By Rupert Howe and James Beecher
In March, Stroud Radical Reading Group started a new series of monthly discussions looking at digital technology. This piece looks at Erik Davis’s TechGnosis, the first book discussed as part of the series.
Emerging in the shadow of the millennium in 1998, Erik Davis’s TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information could be likened to the OK Computer of cultural theory – an inquiry into the post-digital, post-modern state of mind that originally featured cover art by the same artist, Stanley Donwood. Like Radiohead, Davis is awestruck and appalled by the late-20th century and divines how the utopian dreams inspired by the new worlds opened up by computer technology could collapse into a terminal “datapocalypse”.
Davis’s book is nothing if not ambitious. Like a spelunker descending bravely into the digital depths, he shines his head torch over the entirety of Western thought, beginning in Ancient Greece before exploring a profusion of digressions that include everything from medieval alchemy to the discovery of electricity, the visionary science fiction of Philip K Dick to the rise of the internet.
As he commented in a 2018 podcast, “The 90s were a very heady time if you were interested in technology, interested in consciousness [and] there was quite an overlap of people who were interested in psychedelics, science fiction, future consciousness, and people who recognised that something really big was going to happen in technology.”
With his round glasses and goatee beard Davis has something of the wise seer and mischievous elf about him. A fifth-generation Californian, his online bio notes he was born during the Summer of Love near San Francisco (where he now lives), though as a student and teacher his formative years were spent in East Coast academia. He studied literature and philosophy at Yale, though it was his six years as a writer in the “freelance trenches”, contributing articles to magazines such as the digital culture guide Wired, that honed the ideas which took shape in TechGnosis.
Often cast as a commentator on the digital age, the gnostic themes in the book are at least as important as the tech, and Davis spends as much time discussing spiritual ideas as he does the digital revolution. He treats religion and technology as parallel developments, with reference to the gnostic heresy that our world – and the cosmos that surrounds it – is a kind of simulation that must be transcended to achieve enlightenment.
“We have these very old dreams and desires,” he says, “and as we discover new technologies we want to rediscover those dreams in the new formats.”
Many critical texts set up a single question to be answered from different angles in a neatly rational order. With TechGnosis the questions – and answers – seem to flow in a near-continuous stream, full of dizzying cross-references and turbulent thematic switchbacks. As he points out in the introduction, “You may think you are holding a conventional book… But that is really just a clever disguise.” Instead he proposes a radical “hypertext”, full of embedded links and digressions, a “dreambook of the technological unconscious.”
For the reader, this can be at once liberating and confounding. But it’s also deeply engaged with the issues of our times. Building on chapters relating to cyberspace and the early internet, Third Mind From The Sun contains some of his most politically engaged writing – tackling globalisation, artificial intelligence, conspiracy theories and transnational capitalism – even as it seeks the “inner spirit of humans and things” and reaches for a reframing of the digital realm as a place of spiritual freedoms and shifting identities.
There was general agreement in our discussion with Davis’s analysis that the technological and mystical are entwined in fascinating yet often difficult to decipher ways. Parallels were made with contemporary figures such as Elon Musk who present themselves as post-modern ‘saviours’, alongside a more general reflection on what Davis describes as the gnostic, with its links to both early Christian sects and a more modern sense of how we interface with the digital world.
Davis notes: “Like the rationality we carry within our minds, whose logical convictions must make their way through the boozing, brawling cabaret of the psyche, technologies are shared and constrained by the warp and woof of culture, with its own peculiar myths, dreams, cruelties and hungers.”
Prompted by an upcoming discussion of Shoshana Zuboff’s 2019 book Surveillance Capitalism, the possibilities for exploitation and control of the expanding digital space were very much on Davis’s mind even in the late-1990s. A few people pointed out how prescient his analysis was, given he was writing in the era before smartphones and social media, let alone the “internet of things”. We also touched on Davis’s interest in conspiracy theories (“Even though most conspiratorial phantoms are false, even delusional, they are nonetheless part of today’s political imagination”) and the way globalisation could feed paranoia about contagion (e.g. the 1997 financial crisis dubbed “Asian flu”).
“Technology is neither a devil nor an angel,” says Davis. “But neither is it simply a ‘tool’, a neutral extension of some rock-solid human nature. Technology is a trickster… mischievous, riddling, and thoroughly cross-wired.”
We wondered what Davis meant in describing technology as a “trickster”. Most of us agreed that technology was a potentially disruptive influence on human experience with both beneficial and harmful impacts. Perhaps referring to the Norse shape-shifter Loki or African spirit Anansi. Or as group regular Mar put it, “Facebook is like the fae that tricks you into telling them your name and then it owns your soul. Hah!”
There are some gloomy reflections on global capital in Davis’ book, but he ends on a relatively forward-thinking note. Asking whether technology can still be a progressive force for good, we discussed initiatives such as open source software that cut against the grain of corporate capitalism, and potentially act as a counter to the narrative of increasing manipulation. Even as corporations such as Facebook, Amazon and Google extend their reach, online interactions have opened up new spaces for previously marginalised communities to connect, and can allow for a more fluid presentation of identity. One close-to-home example is the way Stroud Radical Reading Group itself has been enabled by online communication – recently moving to video meeting platforms as a result of the COVID pandemic, gaining a few attendees from across the world in the process.
Next week, on Wednesday 28th April, Stroud Radical Reading Group will discuss Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff and How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism by Cory Doctorow (https://stroudradicalreading.wordpress.com/2021/04/07/surveillance-capitalism/). This is a free online event, which will be held from 7.30-9.30pm via Zoom. For details to access the meeting, please contact the group: [email protected]. You do not need to have a university education or have ever been to a reading group before, and the group welcomes people who have not read the text but would like to listen.