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TechGnosis - a secret history

Ashley Crawford in conversation with author Erik Davis

Ashley Crawford is co-editor of Transit Lounge : Wake Up Calls and Travellers Tales From the Future (21•C Books) and co-author of Spray: The Work of Howard Arkley (Craftsman House).


A major aspect of technoculture comes from “mystical impulses behind our obsession with information technology.” That, in essence, is the central thesis of an ambitious tome entitled TechGnosis by San Francisco writer Erik Davis. Davis has written numerous snappy articles in this field for Wired, The Village Voice, Rolling Stone, 21 C, Lingua Franca and The Nation. However in TechGnosis he attempts to touch upon the entire history that connects the spiritual imagination to technological development, from the printing press to the internet, from the telegraph to the world wide web.

In the process Davis discusses in detail myriad cultural and religious figures and movements, from Plato to Marshall McLuhan, from Jesus Christ and Buddhism to Timothy Leary and Scientology, from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin to William Gibson. What is surprising is that, despite the density of ideas in this tome, it is always readable, inspiring The Hacker Crackdown author Bruce Sterling to comment that “There’s never been a more lucid analysis of the goofy, muddled, superstition-riddled human mind, struggling to come to terms with high technology.”

According to Davis, “TechGnosis is a secret history because we are not used to dealing with technology in mythological and religious terms. The stories we use to organize the history of technology are generally rationalistic and utilitarian, and even when they are cultural, they are rarely framed in terms of the religious imagination.”

On a general level, says Davis, this has to do with modernity’s “ultimately misguided habit of treating religious or spiritual forces solely in terms of the conservative tendencies of various institutions, rather than as an ongoing, irreducible, and indeed, irrepressible dimension of human cultural experience, one that has liberatory or avant-garde tendencies as well as reactionary ones.”

Davis’ ability to shift from popular culture to historical fact peppered with pop terminology fits an intriguing trend in cultural studies. TechGnosis sits comfortably alongside such books as Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces, Mark Dery’s Escape Velocity, Mike Davis’ City of Quartz, Andrew Ross’ Strange Weather and Darren Tofts’ Memory Trade. In this regard TechGnosis narrowly escapes the categorisation of being a book about ‘spirituality.’

“Although I deal more sympathetically with religious material and ideas than most of those authors, I feel far more affinity with their approach than with more self-consciously ‘spiritual’ books, which tend to deny the role of historical, economic, and political forces”, says Davis. “I just happen to be drawn to that peculiar interzone between popular culture and the religious imagination.”

That interzone inevitably draws Davis towards some dangerous realms where ‘popular culture’ and ‘imagination’ are all too prevalent. While Davis carefully explores the genesis of such movements as Scientology or the Extropian movement and points out the totally bizarre substance (or lack) of both, he manages to avoid the pitfall of making harsh value judgments. “When I embarked on this project, I decided that developing a cogent critique of spirituality would add yet another layer of complication to an already dense investigation”, he says. “Confronted with a curious belief system, I am more interested in how it works than I am in criticizing it; I wanted to allow the power of the various world views to arise as fictions.

“It’s like camera filters: what does the world look like if you momentarily wear the lenses of a conspiracy theorist, a UFO fanatic, a conservative Catholic? By allowing eccentrics and extremists their own voice, I hoped to lend TechGnosis a kind of imaginative force that more explicitly critical works lack.”

In the burgeoning world of ‘secret histories’, the shadowy figure of ‘sci-fi’ author Philip K. Dick looms as a major influence. Dick’s work, riddled as it is with visionary belief systems tinged with perpetual paranoia, never sat comfortably in the cliche-ridden world of pure science fiction. “I emphasize the visionary acuity of his works, which have influenced me as much as McLuhan or Michel Serres or James Hillman”, says Davis. “I am especially drawn to his ability to treat religious ideas and experiences in the context of late capitalism and our insanely commodified social environments.”

Similarly, McLuhan is a “complex figure, full of bluster and brilliance”, says Davis. “He deserves a complex engagement, and I certainly distinguish myself from Wired’s simplistic recuperation of McLuhan, which turns on the same sort of selective sampling of his work, only in reverse. For one thing, McLuhan nursed vastly darker views about electronic civilization than most people believe—his global village is an anxious place. But unlike most of today’s media thinkers, he considered himself an exegete rather than a critic or theorist. That is, he wanted to uncover the spirit of electronic media rather than provide the kind of structural political critique that people are more comfortable with these days. To do that, he used the imagination of a profoundly literate (and religious) man, allowing analogies as much as analysis to lead him forward. He read technology, whereas most critics describe or deconstruct it. And though he said a lot of stupid stuff, and participated too willingly in his own celebrity, he laid the groundwork for our engagement with the psycho-social dimension of new media.”
The power of the word runs throughout TechGnosis—from Guttenberg’s printed Bible to the study of the Kaballah, from Gibson’s Neuromancer to the use of hypertext on the net.

“A troubling aspect of the new technologies of the word is the invasion of technological standardisation into the production of writing”, says Davis. “Behind this problem lies an even larger one: the invisibility of the technical structures that increasingly shape art and communication. As we use more computerized tools, we necessarily engage the structures and designs that programmers have invested in those tools. Then there is the issue of the internet; an immense writing machine that, for all its creative power, encourages sound-bite prose, superficial linkages, and the confusion of data and knowledge. The Gutenberg galaxy is finally imploding, and we have yet to come to terms with the psychic and cultural consequences of our new network thinking.

“Of course, invisible structures have always been shaping thought and expression, in one form or another. The trick now is to explore ways to let the creative, recombinant and poetic dimension of language express itself in an electronic environment where the monocultural logic of a Microsoft can hold such enormous sway. I still think that hypertext and collaborative writing technologies have enormous potential, but in the short term I see a rather disturbing dominance of standardisation, as American English continues to transform itself into an imperial language of pure instrumentality.

“It’s my hope that the net will enable us to move through the gaudy circus of superficial relativism into a more serious engagement with the ways that different institutions, practices, and cultural histories shape a truth that nonetheless hovers beyond all our easy frameworks”, says Davis. “The way ahead, to my mind, involves the synthesis or integration of many different, sometimes contradictory ways of looking at and experiencing the world. The endless fragmentation of (post)modernism is boring: we ourselves are compositions of the cosmos, a cosmos we share in a manner more interdependent than we can imagine, and that cosmos calls us to construct new universals. Perhaps they will be universals of practice rather than theory; if you do certain things, certain things will happen. A new pragmatism. If we need religious forces to bloom in order to feel our way through this highly networked world, so be it.”


Erik Davis, Techngosis, Harmony Books (Grove Press), 1999

Ashley Crawford is co-editor of Transit Lounge : Wake Up Calls and Travellers Tales From the Future (21•C Books) and co-author of Spray: The Work of Howard Arkley (Craftsman House).

RealTime issue #30 April-May 1999 pg. 23

© Ashley Crawford; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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