Erik Davis is an American author, journalist and lecturer who has taught at the University of California, Berkeley. His best known work is perhaps his book TechGnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism (1998), a history of mysticism in modern technoculture. His other books include The Visionary State: A Journey through California’s Spiritual Landscape (2006) and Nomad Cultures: Adventures in Modern Esoterica (2010). Davis talked to Thomas Roueché about subcultures, Silicon Valley and the way meditation and ayahuasca retreats reveal a sense of hollowness in society.
Interview: Thomas Roueché
Portrait: Michael Rauner
Thomas Roueché In the new afterword of your book, TechGnosis, you write about how amazingly hopeful the early 1990s were, about the mass mind going molecular, the possibility of the proliferation of subcultures. How do you see the situation now?
Erik Davis It’s a very interesting question. In the early 1990s, I wrote a piece about the future of television and how those technological changes were really going to change culture. Back then, people sensed that something was going to happen with this internet thing, but no one was really sure what. I was thinking about how much television in the 20th century served to congeal mass culture, especially in a psychological, symbolic and social sense of it. The philosopher Peter Sloterdijk has this idea that part of what human beings do is build bubbles of symbolic immunity around themselves – the domestic home, relationships, architectures. These things help shelter and shape us. So in a way, 20th-century mass media became this big buffer zone, where we could resonate collectively despite our alienation. Like sports, TV created a real sense of some shared space, where you could communicate with many of the people you might run into in a crowded urban area. So I was asking: what’s going to happen when we have a thousand channels? What’s going to emerge? I had this simultaneously exciting and terrifying vision of all these multiple world views and different pockets of cultural identifications proliferating wildly. And to some degree that happened.
The 1990s were a very subculturally rich time. It was the era of identity politics, of fragmentation and invention. The discourse of cultural studies was coming out of the academy and giving people new tools to think about the way we make meaning, about how popular culture is a place for people to organise their lives, to create identities and resist power. So with the media shifts in the 1990s, there was this sense of, “Oh my God – we’re just going to see a thousand flowers bloom.” Early on, the internet had that sense of wow. With the alt.* groups, one could find all these freak philosophers, weirdos and anarchists. Clearly there was going to be a space in the new communications media for that kind of diversity.
This was before the concerns with surveillance really kicked into gear. Even though we were leaving crumbs of data across the internet from the get-go, neither the system or we, the users, were conceiving the degree to which it would enable mass surveillance, whether we are thinking of that surveillance in terms of corporations or governments. But surveillance changed subcultures. The tracking of demographic data enabled outside forces to identify subcultural formations and feed them back upon themselves, even to engineer them. So now we find ourselves with this tremendous diversity of content – you can find groups for anything under the sun; you can resonate with the people in Budapest who also love a certain breed of gerbil, or whatever – but there’s also a sense of that resonance being flattened and corralled, locked into some larger grid of flows, no longer really pushing against anything. It is hard to get the metaphor exactly. But my sense – partly it’s my age talking – is that even on an everyday level of symbolic immunity, setting aside any actual political resistance, we have lost something powerful in these subcultural bubbles.
You can see this with fandom, science-fiction fandom in particular. Say you are a Star Trek fan in the 1980s or 1990s. Most people have no idea of your obsession, so you go to gatherings, you go to the cons. There you find a sort of alternate world where you have a different identity and you resonate with people who share that sensibility. Some of them are bankers or in the army, whatever, but there is nonetheless this alternative cultural space, which is bubble-like. Trekkers talked about a “weekend-only world”, almost like it’s a different dimension. Of course, it’s already been penetrated by capital, by some kind of control. The networks are aware that they, to some degree, exploit, depend and feed on fandom and so do not challenge it overtly. But there is still something organic or “bottom up” about the process, simply because most people don’t care about it. The Grateful Dead presents another great example of an extremely rich fandom, which grew organically in the shadow of a money-making musical organisation, but which developed on its own terms to a great degree.
Today, the whole domain of fandom has become interpolated, monitored, micromanaged and engineered by cultural industries. Today, the geeks have won and these modes of fandom are encouraged and celebrated on sites like io9. The weekend-only world is now spread across the whole week and so disappears as a separate space. I believe the force or potency of fandom is actually in decline, that it has lost precisely the symbolic community function of organic resistance and reinvention. Like you say, there is a sense in which today’s pop fandoms are still part of mass culture, not in the sense that we are all Jedis or Bronies now, but in the sense that these enthusiasms largely feel like they are engineered, deployed and organised from the top down. The pockets in space and time required to create a creative bubble of symbolic immunity need a different kind of topography than today’s digital circuits of fandom.
TR I wanted to know about the religious underpinnings of the wider Silicon Valley ideology.
ED From the perspective of religious history, it is totally clear how certain elements of Silicon Valley’s technological utopianism is saturated with religion and myth. Most would reject this claim, of course. On the surface, many techies are influenced by atheism, which rejects supernaturalism or fuzzy ideas about souls or heavenly rewards. Instead they see the future as belonging to those who are pursuing reason and liberating themselves from the shackles of old superstitions. But if you are conversant with the history of Protestant Christianity, the way in which a lot of atheists – especially the New Atheists embraced by a lot of Silicon Valley folk – put forward their own views and castigate everybody else’s is very very familiar. You immediately recognise this argumentative, militant, better-than-thou mindset. Rationalist atheists often represent themselves as an elected few who can see the truth while everybody else remains benighted. This reflects a recognisably Protestant sense of a spiritual vanguard.
Another interesting religious echo emerges around the increasingly intense and enthusiastic quest for general-purpose artificial intelligence. How do we imagine and anticipate the emergence of what Ray Kurzweil has called “spiritual machines”? There has never been a general-purpose artificial intelligence machine in the history of humankind, so we have no concrete stories about such a thing. We have no models for this new kind of agency beyond myths and science fictions. In some sense, all we can do is pull from our cultural archive. So AI becomes something like a god, a golem, a Frankenstein’s monster, a demon, a savior, a Spock. We already have these cultural templates of interacting with non-human intelligence. There is no way that stuff is not going to enter into our imagination and intuitions about what’s happening in artificial intelligence today, however rational the algorithms are.
Of course, the set of fears and hopes that surround artificial intelligence already obscures what is really going on. I have been reading the technology historian David Mindell’s new book Our Robots, Ourselves and he talks about how bad the term “drones” is, despite its popularity. “Drones” implies that these machines are operating on their own like bees from a hive, going out and making decisions. But these machines, whether you support them or not, are not really on their own. They are completely embedded in complicated systems that mesh together the human and technological and involve hosts of operators, pilots, engineers, information systems, chat lines, global databases. They are the little probe heads of these vast assemblages that are deeply infused with human decision-making, including the human decision-making that goes into programming. So when we look at a drone in the sky and imagine that it’s one step away from becoming the autonomous Skynet vehicle of science fiction, that totally makes sense culturally, because we are prepared to see some kind of non-human other with a God-like, demon-like or angel-like character. But by doing that we also fall into the trap of our own imaginary, and we don’t recognise that these things are programmable assemblages – they are much more bound up with human decision-making than we often think they are. This confusion also allows companies like Google to sell us a particular vision of perfect total automation, a vision that also draws off of science-fiction absolutes.
TR There is something interesting about how quickly we anthropomorphise things that are done automatically or by systems. I feel there is a mystification there.
ED I wrestle with this question all the time. On the one hand, we should resist this mystification and our tendency to endow machines with life and personality. On the other hand, experiencing the world as a series of relationships with human and non-human agents – animals, objects, machines, plants, weather systems – is much closer to what is going on than our conventional sense that humans are driving everything. Anything we look at seriously balloons into an incredibly complicated system with multiple moving parts that are working on multiple dimensions. To grok this kind of system we have to think relationally. We have to recognise that agency is distributed; we have to recognise that we are not solo actors, that the era of the sovereign individual is over. I am not a freedom fighter with my gun in my hand. That kind of survivalist libertarian mode does not reflect the reality of the networks that construct reality.
TR I wanted to ask about the idea of the duality of knowing something is not necessarily true but believing it anyway, like how people talk about astrology. You discuss it in terms of the Slender Man meme.
ED There are different ways of talking about the ambiguity of cultural systems that seem fictional but have real effects. One of them is to say that today, despite our secularism, we are still attracted to various stories about consciousness that may draw or poach from traditional religions, but which are approached more in the spirit of cultural or aesthetic exploration of stories or different “worldviews”. So these older traditions, like yoga metaphysics, indigenous animism or even astrology coexist alongside all the practical models of how we make it through the day. These perspectives may not be “true”, but they have real effects. From a neuro-scientific view, one could say that the brain tells its own stories about how it works. So as someone with a brain, I can take advantage of this, regardless of my ultimate belief in the model or the story that I am “running” on my nervous system. Without holding a lot of belief, I can still enter into a parallel system of knowing and doing and discover that it has effects on me, that it changes me, that it actually allows me to play or to have alternative views or experiences of reality.
Beneath the cornucopia of cultural goods that defines our moment, I think a lot of people are bored, alienated and depressed by what they consume and share. We try to find a sense of connection and satisfaction through media, through the internet, but there is a growing sense of hollowness, a kind of emptiness that many feel. So why not play with the way in which our brains construct reality? And I am saying “brains” intentionally to emphasise the secular aspect of this attitude, which can also be understood in more spiritual terms. Go on a meditation retreat or drink ayahuasca and discover – as most people do – that those visions and experiences have something to say. They resonate with indigenous ways of looking at the world, with mystical ways of looking at the world, but they also reflect and shape my own dreams and possible identities. With these explorations, many find that you open up a kind of meaning system that continues to feed back into your life and sometimes – a lot of the time – it feeds back in ways that are more fun, more interesting, or at least weirder than the normal sets that I am used to.
Of course, it is a dangerous game. Fictions have a life of their own and at the far end of this augmented reality game you get phantasms like the Slender Man.
At the same time, I think more and more people recognise the hollowness of postmodern techno-existence and so develop a kind of what-the-fuck attitude about reality. They are discovering that consciousness is very malleable and we don’t have to be religious, or mystical, or self-help narcissists to explore imagination and experience from the inside. Part of this relates to that brilliant Sloterdijk notion of symbolic immunity. However postmodern and radical you are, at the end of the day, most of us nurture, preserve and, in some sense, conservatively defend some kind of space, some kind of community, some kind of framework. It might be through our relationships, our cultural identifications, our friend networks or our daily practices – like yoga or writing or gardening. Whatever it is, there is a way we try to creatively maintain a buffer of meaningful life. And that is OK. §
The new edition of TechGnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism, published by North Atlantic Books, is out now.