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Technology and culture under the microscope

[Originally published in the Toronto Star, 1999 |
Posted here 1999.06.09]

TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information
by Erik Davis (Harmony Books, 1998, 353 pp., $35 hardback)

My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in Virtual World
by Julian Dibbell (Owl Books, 1998, 336 pp., $20.95)

The idea that technology can be more than a mere conduit of culture, transcendently attaining the level of culture itself, is old hat to Torontonians. Marshall McLuhan called this metropolis home, and every weekend Queen and John becomes Toronto's hot-hot-hot! intersection as hordes of teenyboppers vie for camera time on CITY-TV's Electric Circus.

Ah, yes. The electric circus. Is such a commingling of tech 'n' cult unique to the dying breaths of the twentieth century, or is there more of a backstory to this greying cyborg? A journalist specializing in technology and spirituality who contributed regularly to the Village Voice's groundbreaking Wired section early in the decade (well before the magazine of that name appeared), Erik Davis turns his examination of that question into a kind of Gore-Tex, a tightly-woven textile that tends to repel outside forces and, despite its billing, barely breathes.

In TechGnosis (surely the first word in the English language featuring the letter sequence chgn), Davis traces the entwined histories of technology, knowledge, and spirituality. "Despite a century of Hiroshimas, Bhopals, and Chernobyls," Davis exaggerates, "[the] myth of an engineered utopia still propels the ideology of technological progress.... Today, a new, less mechanized myth has sprung from the brow of the industrial megamachine: the myth of information, of electric minds and boundless databases... woven together with global telecommunication nets."

Hey, man. Cosmic.

Davis's theme throughout TechGnosis is the Gnostic undercurrent of technological progress. For a book pivoting on that term, TechGnosis does a remarkably half-arsed job of defining and explaining canonical Gnosticism, summing it up as "a mystical mode of Christianity that... embraced the direct individual experience of gnosis-- a mystical influx of self-knowledge with strong Platonic overtones."

Davis gets A-minus for effort in setting out his argument, which he does in such a methodical, painstaking way that, had he been aboard HAL 9000's ship, that Gnostic machine might have admired Davis enough to think twice about flinging him into space. But you pretty much have to be a computer to follow it all; describing TechGnosis to dinner-party guests is a task as daunting as explaining A Brief History of Time.

Still, the book is full of ideas drawn from disparate sources that, if you work at it a bit, eventually form a gestalt. Example: Is DNA a form of programming, or is it an analogue of the soul? Davis makes a good case for both, but quotes a research paper's analysis of DNA: "The things of this world (the body) do not matter, while the soul (DNA) lasts forever." Does this ring any bells? Maybe the kind heard on Sunday mornings?

TechGnosis leaves you with questions, questions, questions. Is it possible that scientists are on a religious rather than empirical quest? (Maybe: "The devil the scientist fights is simply confusion, the lack of information, and not an organized resistance waged by some dark trickster.") Is there a parallel between Scientologists and the Borg, the hive-like cybernetic POW menace on Star Trek? Is that centuries-old mechanism of predicting the future via random throws, the I Ching, actually a digital system with "underlying numerical patterns familiar to any hacker"? Do early experiments with LSD unite science and godhead? Is the search for extraterrestrial life using radiotelescopes a form of "faith that information can be distinguished from noise"?

And on and on Davis goes, studiously steamrolling through era after era to unite the long-lost siblings of technology, information, self-knowledge, and spirituality. Peering through the wide end of the telescope as he is, Davis inevitably alights on the work of SF groundbreaker William Gibson, who coined the word cyberspace. Canadian by choice rather than birth, Gibson's vision of direct mental connection to vast information networks (in one case, by plugs in the skull called microsofts), where human and even dolphin "jockeys" sift through the data by flying through a virtual-reality map, resonates through his novels, which themselves are pretty much all the proof Davis needs of the unseen links among the long-lost siblings. (Funny, though, how Davis overlooks a symbol-packed flesh-and-blood precursor: Fantastic Voyage, where the body is the sea of data and a shrunken submarine carries the jockeys.)

What gets in the way here is Davis's style, which rivals Thomas Pynchon's for hermetic density. TechGnosis is a book with almost as many endnotes (275) as pages (353). It's a tough slog. Davis's lapses into bathos-- e.g., "Our excessively mediated technological environment could well be mainlining the postmodern identity crisis to the masses"- don't exactly help.

Meanwhile, Davis's friend Julian Dibbell, another Voice Wired alumnus (the two authors thank each other in their respective acknowledgements), recounts his experience in a kind of virtual reality unfamiliar to anyone for whom "VR" immediately conjures images of a glorified View-Master strapped to your head. My Tiny Life concerns MUDs, or multi-user domains, a computer system where imaginary lands and lives are evoked purely in written text.

Devised by hardcore computer programmers, MUDs eschew fancy-schmancy graphics in favour of behind-the-scenes programming that lets human users set up multiple fictional characters (of any gender or species) and imaginary realms ranging from the inside of a TV set to a drop of seawater, all by typing commands. How old-fashioned. It's a kind of virtual reality for DOS.

My Tiny Life is Dibbell's title, and here "tiny" is synonymous with the word "virtual" or the prefix "E-" as a means of separating RL (real life) from VR. Dibbell burns through over 300 pages to document a couple of months in 1994 where he lived a tiny life on LambdaMOO. (What's a MOO? "MUD, object-oriented." Clear as MUD, isn't it?) LambdaMOO, created by a Xerox computer scientist, was and is an early MUD with politicking, infighting, camaraderie, cliques, duplicity, wit, irony, and roiling sexuality that-- surprise!-- mirror what we find in RL.

The book's chapters alternate between VR and RL, going so far as to use different fonts for each. Dibbell, thankfully, is less apt than Davis to regurgitate page after page from the thesaurus, but his argument is drawn out just as closely. Tracing MUD antecedents back to role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, Dibbell primes us for a level of expository detail rivaling the O.J. trial, covering LambdaMOO and its imaginary landscape; the pseudo-democratic processes of removing offending MOOers, known as toading and newting; virtual rape (glossed over in My Tiny Life, but explored exhaustively in Dibbell's landmark 1994 Voice article "A Rape in Cyberspace"); and accusations of totalitarianism and in-group conspiracy familiar to any X-Phile or anyone who has ever suffered through a few meetings of a leftist political activist group.

An assumption of the reader's techno-unsophistication, however unintentional, is at work here. While the details of LambdaMOO's machinations are diverting enough (for all his long-windedness, Dibbell has the talent of making technology and imagination crystal-clear), smart readers will not be thunderstruck that RL frictions replicate themselves in VR, albeit with fuzzier edges or a degree of exaggeration. After all, human dreaming during REM sleep is the original virtual reality, and who hasn't seen the day's psychodramas played out in Day-Glo colour overnight? Online aliases are old hat, too, with E-mail services like Hotmail and AOL encouraging imagistic, agitprop user IDs like VeganWarrior, tortoise, Rockbobster, and nine.arms (actual examples!).

Dibbell's diaristic treatment, however, rescues My Tiny Life from trite predictability. He tells us pretty much everything that happened on the MOO and at his RL home, and why, with unsparing detail. Discomfiting detail, even. Dibbell dallies with online cross-dressing ("tinygender"), typing up a character called Samantha, "twitching her nose just like she did on the show. You see a light dusting of white powder on her upper lip, which might explain the nose-twitching, and an anxious dream of power in her eyes." Last Exit to Brooklyn this ain't. Dibbell applies such equanimity and goodwill to an enterprise straight guys typically regard with disgust or shame-faced fascination that he rather raises the bar. If only Elvis Stojko were as mature and even-handed about the female side he claims not to have.

Things get a bit stickier when, inevitably, "tinysex" comes up. Here the narrative device of alternating VR with RL pays off. (It's in the RL chapters, too, that spare, economical imagery holds court, a great relief after wading through pages of VR quicksand.) Dibbell's girlfriend Jessica Chalmers, who needles him by pushing for an open relationship since Dibbell can't commit to her, triggers a kind of dialectic within Dibbell of a good and an evil Fred Flintstone muttering through Dibbell as though standing on either shoulder.

Like Wilde, Dibbell can stave off everything but temptation, and the fair-minded documentation of his own tinysexualism does not paper over the fact that he blew it big time, placing long-term RL at mortal risk through a fleeting pleasure in VR. "And whether the force impelling me... toward a virtual entanglement was just an itch to even the RL score, or whether it was something not as simple-- some suddenly-unshackled urge, say, to have a fuller taste of that unique blend of intimacy and distance that had always been (why not confess it now?) the thing that most appealed to me about MOOish relationships-- I didn't get the sense that my will alone would be strong enough to resist it. I only knew that there were other forces pushing in the opposite direction."

While the final loose ends are tied up a tad too abruptly, the telling of Dibbell's tinysex tale goes a long way toward redeeming the book. Amid a daily effluvium of televised confessions, burying one's mea culpa in a book, even while we're waiting for the 21st century to download, has something to say for it.