#71 The new edge of techno-spiritual chaos

Silicon Valley New Age: The Co-Constitution of the Digital and the Sacred by Dorien Zandbergen, pages 161-185

Have you ever wondered how or why the New Age spirituality movement and digital computing and personal computing revolutions occurred at the same time and in the same area of the United States, that is, the San Francisco Bay Area? In her paper, digital anthropologist Dorien Zandbergen explains that New Age came to mean searching for inner spirituality and anti-establishment sentiments, particularly in reversing the believed “brainwashing” by mainstream media and culture. New Edge came to represent the “high-tech New Age,” for example, using digital and computing means in search of spiritual experiences.

There are a few links in the causal chain from Beatniks in the 1950s to virtual reality technology in the 1990s, yet the part I found most interesting is the link between psychedelics, technology, and the sacred. In brief, and according to Zandbergen’s research, the Merry Pranksters led by Ken Kesey used sound and lighting equipment in conjunction with other drug “technologies” such as LSD, speed, or cannabis in order to “bring people into the present and to create a direct experience of the now” (2010, 168).

A common theme during the 1960s and its shoulder periods was counterculture. New Age spirituality, psychedelics, and New Edge (spiritual through technology) seem to coalesce around this time. The reason Kesey and the Pranksters’s combined use of psychedelics and “electrical technologies” is so important to this discussion of finding the sacred from/within technology is that Stewart Brand, the founder of The Whole Earth Catalogue (a magazine or guide with topics catered to counterculturalists) and once organizer of Prankster events, endorsed the idea that computers can be or has the potential to be countercultural as well when computers become personal computers for the masses (even though many hippies at the time thought computers were devices to control, brainwash, and wage war by the Establishment).

“As can be seen in hindsight, the Prankster’s high-tech-spirituality preludes the New Edge celebration of computer science and technology a few years later. The fusion of spirituality and computing that would characterize the New Edge in the decades to come, has been initiated and narrated by people who were part of the Prankster group and who were in close social and cultural proximity of this scene. As such, clear resonances and affinities can be discovered between the ways in which the Pranksters used electrical technologies and the way in which later New Edgers embraced computer technologies” (Zandbergen, 2010, 169).

My interpretation of Zandbergen’s account of this scene is that psychedelics stripped away much of the Establishment’s sociocultural programming, while at the same time when used with sound and light technologies, allowed psychedelic users to come in contact with something sacred within or without them. Further, this hybrid experience of the sacred, i.e. psychedelic with paired technology, sheds its psychedelic roots when biofeedback and virtual reality (VR) technology proponents claim that users of these technologies can experience the transcendent. Note: there is no mention of psychedelics by Zandbergen regarding the use of biofeedback and VR technologies.

I’ll wrap up my brief summary of the paper so I can get to my critique.

“[T]he crucial difference between New Age and New Edge: whereas the New Age expresses the faith that the human body has the inherent capacity to overcome social conventions and material restrictions, the New Edge has no faith in unmodified human biology. On the contrary, the human body is a ‘flawed sensory apparatus’ and a ‘reducing valve’ and becomes thereby defined as the locus of mainstream pollution. Digital technologies are believed to be able to ‘fix’ this biological defect and to restore ‘natural perfection’” (Zandbergen, 2010, 182).

I agree with New Age sentiments that the human body is fully equipped/able to reach a kind of spiritual “salvation,” or to attain spiritual insights from natural techniques and/or non-digital/non-computing technologies. Buddhist monks and yogis have been teaching these practices for thousands of years. I think the root of the issue lies here: in our fast-paced modern culture, do people really want to opt out of modern society to chase these experiences that require years of training? Probably not. So, how can we have the best of both worlds? Through technologies that allow users to have these experiences without all the training. This can be dangerous of course because the steady climb instead of the exponential climb to the sacred serves to prepare and acclimate one to extreme non-ordinary states of being. With that said, whether you consider psychedelics-as-technology or the technologies paired with psychedelics as the fast-paced vehicle to achieve these states, the first few times of using these means will be a shock to the body-mind system no doubt. But with proper use and experience, one, in theory, could eventually adjust to their use.

My critique of the New Edge position comes from my own bioconservative stance (as opposed to transhumanism) toward tweaking the human body with technology. New Edgers are correct to say that there are reducing valves to the human experience, particularly regarding perception; however, to say that our sensory apparatuses are flawed is a stretch too far. Just because humans cannot see and experience whatever is beyond sober perception does not mean that humans and their senses are flawed. Digital technologies do not “fix” the human’s base state—they temporarily enhance them. Modifying the human’s biology is a step toward transhumanism which I’m against. I like to be reminded that I am human, a creature with boundaries and faults, because these boundaries and faults and other human-isms allow me to learn and grow as a conscious (and perhaps, spiritual) being. I also like the fact that humans have psychedelic, technological, and psychedelic-technological means to temporarily transcend their normal condition in order to expand themselves in manifold ways, and then apply those insights to their default existential condition. I’m all for regenerative medicine, that is, replacing a human body part with a synthetic part of equal functionality, but not surpassing it. For example, if you require a new arm, do you get a synthetic arm of equal strength and functionality or a Terminator-like arm that can pick up cars with a single finger? Maybe I’m old school. Maybe I’m a bit neo-Amish (in the eyes of transhumanists). I believe the human being is likely already sacred, however, most people don’t know how to access these states already within their reach.

The first step in achieving sacred or transcendental states is having a hunch that they exist in the first place. One must consider their existence first, then go out and find means to access them. Even if people have a hunch that these states exist, they will not access them if they accept the bamboozlement of all those other things that can occupy one’s time: sports, television, films, social media, abuse of degenerative substances (e.g. opioids), pop culture, and so on. It is not my intention to get conspiratorial by suggesting the world’s Establishments intentionally try to pacify their populations. That may be true. My point is that there are many wares on sale in modern society and it is up to the individual what they will consume, what they will put into their body and their mind. I don’t think one can have it both ways: a life of consumption of mind-numbing content or one that seeks transcendent insights. I mean, in theory, a person who mostly consumes mind-numbing content can take a handful of mushrooms, appreciate the experience, and then go back to their ways. Also, I think it comes down to moderation. I like movies and alcohol and other things as well that could be considered mind-numbing if misused.

The topic of Zandbergen’s article was the difference and even shift from New Age to New Edge spirituality. We are entering an exciting and frightful period of human civilization as our advanced science and technology permeates all aspects of our lives. Will high-tech turn us into robot-like creatures, or will it draw something out of us we never knew we had inside? In an Aristotelian virtue ethics sense, I think we must find the balance between technology and spirituality/transcendence in seeking out the good life individually and collectively.

Zandbergen, D. (2010). Silicon Valley New Age: The Co-Constitution of the Digital and the Sacred. In S. Aupers & D. Houtman (Eds.), Religions of Modernity: Relocating the Sacred to the Self and the Digital, (161-185). Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

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