Cyberpilgrims : Conclusion
Salvador Dali ('The temptation of St. Anthony (1946))
strikingly shows how confusing and surreal
the world of spirituality sometimes can appear.
The quest for spiritual identity in cyberspace is a difficult one. How can this identity be constructed? People have become pilgrims; their spiritual journey is fluid and individual. They lose the connection with the institutions that in the past at least partly regulated religious life. Faith in God has been replaced by a belief in the authentic self. New Age thinking about the supposedly autonomous individual subject has led to the sacralization of the self.
With the rise of technology and science, the world has, according to Max Weber, become disenchanted. The magic aura of a world described by Keith Thomas where ghosts, wizards, angels, saints and demons are part of daily life has been replaced by a more mechanical worldview. However, technology as a way of framing the world has received a sacred meaning. It fascinates and horrifies us at the same time. Cyberspace, the construction of a virtual reality, intrigued Oshii, the maker of Avalon. But though the idea of virtual worlds is the subject of both utopian and distopian interpretations, it has become reality for almost all of us.
New media, especially the Internet, has become the source for information, social networks and entertainment. Cyberspace can be used as a space for experimentation, especially in fantasy worlds. It can be a virtual moratorium or a liminal space that offers fewer restrictions than normal daily life. At the same time, it is also a 'stage' where people can present themselves and interact online with their social networks. Social networks like Facebook offer the possibility for creating a hypermedial self that is always 'under construction'.
Virtual worlds in computer games and simulations offer possibilities for the construction of a spiritual identity. Games like World of Warcraft offer the same mythical narratives as the fantasy books that fill the bookshops, but in their case people can actually play in these worlds! Virtual worlds offer the illusion of a mythical past and a playful environment. The narrative and ludic dimensions of these virtual worlds contribute to the identification with the cyber-self. Though virtual realities are in fact not real, they are experienced as real. They offer a framework that makes sense by offering a narrative and rules of the game. Moreover, they offer a virtual community. People can experiment and develop their cyber-character, and thus contribute to self-realization. In an enchanted virtual world, they can truly find a spiritual identity.
The Self, the Spiritual and the Sacred in Cyberspace
Religion and play therefore belong to the essentials of life; they transcend life above the simple concern for staying alive. We have seen that religion, the organized form of spirituality, is fading in western society. The quest for the construction of spiritual identity in cyberspace is concerned with how we construct a metaphysical framework for our lives, and how cyberspace can mediate this quest. In the last forty years, the construction of identity has become more and more ambiguous. The old framework of church, tradition and family has faded away, and individualization has led to a focus on authenticity and self-realization. This self-realization is the central topic in New Age, a movement whose ideas are common in media discourse; example are magazines like Happinez, television programs such as the Oprah Winfrey show, and social network sites like Facebook or virtual worlds where you can create your cyber-self. In virtual worlds, the aesthetic element and the playful element come together. Though it may be playful experience to connect to this pervasive form of cyberspace, it can also be a medium that makes sense to the people immersing themselves in these worlds.
The spiritual, or spirituality, can be shaped by the remnants of religious identification. Religious communities, ethics, narratives and rituals are still an important source of spirituality and give meaning to important changes in life. However, these frameworks are losing their power. There is a need for new spirituality, cut loose from tradition, education and family. People have become pilgrims on their personal spiritual journey, where the quest and the search seem to be more important than finding answers about life, death and transcendence.
The sacred is, for many, not longer found in the holy books or the church. Some find it in nature, others ascribe sacredness to technology, and many see their own identity as sacred. The sacralization of the self is prevalent everywhere. Gnostic ideas about the soul being a divine spark play in the background when gurus or leaders speak about finding your destiny and listening to your inner self.
Narrative and Collage
The construction of identity can be described in many ways. As always with concepts, they overlap and do not exclude each other. In the previous chapters, I have mentioned a few of them. The narrative, in fiction as well as in biography, is a synthesis of concordant and discordant elements. They contain a level of coherence and structure. The discordant elements provoke disruption, instability and change. The construction of identity can be formed by stories and media, and can be articulated in a biography. When people describe their biography, they usually try to give a coherent account of events, placing them in a context and giving them meaning. A narrative contains discordant elements that challenge the status quo of a character and can lead to important changes.
Today's society is fragmented. People fulfill different roles as a student, teacher, mother, employee, mother, child, and so on. Moreover, they receive messages that are mediated by school, work, newspapers, magazines, television, movies and the Internet. As a result of this, one's identity can be seen as a collage of very different elements. The whole is not a coherent story, but may be compared to a photo collage containing elements of photos, paper fragments, and advertisements. The hypermedial self, described by de Mul, can be another visualization. We are easily able to switch between various windows. In one window, people read an online magazine, in another, they participate in a social network, and in a third they can view their favorite clips on Youtube.
Hypermedial identity and spirituality
Cyberspace is facilitating the process of seeking and experimenting. It has led to the emergence of the cyberpilgrim. The process of seeking and bricolage is not new, but cyberspace offers new unlimited possibilities for spirituality and the construction of identity.
In the end, aren't we all bricoleurs? It seems impossible to form a coherent narrative as our lives contain so many, often discordant, elements. We can escape the reality of daily life by playing a game that releases us from the pressures of acting out a fragmented aspect of the self. Playing with identities is possible in virtual worlds. A cyber-character can do things we never would do in a socially controlled environment. On the other hand, new media is to a great extent social media. We also present ourselves in cyberspace and play with the possibilities and the limitations. Can we present ourselves as a different gender, can we Photoshop our appearance as we search for new social networks? Or do we keep close contact with our peers, offline as well as online?
Cyberspace seems to be a highly individualized space where each individual can choose and collect spiritual sources and experiences in different ways. What is the impact of cyberspace on the construction of identity? On the one hand, cyberspace seems to be merely a remediation of older media; the mail, the television, the book and the telephone. Each of these media made the world smaller. Yet this has changed the way we perceive the world and the way we perceive ourselves, other religions, and other ways of life. Perhaps cyberspace is not a consensual hallucination, but is a virtual reality that has permeated into every corner of society. The Internet, one of its most well-known and used manifestations, is a medium that enables the search for information, reflection, culture and entertainment. It is, above all, a social medium. It enables people to join social networks, three-dimensional worlds, or just to send an email to a friend on the other side of the world. It also offers many possibilities to play with identity and experiment with unimagined possibilities: walking in mythical 3D worlds, taking another identity and talking about personal things with people that you do not even know.
Is there still a metaphysical framework that should shape identity? Does cyberspace really enable us to create such a framework? Clearly, all forms of traditional and new spirituality are available online. But they are also present in churches, magazines, books, and seminars. The radical newness of cyberspace lies in its ability to make time and space relative. The network of computers all over the world is always present, is attainable seemingly everywhere and offers a new mediation to experience. When we conduct a spiritual quest as we search for a framework to live with, cyberspace offers endless possibilities for searching, finding, and searching further. The construction of spiritual identity in cyberspace is hypermedial. The fragmented identity and the innumerable sources of spirituality can coexist. Cyberpilgrims can construct their framework in using multiple windows. They can gaze through multiple windows into multiple spiritualities and identities, and switch from one to another with just a click of the mouse.
I have showed that cyberspace offers possibilities for the construction of identity and spirituality. I have written mostly about the medium, and less about the message. While McLuhan may have a point that the medium is the message, I am also very much interested in the content. Cyberpilgrims have the possibility to explore new places and experiment with virtual reality. Because I have used relatively few results of research in cyberspace, it is impossible to sufficiently answer the question of how spiritual identity in cyberspace is being constructed. Future research must clarify what people do when they search for spiritual recourses, construct their personal profiles or interact with others online. Spirituality in the Christian context is concerned with salvation, liberation from sin, union with God, and living by grace. Though Christian spirituality is available in all kinds of forms, traditions and experiences, it does have theologies, institutions and professionals that somehow regulate Christian spirituality. New Age spirituality, where the self is sacralized, is more fluid; it changes and takes different shapes. It can take the form of self-help books, spiritual magazines, spiritual websites, virtual worlds, meditation sessions etc. Moreover, not many like to use the term 'New Age', and are reluctant to define too strictly what they are offer in the spiritual marketplace. Cyberspace is a personalized medium and cannot be called mass communication. Television can be analysed by reviewing the programs, the setting and the audience. Internet and virtual worlds differ enormously, and offer multiple windows and endless possibilities. In order to make more sense of spirituality in cyberspace, field research is needed. We could, for example, take a group of highly educated middle class people between the ages of 20 and 35. If we want to see how they are constructing their spiritual identity, we need to interview them and see what they are doing. What is their religious background? What do they consider to be spirituality? Which kinds of websites and communities are they visiting? How do they relate to their social network? Which books do they read? Because cyberspace is so pervasive, we must see it in the broader cultural, religious and technological context.
I do believe that future research will show that cyberspace, though new as a medium, does not offer a new message. The messages of New Age spirituality and the sacralization of the self are also very much present in cyberspace. Cyberspace is probably the most effective medium for communicating, browsing, creating stories, searching, playing and experimenting. Therefore, it definitely begs thorough analysis by theologians, anthropologists, sociologists and psychologists. The framework that this paper offers can be very useful. By taking the frameworks of narratives, bricolage, play and games, it is possible to frame experiences, stories and play in cyberspace. The notion of hypermedial spirituality can explain how several sources can exist next to each other. Cyberpilgrims make use of hypermedia as they browse through words, images, videos and sounds. In addition to this, they can immerse themselves in the three-dimensional virtual world of computer games. With my description of spiritual identity in cyberspace, I have tried to reveal the 'media' dimension of the sociology of religion and the spiritual dimension of cyberspace. Pilgrims nowadays will continue to use cyberspace on their journey to spirituality and identity. Their journey is important enough to be taken seriously.