute in Ithaca, New York consecrated cyberspace on February 8, using a tantric ritual usually performed by the Dalai Lama himself.

From a spiritual view, these rituals create sacred spaces where the divine forces are present. Some argue that cyberspace will contain "pathogenic" spaces that are detrimental to our mental well-being, To counter them, "vivogenic" spaces have to be created.

Among active techno-pagans, there are experiments with cyber-rituals and collective meditation with the Internet as a focal point. This has led to a lively debate on certain mailing lists about the transmission of spiritual energy in cyberspace. Some clearly believe that cyberspace can be used for spiritual practices [17].

Some are also trying to create specific cyber-religions. Though some of these are tongue-in- cheek, a few initiatives are serious attempts to create new kinds of virtual spiritual communities. Terence McKenna and Timothy Leary are popular in these circles, arguing for a new alliance between technology and nature, with pychedelics interpreted as being an intrinsic part of that nature.

There is an active spiritual life in cyberspace. While every mass medium has influenced culture, the Internet is creating social movements that take their very identity from cyberspace. This development confirms the Internet as not just a medium, but a real place, a digital environment for the life of the mind.

It can also be argued that even the techno-scientific world can learn from spiritual traditions. For example, cyberspace can clearly be interpreted as a magical medium, where the 'Word' actually affects reality, and hence, magical technologies and incantations can, and are, being used as human-machine interfaces (such as in MUD's and MOO's). Also, cyberspace is the quintessential immaterial realm, a domain where science, who always dealt with 'matter', has precious little experience, while it can be argued that spiritual traditions have dealt with immaterial space from time immemorial. There are interesting parallels that could be pursued, between the reality of the internet, and concepts from the 'wisdom literature'. Notions like Indra's Web (from Hinduism), and the Akashic Records (a depository of the world's total knowledge) come to mind.

Finally, it can be argued that to effectively deal with the new powers afforded by technology, humans would need an equivalent 'moral' upgrade, an effort which has traditionally been part of the spiritual domain.

Conclusion
Cyberspace presents an important spiritual challenge. One of the fundamental aims of spiritual practice has been to extend human identities, to overcome feelings of separateness with the rest of mankind, nature, and the Cosmos. Some of the techniques of spiritual practices could be used to arrive at a more holistic view of technology. In that sense, the merging of man with technology could be seen as part of larger mystical task within the context of the universe.

It will be always difficult to decide on the merits of pessimistic and optimistic spiritual interpretations of technology. For every new power and possibility that technology brings, it could be argued that technological progress takes away other components of humanity. For some to survive in the stressful world of high tech, there may be a great need for the enduring legacies of spiritual practice. The new edge of technology, may need the new age of reviving of spiritual practice. Without them, we may not be able to survive.End of article

The Author
Michel Bauwens is an active internet consultant and 'cyber-marketeer' who advices companies in their 'migration to electronic environments'. He has been information analyst for the United States Information Agency, information manager for British Petroleum, where he created one of the first virtual information centers, and editor-in-chief of the first European digital convergence magazine, the dutch-language 'Wave'. Michel Bauwens is actively researching material for the preparation of a documentary on the convergence of technology and spirituality, which will be called 'The TechnoCalyps'. His essays on the implications of technology are published on the Internet

mbauwens@innet.be
http://www.iocom.be/


Notes

1. See Kevin Kelly, 1994. Out of control : the rise of neo-biological civilization. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 521 p. See also Kevin Kelly's " self-curated connections" to Out of Control at http://www.world3.com/meme1/kelly.html and an interview with Kelly at http://businesstech.com/interview/3_96interv/btinterv3_96.html

2. See the Teleworking home page at http://www.labs.bt.com/innovate/telework/index.htm and Mike Gray, Noel Hodson, Gil Gordon, eds., 1993. Teleworking explained. New York: Wiley, 289 p.

3. See Susan Stellin, "Is Telecommuting In Your Future?," at http://www.pader.gov/dep/deputate/pollprev/telecom.htm

4. According to Peter Leyden, On the Edge of the Digital Age, Part III: The Coming trauma, at http://www.startribune.com/digage/main3.htm

5. It has been estimated that 75% of all re-engineering projects fail because they ignore the human aspects involved in re-engineering projects; from http://brainware.net/adc-hsor.html

6. See, for example, William Bridges, 1994. JobShift: How to prosper in a workplace without jobs. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 257 p., or Jeremy Rifkin, 1995. The End of work : the Decline of the global labor force and the dawn of the post-market era. New York: Putnam's Sons, 350 p.

7. For those wishing to deepen their understanding of these matters, read Teilhard de Chardin, Rene Guenon, Fritjof Schuon, Julius Evola, and Ken Wilber.

8. John Perry Barlow, "Is There a There in Cyberspace?," at http://www.utne.com/lens/cs/11csbarlow.html

9. See, for example, Michael Grosso, 1995. The Millennium myth: Love and death at the end of time. Wheaton, Ill. : Quest Books, 384 p.

10. In this sense, virtual communities are a revival of 19th century utopian socialist communities. These communities flourished for a time in the last century in the United States. The leaders of these communities argued that change could happen here and now by inventing communities based on goodwill and new social rules. See, for example, Mark Holloway, 1966. Heavens on earth: Utopian communities in America, 1680-1880. revised 2d ed. New York: Dover, 246 p.

11. The history and relationships of Brand's "Whole Earth Catalog," "CoEvolution Quarterly," and the Well - the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link - are succinctly described in Bruce Sterling, 1992. The Hacker crackdown: Law and disorder on the electronic frontier. New York: Bantam, pp. 237-244.

12. One summary can be found at http://www.altculture.com/site/entries/spiritux.html

13. For example, thoughts on the Torah can be found on the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California Online at http://www.jewish.com/jb/torah.htm The Christian Coalition home page can be found at http://www.cc.org/main_page.html Pointers to many of the Islamic sites on the Internet can be found at http://gpu2.srv.ualberta.ca/~slis/guides/religion/islam.htm

14. A statement by Pope John Paul II, entitled "The Church Must Learn to Cope With the Computer Culture," can be found at http://listserv.american.edu/catholic/church/papal/jp.ii/computer-culture.html One collection of Internet Buddhist resources can be found at http://www.cac.psu.edu/jbe/resource.html

15. CyberSangha: The Buddhist Alternative Journal can be found at http://www.hooked.net/~csangha/

16. http://www.hyperreal.com/~mpesce/circle.wrl

17. In Douglas Rushkoff's book Cyberia, there is a description of a fusion of the Internet with psychedelic and certain music communities. This spiritualized youth culture aims at awareness through the combined use of ecstatic techno-music, hallucinogenic substances, and communication in cyberspace. See Douglas Rushkoff, 1994. Cyberia : life in the trenches of hyperspace. San Francisco: HarperSan Francisco, 250 p.


Copyright © 1996, First Monday

Spirituality and Technology by Michel Bauwens.
First Monday, Volume 1, Number 5 - 4 November 1996
http://www.firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/496/417





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