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.