Friday, September 30, 2011

Our Cyberpunk Reality, or Escaping the Prison Planet

The operating philosophy behind my work is that whatever form it may take, pop culture is more resonant when it addresses "spiritual" issues or wields some variety of "spiritual" power.

The more interesting the particular spirituality in question, the more interesting the art. Hence, Jack Kirby is more interesting than Steve Ditko, Led Zeppelin is more interesting than Deep Purple, David Bowie is more interesting than Elton John, Philip K Dick is more interesting than Isaac Asimov* and The X-Files is more interesting than Law & Order.

And William Gibson is more interesting than all of his Cyberpunk contemporaries.

Nihilism is all the rage in hipster circles these days, which is why nothing new -- or interesting, even-- is coming out of that culture ("hipster" now basically refers to a culture in which the empty obsessiveness of geekdom is applied to cultural artifacts once reserved for the "cool" people).

In that light, hipsters might want to make sure they don't take any time to investigate the worldviews of their icons, lest they notice the conspicuous lack of Bill Nye/Amazing Randi-type thinking among their favorite artists. Even Beck, who arguably first planted the hipster meme in the mainstream back in the early 90s, is a devout Scientologist.

Philip K. Dick is the hippest sci-fi icon going these days. But the same people who carefully display unread copies of his books (alongside their unlistened-to copies of Fun House and Sketches of Spain) for their poseur friends go out of their way to mock his beliefs and experiences. Why? Because they can't even begin to understand them.

They and all of the other only-children at their elite private school alma mater never darkened the door of a house of worship, and mocking non-atheists isn't just sport, it's one of the few means of self-identification they have. Their atheism isn't a philosophy of any meaningful sort, it's simply a status symbol.

William Gibson isn't as de rigeur as Dick, but his work is every bit as infused with spirituality, if in a less-ostantatious fashion. Gnostic spirituality as well, though far less self-consciously. Maybe even unconsciously.

We've looked at Gibson before, most notably in the Matrix extravaganza, but I'm on a different tear now. The Wachowskis didn't really understand Gibson's gnosis, in that Gibson's Cyberspace wasn't the prison, it was the escape from the prison. It was a place of endless freedom and possibility. Which means, of course, that it was written long before the Internet was available to anyone outside of university computer labs by a guy who did his writing on a manual typewriter.

And certainly the Matrix itself was a hell of a lot better place to live than aboard the Nebuchadnezzar or the Zion (someone really should have told the Wachowski's that no ancient Gnostic would ever identify with those names) and we won't even get into the sequels.

But Gibson's obsession with dislocation and created environments ties into the Gnostic desire to escape the Demiurge's world. Preferably into the Pleroma, but escape into a self-created world would surely be a nice consolation prize. And unlike the stereotypical image of the lone seeker often associated with Gnosticism (and common in Gibson's fiction), the deep feelings of alienation that the Gnostic harbor could also act as an epoxy for alternative community. Under the right conditions, at least.

In Gibson's first trilogy, two AIs seek apotheosis, to become self-sustaining intelligences within the Matrix. Having achieved that, they then take on the personas of Voodoo Loa in Count Zero, guises which allow them to interact with the alienated yet gifted outsiders the AIs need to further their evolution.

In other words, memes taken from the ancient Mystery religions re-enter the Gnostic world via Gibson's Sprawl Trilogy, mirroring the ancient syncretisms in which Abraxas and Horus and Hermes Trismegistus morphed into one another like some old Michael Jackson video.

That's all fine and good. But who cares, right?


Well, it may well turn out that constructing safe havens within Cyberspace might be the only escape available for the foreseeable future.

Globalism loves to displace and disorient, and our computer screens are becoming our only compasses. I know some see getting off the grid and living off the land as the goal, but that's assuming that will remain an option. Or that was even anything but a theoretical option in the first place. It's a nice idea, I suppose, but it's not exactly a great escape. On the contrary, it imprisons us in geography and gravity, and essentially puts you back in the 17th Century.

Evolution is like gravity- it doesn't give a shit whether you choose to recognize its power or not. In that regard, the next step seems to be forming communities and seeking alliances and trying to carve out a place somewhere to call our own. And it could be that physical dislocation could be an asset in that process.

History is filled with failed alternative communities in Meatspace, high-minded projects that fell apart for perfectly mundane reasons. All the utopian ideals and philosophies in the world don't do you much good when your fellow communard won't lift the toilet seat when he pees, leaves her dirty panties lying around in weird places, or snores like a jackhammer.

Since Meatspace is such an endurance test for me, I find my outer environment in a state of blissful contraction. I realize its not hippily correct, but I live electronically and virtually for the most part and I'm fine with that.

Actually, I spent some time trying to talk with some of the permaculture hippies the last time I was at Esalen and I wasn't sure any of them did much reading at all, never mind reading for pleasure. In fact, I found the movement vaguely sinister, like a covert serf-making program. But who am I to judge?


Whatever the motivation, more and more people are living inside their electronics. That's a fact of life which you can love or hate, just like you can love or hate the tides, or movements of the tectonic plates.

For me the point is whether those devices are expanding or contracting their reality. The point is whether we are using these tools for liberation or enslavement. I always found the ones who give you the kneejerk slave rap are the ones most addicted to their screens, television mostly in this case.

Like the Loa in Count Zero, I see spiritual language as a useful code for a pragmatic rewriting of the human OS. I don't want to deny the laws of nature, I just want to expand our understanding of them, and if necessary, to hack them.

In other words, Gibson's appropriation of the language of mysticism is useful to our assimilation of technology, and the mythology of his sci-fi can give your understanding and application of the Cyberpunk technology we now have access to a near apotheosis of a boost.

The problem isn't the technology, it's the human robots that are using it.
If you believe you know a better way, it's up to you to prove it and deprogram those robots around you into fully-functioning human beings.

OK, OK-- cybernetic beings, then.

* Watching moss grow is more interesting than Asimov, so maybe that's a bad example.


  1. While I've always thought of 'The Matrix' as the closest thing to a cyberpunk film there is, the idea of the Matrix as a prison is so PKD that I couldn't believe that he was never mentioned by the creators.

  2. Chris,

    Sometimes I wonder if anyone reads anymore--and I think a big segment of the population never even started the habit. I do my best to read as widely as I can, and I try to spread the joy of what I am learning, only too often to have blank stares glaring back at me. Either someones belief system has closed them off from further investigation or nowadays, they are just too plugged (which rhymes with drugged) in to their gadgets to notice what is going on around them. Read books? What is that? So I console myself with the occasionaly delight of actually communicating with other intelligent souls who have read something.

    I commute to and work in Downtown Los Angeles. A good example of our craven culture is the current Conrad Murray trial. I take the bus on Fridays and have to pass by the Federal Courthouse. The last few days all the media vans have been parked in front--televising more pabulum to medicate the masses. Quite disheartening. But I get to work and read your blog and know at least there are others out there seeking the truth and providing valuable insight into the inner workings of society and reality.

  3. Man, you're on a roll. A few thoughts:

    Gibson actually seemed to envision two escapes: cyberspace and... space. I see both of those coming true. Cyberspace is obviously real... you're swimming in it. The other? I've been following the antics of SpaceX and all the rest of the "space startups," and there's a definite serious effort underway to open *that* frontier. This effort seems to have serious money behind it.

    It's amazing to me how prophetic Gibson was.

    On "permaculture hippies:" I concur. I have problems with that movement too, though I do kind of like to eat local food, etc. Going back to the 17th century is not an escape, it's a return to serfdom. It's a step backwards. And I see a lot of elite money behind pushing certain varieties of green ideology, trying to sell the middle class on the idea of de-industrialization and Feudalism gussied up as "local sustainability." What does localism really mean? Sending your daughters to get raped so your family can get a share of your sustainable, local crop.

    That and, I don't agree with the basic spiritual philosophy behind green ideology. Nothing is sustainable. Or alternately: only change is sustainable. The search for something permanent, an endless tradition, is both a mirage and -- if we could actually achieve it -- a dystopia. Imagine an eternal, sustainable, traditional society that *never changed*. (Shudder...)

    That's not to say that I don't support some of the movement's concretes: conservation, protecting the natural world, etc., but I support them for wholly different reasons.

  4. Hey Chris,
    I finally got on-line about 4 years ago, and after doing a search for TNG blogs I was directed to the Secret Sun. So almost the entire time I've been online I've been reading your blog. I've learned more from the Secret Sun than the rest of the Internet combined. The Internet is a great tool for exploring topics covered here.

  5. "Actually, I spent some time trying to talk with some of the permaculture hippies the last time I was at Esalen and I wasn't sure any of them did much reading at all, never mind reading for pleasure. In fact, I found the movement vaguely sinister, like a covert serf-making program. But who am I to judge?"

    Please, don't knock it until you try it. As a permaculture hippie, I'm inclined to say my experience in the realm of "serfdom" has been quite rejuvenating. That being said, I am still constantly immersed in technology, and my experience in farming has been a double-edged sword. For starters, I am completely dependent on others for anything and everything since I don't make money. But on the positive side, I improved my health ten-fold by eating stuff that isn't processed beyond recognition and working outside. Weird tradeoff, huh? There are definitely improvements that could be made. Not everyone who is into permaculture lives "off the grid" - I'm looking into a small community garden in downtown atlanta so I can look for a job and have access to nature and good food. Personally, I need it to keep myself from becoming hopelessly depressed in the drab concrete parking lot we call our civilized nation. Besides, who wouldn't benefit from learning how to plant vegetables? Pretty important to know these days.

    "What does localism really mean? Sending your daughters to get raped so your family can get a share of your sustainable, local crop."

    Sorry, what the hell kind of statement is that?

  6. I told my high-school aged kids that when I was their age, there were no personal computers, let alone social media… they looked at me as if I were a complete ninny.

    This post resonates with our meager attempts @ tek-gnostics… to identify such technologies as tools to facilitate gnosis…

  7. Dang, Knowles. I'd hate to get your bad side, dude.

  8. forgive my illiteracy.. i've not read the novels.. but your post seems to hit on many themes ...of something... i have read.

    ayn rand's 'anthem'.

    independence found w/nature vs dependance on technology... collectivism/individuality, lots of others..

    the story to me was about gnosis and its journeys, inner & outer. at least, that's my discernment of this work.. not a huge fan of rand, but this very short novella was very interesting on so many levels...

    i was quite surprised, my then sophomore twins were assigned this last yr to read at school...

    i also thought they should've included orwell's 'animal farm'.

  9. Hi Chris,
    Just had to address the permaculture problem you mentioned because it seems like you may have come across a few "devotees" who look at it in a strictly pragmatic sense without emphasizing the movement's spiritual basis. You may want to look into permaculture ethics, which is mostly about equitable distribution, ensuring that no single person is able to monopolize hundreds of thousands of acres while others are homeless/starving. Permaculture is also quite opposed to the nihilistic atheism you mentioned because it views all aspects of existence as intrinsically related. This philosophy may oppose the gnostic "fallen universe" theory somewhat but it is very much amenable to pagan nature worship/animism.

    I wrote a post about these issues a few months ago which also deals with how the environmental movement is being hijacked as an attempt to enforce austerity measures and political centralization, and how permaculture's emphasis on localism actually contradicts these policies.
    Also relevant would be a book called The One Straw Revolution, which was a huge source of inspiration for Bill Mollison (co-founder of permaculture) and is cited as the philosophical basis of the movement by many practitioners.

  10. "Hence, Jack Kirby is more interesting than Steve Ditko,"

    Hey, 60s era Ditko was every bit as mind-bending as Kirby. Ditko's Dr Strange, for example, was easily the equal of Kirby's run on Thor. Don't let Ditko's sad foray into Ayn Rand worship blind you to his best and strongest work.

  11. Mac Tonnies wrote:

    "Pattern Recognition"...William Gibson is at his best. "PR" is better than "All Tomorrow's Parties," suffused with a sense of paranoia and future-chic. When I read "Neuromancer," my world was irrevocably changed. I write science fiction. I've even sold some. (Some critics will inevitably argue that my forthcoming speculative nonfiction book is, in truth, science fiction...) "Neuromancer" redefined what I always knew science fiction could be, in the same sort of way that my elementary-school fixation with Max Headroom plucked prescient chords. Discovering William Burroughs had a similar effect.

    I can't even recall when, exactly, I read "Neuromancer." But I remember that I purchased it in Florida, in a strip mall a walk away from my hotel at Cocoa Beach. Gibson upgraded my appreciation for the genre and his influence has had a considerable cascading effect on my creative life. He is the only author I regularly buy in hardback and almost certainly the most important living fiction writer, unmatched in style and cultural relevance.

  12. "William Gibson isn't as de rigeur as Dick, but his work is every bit as infused with spirituality, if in a less-ostantatious fashion. Gnostic spirituality as well, though far less self-consciously. Maybe even unconsciously."

    I don't know about all that. I like Gibson-- especially his older stuff-- but I don't think he's anywhere near as spiritual as Dick. His last few novels (Zero History especially) have felt sort of... empty... like he's running out of energy or ideas. I hope not, because when he's good he's very good. Anyway, just my humble opinion.

  13. I would say the most important living fiction writer is Don Delillo. Which is funny, because Gibson's last few books have been sort of Delilloesque.

  14. Bender: I hacked myself inside-out and now the entire universe is my processor.

    So I've got SOME hacking to do, I recurred, I've got to do nothing, I've got to do NOTHING!

    Leela: For the last time, I'm not obsessed. I just want this whale to die, die, die!
    Lando Tucker: The whale is obsession, Leela! And you are the whale!

    Swimming [I'm not happy with that Word but I could be... happy, with His sacrifice for me... you can burst out laughing now, I did, funny, but... it's more or less Truth with a capital 'T'] is becoming of the faithful and is not Lording yet gravity dictates it is, O Lord of the Dead, that's what you are, darling.

    Joshua: A strange game. The only winning move is not to play. How about a nice game of chess?

    OK. You know the phrase "come into money", well, I'm coming from a position where from I had came into mana... You want this bling-bling you just don't know it!

    You get mana from being faithful, living "pre-fall", RATHER, as if you had or are fallen, son of toil, 'the hell, you're probably thinking, well, it's one of motivation, LET me explain:

    Our mana is suppressed by the manner in which we use up our consciousness [Suck it up! Don't you hate that turn of phrase? (Actually, don't "suck it up", reverse psych'.)] which is most times at the brink of what excites, that is to say, computationally (that is the serpent's walk), like a sponge held tightly twisted in our hands can't get wet near enough. My explanation not excite you, beastie? Take your free hand off the buzzer, hey, dog.

    So here's a picture of Egyptian slaves working on The great pyramid but I can't be bothered making the link... wink. By the way, it's [you are] all-ready built, just cap it, Heyzeus!

    David Lightman: [sits on a large piece of driftwood] Oh, Jesus! I really wanted to learn how to swim! I swear to God I did.

    That's a paddlin'.

  15. My mana has long been spent, it shifts occasionally from 0 to 1, at least letting me make simple binary connections, but what is mana and what is magic? Nothing but A dogpile [directed motivation and unusual boners lol], 'course you'll never be motivated to know less I tell you it's the most wonderful fulfilling thing that can exist, it is life itself and the return to...the mother Matrix. Possessing a body that is (some ways to possessing a soul, Lucifer]).

  16. Tommy:

    I'm referring to the way feudalism was. It was local, sustainable, and... brutal. I am concerned that de-industrialization would lead us straight back there. As bad as global tyranny and manipulation can be, local tyranny can be worse. If you think tyranny without a face is bad, try it with one.

    I was not necessarily knocking farming, localism, or even a totally off-the-grid lifestyle per se. I was knocking some of the ideology that surrounds some of it, and some of the interests that seem to be promoting that ideology.

    I have this weird -- some might say schizophrenic, but I don't think so -- relationship with a lot of things. There are a lot of things that I like, but at the same time I dislike some of the cultism and ideology that surrounds them. I think what it comes down to is that I often see ideological "movements" as parasitic things that feed off of the underlying reality rather than creating it. The "hippie movement" for example was a parasitic media construction that fed off and manipulated the underlying counterculture that it pretended to represent.

    I also think it is always very important to ask critical questions like "what exactly is it that is being sold here?" Strip off the glitzy packaging and look inside.

    And as you said: you do not live anything like a 17th century peasant.

    BTW: I shop at farmers' markets and local co-ops. Best produce and meats you can get, and I do think it can be healthier.

  17. It seems to me that although the Internet as served us well in spreading important information faster and to more people, it is also something that seems to "suck" us into passivity.

    The real action, the basis for the control-system to operate, will always be meatspace. The more passive meatbags there are, typing endlessly in their facebook accounts how shitty the world is, agreeing with each other, the more the control-system get's stronger.

    When you talk about a cyber-world as a last refuge, what exactly do you have in mind? (I am not familiar with William Gibson's work.) Some kind of dream machine where your body is lying unconscious, while your mind has all the fun in an artificial cyber-world? And what kind of simulation would that be? With what purpose? Doesn't it bother you that it would be a simulation and not the real thing? Isn't being a human all about experiencing this life in this body?

    Even if you could escape into a cyber-world, you would still be dependent on others for the maintenance of your body (food, liquids etc), for the technology necessary to connect your consciousness into the cyber-world etc. And the only place where you would find those would be: the control-system. So the control system is more than happy to provide you the means to go online and have some fun or wtv in your dreamworld machine, while their agenda keeps going in meatspace.

    It can also be argued that the hacker approach could be used in this case right? Going into a cyberworld, and somehow become a pirate, hacker, entering their systems and sabotaging their firewalls etc. But wouldn't all that be just a game?

    We should strike at the root here, not the branches. The root is in meatspace. That's where the servers exist, where the guards, the armies, the buildings, the guns exist, where there are real people suffering and so on.

    Of course a permaculture community, and all the rest of it, is not exactly as tech-savy as our life inside the system, but nevertheless, as you said well, the problem is not the technology, but the people using it. I would add, the people creating it too. Tech is not bad in itself, the people behind their creation, and possession are. So I wouldn't mind giving up my connection to technology to engage into a more independent life-style, and healthier, in meatspace, and possibly starting all over, new technology oriented to the empowerment of the individual. I've already done some experiences where I lived for brief periods of time in communities, without any kind of connection to computers etc, and it feels great. Can't explain it but sometimes I feel that spending too much time in the computer sucks my life-force from me. It's much more fun, energising, powerful as an experience, to engage with real people, in meatspace, and contribute to something, actually work with my hands and to turn off my mind and just do things. But that's just me.

    Sorry if I'm sounding too preachy here, but I just don't trust anything that would make us more dependent on tech than we already are.


  18. Adamlerymenko,
    I think that if you examine the actual farming practices involved in feudalism, you will see that they actually were not sustainable at all because they typically involved heavy monocropping and did not practice the soil management protocols involved in permaculture. Societies that did practice what would today be described as permaculture were typically far more democratically structured. This may be because conservative land management does not result in maximum short term gains as would be required in a heavily taxed feudal economy.

    Furthermore, permaculture economics stresses the importance of small-scale enterprises which means that it is not compatible with global bureaucracies unless the entire meaning of permaculture is undermined from outside sources. Check out the slow money movement, which would limit the size of businesses through taxation, ideally putting exploitative transnational corporations out of business in the process.

    As for the possibility of local tyranny, this is a distinct possibility
    because truly functional permaculture takes money, education and physical fitness. I took a day-long intro to permaculture course with two highly educated and fairly wealthy men who introduced the concept of ecological refugees, and what might happen as resources, most importantly water, begin to run short in developed countries. It was disturbing to witness because I detected a barely discernable note of schadenfreude from these guys while they were running through the chicken little routine. This is why it's important, if the movement is going to continue to hold relevancy, for people to emphasize permaculture ethics, particularly care of people which may be neglected in favor of care of the earth. For example, some labor such as cooking, child care, etc. may be easier for those with physical disabilities. And also of central importance will be alternative healing modalities because the present system will not be able to provide for huge numbers of people indefinitely.

    Of course, the introduction of nanotech has the potential of changing all of this and many will leave the sustainability bandwagon when that gets off the ground, probably to disastrous effect since it holds every indication of being the new asbestos, given that nanotech has already been proven to cause cancer and organ damage. Personally, I'm not a very "practical" person myself, gravitating more to the abstract, however I think that permaculture has much to offer in the area of holistic system design even if the particular nuances of seed-saving and the like aren't that appealing. So I think I'll stick with the hippie stuff for now since self-replicating nanotech pandemics don't exactly sound too appealing.

  19. I am still reading some of this post , and others-trying to catch up?- and I have just seen "World on a Wire"from 1973 based on Daniel Francis Galouye novel, now of course I want to read it and see if there is some other onion skin up or down...