Monday Book: Where spells meet spellchecks

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
"THIS IS the age of science and technology," the dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson wrote, "so mek we leggo mythology." For Johnson the Marxist, "technology" and "mythology" are polar opposites (and, for the poet, a snappy rhyme). As book-ended symbols, they represent, on the one hand, the penetrating light of reason and progress; on the other, the oppressive murk of superstition and reaction.

How could he possibly have foreseen, 20 years ago, the extent to which, in the looming shadow of a new millennium, "technology" and "mythology" would have joined forces? Human beings build tools and machines to help us to realise our dreams and aspirations; but those tools in turn affect what those dreams become.

No matter how technological and rational we may be, we remain human; and humans are driven by myth and guided by magic. Rationalism and materialism have neither answered nor buried the great existential and spiritual questions, but they have provided new oracles of which these questions can be asked.

Erik Davis is, among other things, a frequent contributor to Wired magazine, and a Californian. Few writers are better qualified to explore the phenomenon of "a hypertechnological and cynically postmodern culture seemingly drawn like a passel of moths toward the guttering flame of the premodern mind". TechGnosis is, according to the author's introduction, "a resonating hypertext, one whose links leap between machines and dreams, information and spirit, the dustbin of history and the alembics of the soul". Clearly, writing the book was not enough for Davis; he insists on reviewing it as well.

Flights of oratorical fancy aside, Davis finds gnosticism and the principles of the esoteric gospels deeply embedded in the American psyche: a subterranean motor that powers the national quest, from the geographical to the digital frontier. He cites alchemy as an ancestor of both the orthodox science that spawned information technology and the mystical impulses that now fascinate so many of its users. Far from being radically opposing forces, they are, Davis asserts, simply two sides of the same coin.

Taking Marshall McLuhan as his starting-point, he proposes that each new "medium" of communicating information - from the papyrus scroll and the talking drum via Gutenberg and Baird to the telephone and the Internet - has not only altered the "message" but also enabled us partially to "reconstruct the self and its world". Each discovery provides not only a new platform, but a new metaphor. For Davis, there is no incongruity in "virtually throwing" the I-Ching via a CD-rom or absorbing the Word of the Lord via a website.

The earliest days of the Internet provided a new, golden era for those of a mystical bent. An entire subculture of wannabe post-humans arose, dreaming of transcendence through technology. The goal was "dropping the meat": shucking off the body and its discontents and using cyberspace to lead a purely spiritual and intellectual existence, in ecstatic communion with a global brotherhood. The model Davis cites is that of The Borg from Star Trek: The Next Generation - a wired-up way to achieve the "sweeping vision of planetary consciousness" envisaged by the theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

One world! The dream of "techno-utopians, new agers and cybertheorists", not to mention eco-mystics and Gaia groupies, Marxists and Muslims, Christians and apocalyptics alike. It's many degrees worse than unfortunate that, as Davis points out in a dazzlingly derisive passage, capitalists appear to have got there first.

"Profit, not cosmic evolution, is the driving spirit of planetisation - its major metaphor, its omnipotent and universal truth," he writes, flaying the free-market theorists and techno-libertarians for an utter disregard of the human and ecological costs of their greed and hypocrisy. "One irony in the rise of ecological thought is that its organic models and holistic metaphors are also used to justify the unfettered excesses of the global market and its technological engines," he argues.

Similarly, the degeneration of Davis's old home base, Wired, from a stimulating mass-market digital-lifestyle mag into a cheerleader for the wonders of e-commerce, is echoed by his perception that "money has gone gnostic". He thinks it is "detaching itself from the fleshly vehicle of material goods and production to become a metaphysical chaos of pure information. This is great news if you can run with the bulls, but when the economies of entire nations can be deconstructed in a matter of days, it is increasingly unclear what all this has to do with building a better world". It's undoubtedly a better world for Murdoch, Microsoft and Monsanto, but what about the rest of us?

TechGnosis is a masterpiece of informed polemic, welding seemingly disparate blocs of knowledge and thought into a coherent, challenging whole with passion, erudition and wit. "Happy is he," Leon Trotsky once wrote, "who in mind and heart feels the electrical current of our great epoch!" Davis certainly feels that current, and TechGnosis enables us to feel it too.