In The House of The Digital Gods:
Meditations On The New Rituals of Cyberspace
In the beginning, there were the gods.
It was in their service, according to anthropologists, that humans first sang songs, painted paintings, built buildings, and danced dances. Their primeval rites produced the first plays, gathered the first orchestras, and gave audience to the oldest known poems. Their faces and forms were captured by the first sculptors and painters. Their glory was captured by the builders of the Seven Wonders. Even the first Olympic Games were held in their honor. For ten thousand years, we've been putting our most treasured resources into the hands of our best and brightest creative minds, challenging them to honor whatever deities reinforced the communal values deemed most critical to our individual and collective survival. All art, all theater, all the entertainments we know found their genesis in this rich legacy of ritual performance, ritual architecture, and ritual artifacts that express our endless fascination with the transcendant and the divine.
The drive to seek meaning through ritual seems to be as hard-wired into us as our need for food, sleep, shelter, or sex. Rituals are as ubiquitous as the family and the tribe, to which they are inseparably related. Religions, in a practical sense, are mind maps that give each of us a basic organizational model of the universe - a set of assumptions that inform every decision you make, from the momentous to the mundane. Whether you're an evangelical Baptist, a Pure Land Buddhist, or a techno-athiest, your theology provides a mental model that tells you who you are, where you came from, where you are going, and how you should relate to the rest of the universe; and you almost certainly depend on some form of public or private ritual to affirm these assumptions and make connection with others who share your view.
The basic questions of existence answered by religion will not cease to exist for us simply because we move our communities online, and we will not cease to turn to ritual for comfort and answers. This article, therefore, is a meditation on the ways that our current religious ritual forms will be challenged and changed by the evolution of cyberspace - and a speculation on the influences that will shape ritual performance as this new medium evolves.
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The Structure and Function of Ritual
All worship begins with the desire to affirm our connections to each other and to the material and spiritual world. Think about the experiences we hold in common with every human who has ever lived: falling in love, nurturing children, the warmth of a fire, the thrill of the new, the smell of the garden, the beauty of mountain and sea, the feel of skin against skin, the taste of fresh food, the uncertainty of death, the aweful contemplation of the night sky. On every continent, we gather to mark life passages. We meet to share a meal, a fire, a song, and a tale well-told. We honor our shared values, experiences, and history. We display and trade the beautiful things we've created out of our heads, hearts, and hands. These are the best things in life that are free - the powerful pleasures that are available to all of us. (It's no coincidence that most of these are also the necessary activities on which our continued survival depends.) Ritual gives us a meaningful context for these experiences, and uses them to strengthen our sense of of interconnectedness with the world.
In ritual, these common purposes and shared values become ignited with emotional power through theatrical techniques that intensely engage all our senses, using symbols to unleash and focus the group's collective mental and physical energies toward the divine. Consider, by way of example, the Catholic Mass. The eyes are dazzled by soft candlelight glowing off silver and gold, beautiful costumes and icons, abundant flowers, and vibrant stained glass. The ears are filled with organ and vocal harmonies blending in soaring acoustical perfection. You smell the incense, taste the wine, and feel the textures of wood and stone, velvet and linen. No theatrical trick is spared, no sensory input channel ignored in the effort seize your imagination and sweep you away with the wonder and majesty of the Catholic God.
But a ritual that stops with mere theatrics is still just a slick, expensive stage show. The ingredient that raises participants out of the mundane world and into a transcendant experience is one that the new technologies give us in abundance: interactivity. Unlike other performing arts, in which there is an enforced hierarchy between the performers and the audience, the most powerful rituals work to reach over the proscenium, to include everyone in the creative effort. In the Mass described above, the congregation sings, chants, prays, and comes forward to share in the communion. At a rock concert (a primary form of communal worship for any American under 50), you bounce the balloon around, raise your lighter aloft, stand up and boogie in the aisles, and howl along with the band. The most successful TV preachers are the ones with the most interactive broadcasts, leavened with inspiring stories of lost souls saved by your loving prayers and generous donations, and reminders that prayer partners are standing by 24 hours a day to take your toll-free call. Whenever celebrants can interact with the environment, the officiants, and each other, they create trust. And where there's trust, there's a safe and sacred space in which people can revel in their own creative essence, and open themselves up to the experience of the divine.
Finally, a meaningful ritual must have a goal that is, at its root, transformative in nature. Through ritual, we pass from one state to another - a baby is welcomed into a family, a child becomes an adult, two people declare their commitment, the living pass through to death, a goal is attained, an answer is found, a bond is forged, a soul is healed. When we gather together with the same group of people, over and over, to mark these transitions and make these transformations, we grow in love and trust, and become a community in the most profound sense of the word. Our cybercommunities are no different.
Over the past century, western industrial society has moved away from overtly religious rituals as the central events that bind the culture together. These days, we are more likely to be connected by secular or consumerist rituals, such as rock concerts and sports events - performances that use the trappings of ritual to enhance their popular appeal, but offer only limited transformative power and little in the way of transcendent meaning. Still, our collective yearning for spiritual fulfillment persists; and, judging from the amount of religious information now available on both the Web and the Internet, the quest is finding new energy in the wide-open intellectual marketplace of cyberspace. What follows is a short catalog of some promising proto-trends have begun to emerge.
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A New Heaven and A New Earth: The Redefinition of The Sacred
Over the course of this century, progressive theologians in the West have been tearing down the wall between a utopian heaven out in the clouds somewhere, and a profane Earth forever separated from divine grace. The doctrine of immanance - Deity present in all energy and matter - grew into a dominant cultural meme as the environmental movement rose in the 1960s, and today even some Christian, Jewish, and Islamic sects have incorprorated some version of this belief into their teachings. The idea that the Earth itself is sacred, and that heaven is wherever we choose to create it, has some useful implications for the spiritual potential of cyberspace.
After all, once we accept that the Earth and its processes are sacred, it's not so hard to wrap our minds around the notion that the infosphere - an evolving, living creation of the human imagination - is by nature a sacred entity as well. Willard van de Bogart, creator of the widely-acclaimed Earth Portals web site, describes netsurfing as a religious act in and of itself. "The Web is alive, all over the world, 24 hours a day," he observes. "It allows us to participate in other people's worlds, which I find is a very religious experience for me. And it contexualizes things in a way that other media can't, which forces you to look at the interconnectedness of everything in a whole new way. " For van de Bogart, the simple act of going online is "plugging into the group mind," connecting with a global consciousness that he experiences as God.
Marc Pesce, one of the creators of VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language, more about which later), prefers Mircea Eliade's elegant definition: "The sacred is that which ontologically forms the world." Pesce, who co-authored VRML with the specific goal of using it to create ritual gathering places on the Net, sees cyberspace as an extension of what occultists have called the astral plane, and believes that it will be a driving force in the re-enchantment of the world. "Cyberspace and the astral are roughly the same thing: it's all information in motion," he explains. "It offers an embodiment that isn't what we're used to in this world, because this world isn't capable of the same magic we find in cyberspace. Cyberspace is teaching us the ways of natural magic."
Once we recognize the infosphere as a place with a unique and sacred beauty of its own, we can start to explore its spiritual possibilities - and create new rituals that celebrate that original beauty, as we now celebrate the beauties of this plane. But first we have to make ourselves at home there - and that means coming to terms with what "self" means in this new realm.
Into The Realm of Mind: The Redefinition of Self
America's entire history has been an ongoing quest for new frontiers where people could find the freedom and space to re-create their identities over and over again; and our biggest rewards are saved for the actors, businesspeople, and politicians who have mastered this art most deftly. This old tradition has been playing itself out on the newest frontier, the Net, for years: people routinely build a colorful wardrobe of personae they can cloak themselves in when going online.
Some interesting spiritual possiblities exist in these mutable identities, even with the current bandwidth limitations. Certainly, the ability to change your persona at will is a boon to the emotionally or criminally dishonest, but it also gives us a unique opportunity to lay claim to the best that is within us. While the circumstances of our day-to-day lives may conspire to keep us in our own personal ruts, we can use cyberspace to try out new, improved versions of ourselves, and try out new postures that change our relationship to the world. In this realm, we have unprecedented freedom to present ourselves not as we are physically, but as we wish we could be, or would be if our passions were unleashed. At their most powerful, these experiences can break us out of our ruts and reshape our consciousness: in cyberspace, you really can be "born again" into a state of divine grace.
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One common criticism of online worship is that these new selves will not be embodied, and therefore unable to respond to the sensory richness of traditional ritual. We are moving into a realm of pure Mind, one in which our physical kinetics and our own sensual inputs appear to have almost no function - a condition that may serve to widen the division between mind and body. I have heard several traditional theologians - Christian, Jewish, and Buddhist - decree with flat finality that online ritual is absolutely and utterly impossible. "Ritual requires physical presence," said one, with dogmatic conviction.
However, thanks to VRML and other VR technologies, online embodiment is probably only a couple of years away. "You can't contemplate the sacred being without contemplating the sacred body: it's the vehicle for being in this plane, and they're one and the same," insists Mark Pesce. "In rejecting immanence [the theological concept that divinity is present in all things], you also fall into this trap that cyberspace requires disembodiment." As the sensual bandwidth of the Net increases to the point that telepresence will begin to approximate actual presence, the potential for creating meaningful religious experiences online should increase as well. The first step, according to Pesce, will be taken late in 1996, when the Net will acquire the ability to send sound as well as text and images. "When we add the ear to the Internet, we can be far more co-extant with each other's experiences. You can record things, and send them to all your friends. If I hear your voice in my ear, it's much more like you're really co-present with me."
Still, if cyberspace is the realm of Mind, do we really need to bring our bodies along for the ride? After all, people always assumed that sex, like ritual, also required intimate physical presence - yet millions of people are now having satisfying sexual experiences on the Net, with no more sensual input than a two-line text message in a chat room. And people are already starting to gather online for group ritual as well. It's possible, then, that bringing ourselves into full presence has more to do with mind than with matter.
Futurist and veteran game designer Brian Moriarty discussed the issue of disembodiment in a speech at the 1996 Computer Game Developers' Conference. "Archeological and linguistic evidence suggests that ancient civilizations did not necessarily share our Western concept of the 'self,'" he reminded his audience. "The concept that each of us is a separate, independent consciousness moving through space and time, the basic dualism of perceiver and perceived, the concept that Freud called the ego [has long been questioned by] some religious traditions, [which] maintain that dualism and the ego have nothing to do with reality. These religions possess strange but demonstrably effective technologies that allow individuals to achieve states of consciousness that transcend the illusion of separateness. They tell us that we are all deeply connected, part of a network of minds, a web of souls, an economy of presence...does any of this sound familiar? And they tell us that it is time and space that prevent us from realizing our essential unity, that time and space are precisely the illusions that keep us apart!"
Moriarty is acutely aware that scientific materialists don't like to hear this kind of stuff. After all, the drive for individual achievement, the urge to differentiate ourselves from others, has been the primary agent of scientific, intellectual, and economic progress for ten millenia. Yet those days may be coming to a rapid end. "The illusion of separateness has outlived its usefulness. It is turning against us, and subverting our destiny. It is time to outgrow it. It is killing us. And we [who are building the Net] are the architects of its demise.
"By using the Web, by thinking about its possibilities and especially by helping to build it, you are changing the way you realize the world. You are changing your mind about the world. The Web isn't just something that happens in the world; it's something that's happening in you. When people set up e-mail accounts or personal web sites or join a chat room or create a MUD persona, what are they doing? They're saying to the world, I AM. I signify. I am part of a large community. I am part of something bigger than myself.
"These are empowering acts. These acts are an expression of hope. These are spiritual acts. [In fact,] the adjective 'spiritual' simply refers to things which have no body, form, or substance. Spirituality is about things that are disembodied, things that are formless, things that are insubstantial, things that are virtual. " And, he continues, for those engaged in building any kind of entertainment for the Net, "Spiritual experiences are, in fact, our business. Ours will be an economy of spirits."
According to Moriarty, using technologies such as VRML to embody these liberated spirits is misguided - and misses the point. "Virtual reality imposes a materialistic space-time metaphor on the experience of virtual presence. Space and time are exalted in VR." But Moriarty sees us heading for a plane that transcends these material limits. After all, imagination - whether it's computer games, sex, or spirituality, is the common currency of cyberspace, and "the space-time metaphor represents a monumental failure of imagination....We've been thinking about virtual presence as if we have to send our bodies out there. [But] if we could design reality for our minds, what powers would we grant ourselves? The ability to be anywhere instantly would be a step in the right direction. The ability to be everywhere, all at once, without going mad, is the real challenge. Why should we settle for avatars, when we can be angels? Space and time are not intrisic properties of virtual presence...and will not exist in virtual presence unless we bring them with us. Time and space are BORING. Let's not invite them."
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We Are As Gods: The Clerisy of The Individual
Programmers were the first cyberspace clerisy: scratch any true hacker (or ask him to show up at a party in costume), and you'll find, at the core, an archetypal wizard, swathed in Douglas Adams' super-intelligent shade of blue, commanding a gathering swirl of glowing electrons and glittering pixels with his fingertips. This stereotype is the modern equivalent of the 12th-century monk: an ascetic thinker who is the keeper of the arcana, knower of the mysteries, builder of worlds, master of the digital god, who manipulates the yin/yang of zeros and ones as a meditation on the greater dualities of matter/energy, light/dark, and male/female.
Computer technology was born in the consciousness of these people, and this consciousness is reflected throughout their creation - and in the nascent theology of the Net. The spiritual impulse, long silenced by consumerism and science, is finding a new voice in cyberspace, and it often expresses itself in the utopian dreams of the computer wizard: free access to an infinite world of ideas, individual autonomy and empowerment, total self-responsiblity, and intellectual discipline. The programmers who created the infosphere were also the first to see magic, life, and divinity in its chaotic, anarchic form.
Still, it's one thing to be a monk, who lives alone with his thoughts; and quite another to be a parish priest, in service to a congregation. As we move our communities online, who will plan the rituals? Who will articulate our theology, write the liturgy, and lead the prayers that marry and bury and welcome the babies? Around whom will the communities coalesce? Where will we find our priests in the future?
The power and status of the ordained clergy have been ebbing away in our culture for the past 50 years, but there's evidence that the Net will utterly and completely transform it - if not render it obsolete. This is because the only way for people to survive in the Net's wild marketplace of theological ideas will be to assume more and more "priestly" functions for themselves. In fact, argues Pesce, this may be a matter of sheer survival in the theological free-for-all of cyberspace. "If you're not your own high priest, you can't function correctly in the 20th century," he explains. "If you follow a teacher blindly, it's your mistake. If you're going to listen to what someone else is telling you about God, without bothering to check it for yourself through your own direct experience of the sacred, you can be lied to. That's the basic error of most organized religions: other people can tell you what's what. You 've got to liberate yourself from that. I can't see any future for any sort of spirituality in cyberspace that's not centered on the individual."
Fortunately, the technology that makes this sort of ad hoc self-ordination necessary will also make it possible. The Net now offers a world of religious information that was previously impossible to get. In Berkeley, CA, for example, a team of researchers is gathering together Tibetan Buddhist texts that have been scattered all over the world as a result of the Chinese genocide in that country. By collecting the bits and fragments that have been smuggled out by Tibetan monks and others, they hope to form a database of thousands of sudras, which can be accessed through the Net or sold on CD-ROM. Never before in history has this information been available in one place, let alone in a form so easily accessible to so many.
Projects like this are going on all over the world, placing a dense smorgasbord of religious thought in front of anyone with Net access and an open mind. A new book, "God on the Net" (ref publisher and author) catalogues the current offerings in a mere ?? pages, with more information being posted every day. We no longer need to rely on the limited, approved range of spiritual ideas available through our local clergy, bookstores and libraries: our theological education is now in our own hands, and the scope of information is unprecedented in history.
Second, the Net also gives us the means to share our own thoughts and experiences, and build new spiritual communities made up of those who share our views, no matter where we live. Cyberspace is already a haven for all kinds of religous dissidents: small-town Jews with no local minyan; progressive Christians who feel isolated in conservative areas of the country; and far-flung members of upstart movements such as Neo-Paganism and Christian Identity now use the Net as their primary source of community. This kind of sharing is a potent validating experience with countless implications. The ability to be full participants in creating the spiritual consciousness of the Net, to reach out to the entire planet with our own thoughts, dreams, poems, hymns, icons, and prayers - and have others respond to us in kind - allows us to make our voices heard in a way they almost never are in structured, real-time monotheistic worship.
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Still, given how quickly preachers took advantage of radio and TV, it seems highly likely that before long, we will have online clergy as well. It's a safe bet that, like their predecessors (and, for that matter, like Jesus and Mohammed), these won't be great theological thinkers, but rather charismatic figures who can articulate theological ideas clearly enough to galvanize a community. Will these cyberclerics fragment us into little bands, or will a new dominant paradigm emerge, leading to a new orthodoxy with the same monolithic clout we now see in Christianity?
I would argue that the sheer diversity of the Net's religious community would make it hard for a Jim Jones or Baghwan Shree Rajneesh to gather momentum. Cults flourish best when their members and outsiders are both kept in an informational vacuum - a hard thing to accomplish on the Net, where you can hardly avoid encountering people with contrary positions and other views of reality. A cult leader could court new members on the Net, and ultimately woo them into joining the rest of the faithful at his or her compound (where Net access could then be monitored and restricted). And yet, even then, as long as the leader had a presence on the Net, negative information regarding his or her actions would be readily available to anyone who enquired. Suspicious souls can form wide networks that quickly identify and rally around potential victims, perhaps dissuading them from joining. And the pool of potential victims should dwindle, as more and more people are empowered to drive their own spiritual quests, without accounting to external authorities.
Creating Sacred Space: Building The Cyberspace Cathedrals
Willard: You become a world citizen in very short order - a new kind of technological unifaction that leads to spiritual wholenes - a hemispherical consciousness that plugs you into the whole sphere of the earth. If you can communicate that kind of idea on a web page, many people might respond. It's not just what's on a web page: it's the interactvie consciousness behind it that links people together, and affirm that interaction.
One of Pesce's goals in creating VRML was to create a place in Cyberspace that was safe for sacred being, where people could use VR to experience the sacred in themselves. This led to the cybersamhain, an attempt to create a ritual that pointed up the fact that cyberspace and the astral shadowlands were in fact the same thing. Dedicated to Hermes Cybernanus, the god of communication of thought. Created VRML images of the watchtowers. Got friends together to do this ritual to create order from ferment; they wrote invocations for the directions. This amazing ritual worked it way out of this collaborative effort. We published all the ritual online, and tbecause it's a VRML world, you can link any item in the world, so I linked the watchtower invocations to the watchtowers, the grounding ritual to the ground, so you actually had this complete communition between the HTML world and the VRML world, so anyone who came into it via the internet call could come in and participate and do the ritual with us. Plus we did an open call for submissions that would be posted with all this stuff on the Web site.
Entering The Shared Dreamscape: New Prayers for a New Era
We can move each other with words: the power of preachers should not be underestimated. (examples: Robert Schuller, Jesus, Wesley.)
Cyberspace is formed by emotion and being, not reason and physics. When you enter that realm, you're looking around the inside of yourself. If you look into cyberspace and see demons, what you're seeing is your own reflection in the mirror. There's no cyberspace that's not inside our heads, that we didn't bring with us.
There are a lot of people who want this global consciousness to manifest something real in the world - something that transcends the technology and creates real change. We have to hope that the energy that goes into these sites will make a difference.
The Mutation of Monotheism And The Pantheist Revival
As noted earlier, religions are essentially reality models. An effective religion gives its adherents a kind of cosmic tool kit full of useful behaviors, myths, values, and images to help them make sense of the world. Furthermore, the tools in any given religion's kit are a direct reflection of the character of the god(s) the system deifies.
As an example, I again offer Christianity, which has shaped 2,000 years of Western reality with its belief in one unchanging God. Working from the view that if God doesn't change, then nothing else probably should, either, the Church cultivated a stern social and intellectual rigidity that has been deeply suspicious of every technological revolution since the Renaissance, capitulating to new discoveries and accepting the inevitable social changes only after a long (and sometimes bloody) period of denial. As the rate of technological change exploded over the course of this century, the lag between the "real world" we need to live in and the world described by Christian theology has become more and more pronounced. Some of the old tools in the kit still work (love thy neighbor, care for the poor and sick), but a growing number don't (silence your women, kill gays). Over the past century, many brilliant theologians from Teilhard de Chardin to Matthew Fox have tried to narrow this yawning breach, but their ideas have also been slow to disseminate through the change-resistant Christian framework. As more and more people found its tool kit increasingly irrelevant to modern life, institutional Christianity gradually lost much of the cultural primacy it once held throughout the industrialized world.
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Still, the Abrahamic religions (Judaisim, Christianity, and Islam) have proven their durability for millenia, and they will probably survive - though the process may be politically and socially painful, and the resulting mutations will look quite different than what we're now used to. As the Net embraces more and more of our lives, the old faiths will be dealing with better-informed congregations who aren't limited by geography in their choice of spiritual communities.
Ultimately, online religious expression will probably look a whole lot different than anything the average Westerner currently recognizes as "religion." Cyberspace is a new world, and it will demand new religious models - tool kits that addresses our anxieties about technological change, and gives us new mythologies, paradigms, and values that teach us to cope and thrive. One possible forge for these new tools is the Neo-Pagan movement, which first caught fire in the U.S. during the Sixties, and grew up alongside the Net in the 70s and 80s. Conservative estimates place the number of practicing Pagans in the US at over 200,000; other estimates run as high as half a million. Several sources have identified it as the fastest-growing religious movement in America.
Neo-Paganism is an umbrella label that covers a wide variety of pantheist/animist, pre-Christian, and indiginous belief systems. The Pagan movement includes traditional Native American, African, and other aboriginal groups, but its activist core is built around European-Americans who are trying to create modern adaptations of ancient European pagan traditions. The movement is loosely held together by a common belief in the immanent nature of divinity. Pagans hold that the Earth and all its processes are sacred - including the noosphere and infosphere, which they regard as a natural part of human evolution. They assert that change is a natural force to be embraced: Pagan holidays are usually built around the cycles of the sun, moon, and human life, universal events that are celebrated around the world, transcending culture and politics. They believe fervently in both science and magic, often citing Arthur C. Clarke: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. While they value the wisdom of experienced elders, they regard each person as the high priest or priestess of his or her own soul - the clerisy of the individual. Their rituals are highly theatrical, integrating music, dance, poetry, art, costuming, food, and many other elements; and they take place in a circle where everyone participates, eliminating the hierarchy of performer and audience. The Neo-Pagan movement is actively re-examining and re-inventing the entire basis of religion, creating a theology that may be more in tune with our times.
Neo-Pagans are the first religious community to depend heavily on the Net for cohesion. Many Pagans are isolated in small towns, where they must practice their religion alone, and often face great social censure if their beliefs become known. The net gives these Pagans their only chance to connect with the rest of their religious community for celebration and support. Anyone who frequents a religion-oriented chat room, BBS, Web site, or net forum can testify to the ubiquity of Neo-Pagans online. In fact, many of the prominent builders of the Net identify themselves as Pagan (including both co-authors of VRML). And whatever our new cyberspace religion eventually looks like, it's a safe bet that the Pagan community will have had a large hand in creating it.
In the beginning, there were the gods.
It is in their service that we build the Net, the Web, and the new art forms that manipulate time and space the way our ancestors manipulated stone and pigment. Our communal rites will combine mind, spirit, energy, and technology to break down the barriers between performer and audience, artist and viewer, priest and celebrant, mind and body, self and other. Our glory will be illuminated and reflected in a hundred million mirrors as we look around the world and see each other - really see each other - for the first time. And, as these billions of flashes of the divine spark begin to shimmer all around us, setting this electronic Matrix alight with wonder, we will begin to reckon with the transformative truth that seemed so preposterous when Stewart Brand first published it, lo, these 30 years ago:
We are as gods.
And we might as well get good at it.