Spirituality in a technological mediated environment
Life is a wonderful adventure
Life is a travel through storms
Life is an unusual travel
Life is a travel through many storms
Avalon a fulfilled dream
You see a land behind morning mist
Avalon a secret land
Get to know your true Avalon
In Avalon, a surrealistic film about life in the near future, where nature and seem to be absent, the world is full of gray flat blocks. Many young people escape to the world of an illegal computer game, called Avalon. They search for the adventure they miss in daily life. The adventure is one big war game, where players become soldiers and fight other soldiers, tanks and helicopters. In order to access this computer game, a player needs to enter a 'cockpit, using a virtual reality helmet. This is the portal to the virtual reality of the dangerous war game of Avalon. The key figure of the film is Ash, a thirty-year-old woman. She is a very experienced player and even gains real money when she wins battles played in the game. Ash is a very lonely person, who has only her dog and the virtual reality of Avalon.
Avalon is a dangerous game. When a player is hurt too much, he or she cannot return to the real world. One of Ash's friends went 'game over' and lies in coma in the hospital. However, there is a chance that this friend is actually living in a 'higher' reality, a hidden level in the game. Ash, who is very worried about her friend, takes high risks to enter this level. As she becomes more and more involved with the game, real life, in the form of her dog, for whom she prepares food, fades away. When she returns from the game, she cannot find her dog anymore.
Avalon: The hidden Level
Finally, Ash succeeds in entering this hidden level. This is a world that looks real; she sees colors and naturally looking people. She leaves the technological artifacts behind and enters this world that seems to be more real than daily life. There, she meets her friend in a garden. She confronts him with the fact that he has betrayed the group of warriors and that he entered this higher level alone. This is not the real world, she declares. He, however, argues that this virtual world is real. But, to really become part of Avalon, they have to fight. One has to die so that the other can stay. Ash is able to shoot her friend in a duel and enter Avalon. Is Avalon the beginning of the end or a better world than daily life? This question is not answered in the film and left for the audience. It is a question that is very relevant in the discourse of nature, technology and virtual reality.
Avalon, What is Real?
Technology and spirituality?
"The tension between religion and intellectual knowledge definitely comes to the fore where rational, empirical knowledge has consistently worked through the disenchantment of the world and its transformation into a causal mechanism"
To view our technological society as gray, too structured, and organized is often based on a romantic view of the past, when we lived in harmony with nature. Many people despise the urban environment and long for a living in the countryside. In the previous chapter, we saw that one of the major changes in the worldview has to do with scientific and technological developments. Spirituality is often connected to nature, especially in New Age thinking. The technological developments have, according to Max Weber, led to a disenchanted world. There seems to be no place for the supernatural in a highly technologically controlled world. Cyberspace is a product of highly complex computer technology. Therefore, we need to get a grasp of the essence of technology. What framework can technology offer?
Where is computer technology leading us?
To answer this question, I will present visions on the essence of nature and technology, presented by Francois Dagonet, Martin Heidegger and Michel Henry. Furthermore, I will argue why technology has received a new aura of enchantment, magic and spirituality and apply this to virtual reality. I will apply these views to the fascination for virtual worlds.
For the last two centuries, there have been large developments in science and technology. Nature has been the object of scientific research looking to master its power. It has become domesticated in gardens, parks and wild parks. The rise of technology and systematization has lead to demystification and disenchantment. Meanwhile, a rise of romantic longing for pure nature and authenticity emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, represented by writers like Rousseau, poets like Goethe, and painters like Caspar David Friedrich, who painted the ´Wanderer above the sea of fog´. Those influences of romanticism are also visible in New Age spirituality, as I argued before.
The industrial revolution and the repression of laborers led Marx to compare machines to monsters that lead to the destruction and alienation from real life. The French philosopher Michel Henry, deeply influenced by Marx, eloquently expresses a very negative view on modern technology and science. Martin Heidegger states that we should be aware that technology has become a framework. The danger is that we do not acknowledge any more that we experience reality through this framework and take it for granted.
However, science and technology have always been seen as progress to a better future. David Nobel argues in his book, The Religion of Technology , that Christian scientists tried, with the use of technology, to regain paradise and to restore perfection. A good example of this thought is found in Francis Bacon's New Atlantis, in which he describes a perfect world where all kinds of technological innovations are integrated in society. Moreover, the complexity of technology, especially computer technology, has inspired many computer programmers to see technology as magic. The complexity of computer hardware and software can be domesticated by programming, but what exactly happens is not traceable and controllable anymore. Computer-mediated virtual environments even attract neo-pagans who consider technology as both magical and spiritual.
"On m'a donné un nom qui ne me convient pas ; on m'appelle nature et je suis tout art. Ne sais-tu pas qu'il y a un art infini dans les mers, dans les montages que tu trouves si brutes ? Ne sais-tu pas que toutes ces eaux gravitent vers le centre de la terre et ne s'élèvent que par des lois immuables, que ces montagnes sont les immenses réservoirs des neiges éternelles qui produisent sans cesse ces fontaines, ces lacs, ces fleuves, sans lesquelles mon genre animal et mon genre végétal periarient?"
What is nature? Many authors emphasize that the idea of nature that is common in popular culture, is in fact a romanticization of the last two centuries. Francois Dagonet starts by searching for the etymological roots of the word. It comes from the Latin natura, which is applicable to that which is being born and thus being engendered. In French, this root is still visible: se qui naît. Dagonet describes nature as that which is being born, the first, and the spontaneous. That which is born also dies, and this process goes on and on. The whole world reveals itself as part of nature; it is a mega-system that is completely autonomous.
That which is born is opposed to whatever is made by men. Nature is often seen as the exact opposite of the factory and the industry. Nature contains rhythm and permanence, but is at the same time a spontaneous movement, as opposed to the artificial. Shortly stated, it is alive. In Greek thought, the artifact, that which is produced by art, was a symbol of devastation. Artifacts are things; they are dead, and have no intrinsic properties to be what they are. The wood of a chair was not meant to become part of a chair. Nature contributes that which is constant, irreducible, unchangeable, but the "pact", or "contract" comes from mankind, as Rousseau argues. The contract is something arbitrary; it changes that which was fixed in time and place. Contracts are part of culture, and can be considered as artificial. The earth is praised as the surface where things grow, but things are often devalorized. Clothes, machines, and chairs are artifacts. Mass production, associated with standardization and devoid of creativity, has an especially bad name. Production is seen as inferior to procreation.
Technology is one of the terms often opposed to nature. Martin Heidegger regarded his era as a technological one. In his essay, ' Die Frage nach Technik', he asks what the essence of technology is. Heidegger avoids an instrumental or subjective interpretation of technology. He agrees that the functions of technology are instrumental, but states that this is not the whole truth. Therefore, he asks in which circumstances technology is made possible. The word technology comes from the Greek technè, which means art or craftsmanship. Making or fabricating a new object reveals something that did not exist before. That is why Heidegger sees technology as a way of revealing. It is a way of revealing that does not cover the whole reality; it is a framework. To clarify this idea, he uses the example of a painting with a list. The things, the instruments of technology, and the activities appear in a framework. The framework of the painting includes a world where things, people, trees, animals and buildings appear. The framework is the border between the world of the painting and what does not belong to it.
Technology is, in the ontological sense, not a collection of things and activities, but a mode of truth. This technological truth is what Heidegger calls Gestell. It is the way of enframing the possibilities where technology appears, and thus a way of revealing. The world in its technological form is what Heidegger calls Bestand. The world and nature are considered resources of energy that can be grasped and saved. Heidegger mentions the river Rhine as an example. The Rhine can be the source for a hydraulics station where electricity can be aroused. In this way, nature is seen as technology. Another example is the mining of carbon, where carbon is a source of energy that needs to be extracted from the soil. Dagonet argues that science is designed to reveal the essence of nature. In fields like biology and chemistry, many secrets of nature have been revealed.
This highly selective way of framing the world has a destiny. This destiny is, according to Heidegger, not fate, but a direction. One has to listen to, not obey, the essence of technology. When the essence of technology is grasped, it becomes possible to have a free relationship with it. The relationship to technology is in itself not technological, but existential. Thus, one must acknowledge that technology is not neutral, but ambiguous and mysterious. There are different responses to technology; varying from blind obeisance to blind rebellion. However, a free relationship is only possible when the essence is understood. The danger lies in seeing a part of reality as the whole truth.
Technology and alienation
The French philosopher and phenomenologist Michel Henry (1922-2002) holds very negative views about modern science and technology, because, according to him, they alienate us from an authentic life. His ideas seem to be close to the main concepts of New Age, where structures and science are viewed as blockades to reach the inner self. Life, according to Henry, reveals itself in a continuous self-experience. The human being is a whole, where body and soul are one. The self-experience is expressed in the physical, like the feeling of pain or the enjoyment of the warmth of the sun. It is not intentional, not purpose driven. It is an experience not expressed in language or narrative; the primary experience precedes reflection.
This experience in the form of non-intentional self-affection is what Henry considers to be the truth as internal structure. The world is concerned with truth as external structure, where concepts as intentionality and transcendence belong. Human beings live in the world and have to obey the laws of nature and the laws of the world. This is necessary in order to live together. The relationship between the internal structures expressed in self-experience and the external world should be maintained.
However, when knowledge and experience are objectified, this relationship is lost. This is exactly what happens in modern science. When knowledge is disconnected from experience, a disintegration of knowledge and life occurs. Life and experiences are made into objects that can be studied. A tree is reduced to an object of geometrical measures. Living creatures become alienated from their internal truth; the manifestation of colors, scents and sounds is lost. And this is, Henry argues, one of the causes of decay in Western culture.
Modern science and technology make an abstraction of sensibility. Where life and nature are reduced to systems, models and theories, technology becomes barbarian. The pretension of science to have the only possible perception of the world is a mistake. Henry argues that there is a unity of body and soul, and a unity of body and earth. When life and physical movement are made object of systematic movements, as happens in factories, the human being becomes a small part of a machine. The living work becomes cybernetic and robotic. Workers in factories that constantly repeat the same work are reduced to robots.
Technology, according to Henry, is a collection of acts and transformations based on theoretical knowledge. This is contrasted with the living world. Technè is situated in the praxis of life. However, in modern technology actions have become the object of systematic analysis and domination. The scientific way of thinking has dominated the modern technology that life has expulsed. When a laborer is turning screws all day, his labor becomes alienated from him and is only a mean that serves a specific purpose. Finally, through technology, human beings are alienated from themselves and the essence of life. This is very well represented in the film Avalon, where the technological world is portrayed as gray and lifeless.
It seems strange that a ´premodern´ worldview, where spirituality and magic play a role, can exist in a world dominated by technology, rationality and secularization. Starting in the Renaissance, the center of the universe has moved from God to the human being. Mankind has taken fate into its own hands. Therefore, it is not so strange if science and technology receive a sacred aura. Considering tragedies like Chernobyl, technology contains a dark side. Of course, this dark side of technology can clearly be the result of the dark side of mankind, especially in wars. But technology, used for peaceful purposes such as the generation of energy can become a deadly force. Heidegger and Henry have clearly underlined this negative dimension. However, the dark side of technology does not result in the loss of the religious aura. Because of the complexity and uncontrollable elements in technology, technology can represent the sacred.
The sacred (the divine, the supernatural) provokes fascination, admiration and awe, but also fear and abhorrence. In religion, the sacred has a central place. Rituals are aimed to communicate with the sacred and the supernatural. Technology provokes those two reactions. On one hand, people are fascinated by the possibilities that technology offers. The developments in aircraft and space technology and the progress in medical science cause an admiration and enthusiasm. At the same time, technology can become monstrous, as Marx already acknowledged. Technology can dominate life. Computers can become so complex that people start to scream at their PCs when they do not operate in the way they want it to.
Technology is about domestication, controlling and using recourses. It is characterized by functionality and domination. Just like magic, it is about control. Magic is the unconscious of technology, the irrational enchantment. Aupers argues that magic has been perceived as primitive and irrational. It is applied in situations where knowledge is insufficient and one feels powerless and uncertain. With the influence of the development of science and technology, magic should disappear. This is not the case. Technology, especially computer technology, is mysterious. Computer programmers often see programming as a magic ritual. The creation of digital worlds provokes feelings of excitement and admiration. Programming is a magical ritual and an interaction with a mysterious reality. The majority of what happens in a computer remains unrevealed. It is a ´black box; what exactly comes out is often surprising. When I was around fourteen years old, I started programming in BASIC, a very simple computer language. I was amazed that I was able to program the computer in order to make it do what I wanted it to do. However, even more often, it reacted differently and it was not always possible to rationally explain what happened on the screen. I also experienced programming as some kind of magic, with which I tried to control a system that I did not understand.
"The Craft is nothing less than applied cybernetics. 'It is understanding how the information flow works in human beings and in the world around them, and then learning enough about that flow that you can start to move in it, and move it as well. 'Now he is trying to move that flow online. 'Without the sacred there is no differentiation in space; everything is flat and grey. If we are about to enter cyberspace, the first thing we have to do is to plant the divine in it.'"
Mark Pesce is a paganist, but a special one. He sees technology as something sacred. A fascination for technology can even result in new forms of paganism, such as technopaganism, a form of neopaganism. Neopaganists (counting three-quarter million ´believers´ in Northern America), practice forms of New Age and Wicca. They have an animistic and polytheistic perception of nature. Nature is divine and rituals are important to communicate with the divine. They strive for a new unification with the mystery of nature. It is notable that technology is being evaluated as positive. The sociologist Stef Aupers conducted research in Silicon Valley and discovered that many of the leading computer scientists where involved as much in New Age spirituality as in computer technology . One out of five neo pagans is working in this sector. They see themselves as wizards working with technology that is alive; they can create a new virtual reality. However, it is hard to see how serious they take their 'cyber-religion'. According to Lorne Dawson, the fascination for technology is one of irreverence; it is a ludic love for parody. Techno-paganists find their inspiration partly from computer games. Techno-paganists do not demand, as in traditional religions, a high degree of participation or the belief in certain dogma's. "In the realm of techno-paganism, literally nothing is sacred."
Technology and spirituality are not, per se, incompatible. The fascination for technology can create an atmosphere of sacredness, mystery and magic. It has become a mode of existence, a framework by which we live. Technology penetrated even more deeply in human existence when computers became a cultural phenomenon, argues the philosopher Michael Heim. This is more prevalent in virtual reality, a reality that is evoked by computer technology.
Heim states that the connection of the meanings of 'virtual' and 'reality' means that virtual reality is an event that is experienced as real, but, in fact, is not. Virtual reality is by no means only technical. An illusionary feeling can be evoked when one is immersed in a book or a piece of music. In cyberspace, networks of computer technology construct virtual reality. It is an interface between the human being and the computer. He states that:
"Virtual reality can, in my opinion, be understood as a specific mode of the physical being-in-the-world of the Dasein. It has a temporal and spatial structure that differs from the daily physical experience."
One of the main characteristics of virtual reality in cyberspace is the interaction with the computer in an artificial environment. The interaction can be experienced as real and the user can even be immersed in this reality. Immersion can occur when the interaction with the computer is so real that daily structures of time and space seem to disappear. This is especially the case when the virtual reality is three-dimensional. A virtual reality helmet and gloves that allow the user to use his head and body to navigate in a virtual three-dimensional world can enhance the effect. The user can navigate through a virtual world without physical limitations like the gravitation force. However, this effect can be applied as a parameter of the simulation in order to create the illusion of a real world. In Second Life, a person can walk through virtual cities like Amsterdam. Though flying is possible in Second Life, many moderators prefer to turn off this feature because it takes away the illusion of a 'real' world. Bolter and Grusin connect virtuality with transparent immediacy: the three-dimensional world is presented so smoothly that the medium itself becomes invisible. The technology for such an experience is not common for most computer users nowadays, but a futuristic version of such immediacy is the Virtual Reality helmet that Ash uses in Avalon.
Aupers states that many computer programmers and other technological specialists, who are enchanted by modern technology, see cyberspace and virtual worlds as means to free themselves from the iron cage of the body. Many of them were active in the counterculture of San Francisco in the seventies. Just like LSD, computer technology was seen as an enlargement of the conscience and the escape from an oppressing system. Returning to nature was outdated, spirituality could be found in virtual worlds! This is a Gnostic idea based on the liberation of the physical that enables one to unify with the divine spark. Aupers states that cyberspace is seen as the final realization of the Gnostic dream. The spirit can be free in a higher, spiritual dimension. This is a strong contrast to Henry's idea of the unity of body and soul, which is also a common idea in New Age spirituality. This unity does not exist in virtual worlds, because the physical limitations are taken off. The physical resistance of gravitation that the earth offers, or natural, non-intentional actions, is not necessarily present in virtual worlds. Physical functions can become artifacts that are used to navigate in a virtual world.
De Mul asks whether the construction of virtual reality should be perceived as the ultimate form of domination that characterizes modernity. According to him, this is partly the case. It is an ultimate form of the modern calculating science that Heidegger describes. The digital domain is, from the perspective of ordering, the supreme form of modern science in order to transform everything into a controllable Bestand. However, control of virtual reality is only applicable for programmers. And even they are not always able to control the software that operates virtual worlds. This is the magic that Aupers describes when programmers are able to create virtual worlds, even if they do not know exactly how everything works.
Virtual reality can be seen as liberation, but also as an escape. When people are immersed in cyberspace, the reference to the physical world disappears. The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard argues that society contains more and more simulations. A hyper reality, that only refers to itself, becomes a source of alienation. This could be truth in virtual worlds, where new fantasy worlds can be created (see the chapter on Spiritual Identification in Virtual Worlds). This negative outlook on simulations and virtual worlds is not widely shared. People involved in virtual reality and computer technology state that they are absolutely able to distinguish the virtual reality from the physical reality.
Conclusion: The everydayness of technology
In the Arthurian legend, King Arthur is, after his death, transported to the Island Avalon. This is a mysterious place, comparable to the underworld or the Elysian Fields in Greek mythology. In the film, the mystery about the world of Avalon remains. However, here Avalon is the name of a violent game where it is also the highest level one can reach. Are virtual worlds a kind of life after death? That is what the movie suggests, but it does not answer the question whether this is positive or negative.
Technology can be a source of enchantment. Clearly, technology can be frightening and it can dominate our view of the world. It can alienate us from life and nature. This is certainly the case in the world in which Ash, the main character, lives. Everything is colorless, and there does not seem to be life anywhere. Michel Henry's primary experience of nature seems to be totally absent in Ash's world. The virtual world is an escape world, but is it better? This dark side of technology does not prevent technology from receiving a sacred aura. It is both fascinating and frightening. In the virtual reality of Avalon, it is possible to win, but also to die. This is what makes it so attractive.
When technology becomes uncontrollable, a way to deal with it is using 'magic'. Magic is about controlling the uncontrollable in ways that are often seen as primitive and irrational, but it is nonetheless prevalent in computer technology. Especially computer technology has this magic aura. Cyberspace is the virtual space created in computer networks. The relationship between IT and magic lies in the mysterious properties of computer technology. The filmmaker Oshii presents the virtual world of Avalon as a magical one. Besides technological artifacts like weapons and tanks, there are ghosts and goddesses.
In the end, Ash enters the hidden level of Avalon. Suddenly, she sees bright colors in the streets, gardens and animals. Is this world a better one than the real world, or has she entered the real world? According to a 'wizard' that explained to Ash how to enter the hidden level, it was a great simulation under construction. The ambiguity resembles Baudrillard's description of simulations. The virtual world of Avalon might exist without references to another, physical world.
Technology is a part of everyday life. It is not positive, nor negative, nor neutral. Though Heidegger may be a bit gloomy about technology, which is not surprising after the Second World War, I share his view that technology is a way of revealing, a framework.
The very romantic vision of Michel Henry who sees modern technology as a source of alienation is shared by the New Age thought about the integration of life and the world. However, fascination for technology provokes fascination with the new possibilities. One of the most exciting developments is the creation of worlds based on virtual reality. The turn from nature to virtual reality brings new enchantment, magic and mystery.
What can be expected from a world apparently so different from the physical world? Is it a technological heaven or a dark underworld, a creepy place that alienates people from their natural environment? I believe that people are well aware of the framework of virtual reality. Playing in virtual worlds can become a flow, because of its transparent immediacy where the medium seems to disappear. When spirituality is concerned with a metaphysical framework, technology can be a way of revealing. Techno-paganists are people who, playfully, give a sacred meaning to technology. They are a marginal group; the majority of the users of technology will see it as a tool instead of a sacred entity.
Virtual worlds have become part of our daily life, also in the form of the Internet. They offer a framework that makes sense to the people and the world around us.