April 1997


The Cyborganic Path

by Jon Lebkowsky

Cyborganism: An organism with integrated technology. Derives from the term cyborg, bionic human, or human with implanted technology. Cyborganisms differ in that the technology is not necessarily invasive, e.g. the author at his computer console is a cyborganism, enhanced or extended by computer technology which is external to the body.

The cyborg/bionics fusion has a gear/processor ambience that doesn't invite spiritual analysis. Is there, behind the whole project of technological enhancement, an approach to transhuman evolution and spiritual realization?

Look at the origin of cyberpunk, an aesthetic source of cyborganic vision: William Gibson's Neuromancer trilogy (plus The Difference Engine, a fourth book authored with Bruce Sterling), a transitional set of works between earlier science or speculative fiction and the cyberpunk sub-genre, posits the evolution of consciousness within a computer network toward a godlike transcendent being within which minor spirits (loas) reside. Gibson has constructed a mythopoetic representation of a search for significance in technological transcendence, one approach to a cyborganic spiritualism: a literal deus ex machina. Though Gibson's vision may not represent a plausible future, he has articulated in the cyborganic context the expectation that a supreme being (or beingness), a transcendence, exists as an evolutionary goal, where evolution involves silicon-based extension of human spiritual "form."

Though there is no prevailing net-based spiritual vision or belief, and though the global interactive character of the net reinforces the postmodern depreciation of particular belief systems, the sense of an evolving global consciousness a la Teilhard still emerges as a persistent thread within cybercultural discourse. Teilhard proposed noösphere as transbiological evolutionary goal, an inherent final step coextensive with the Omega point, the end run of collective salvation, (a rapture sort of gig, but not unlike the vision within Arthur C. Clarke's 2001/Childhood's End shaggy-apocalypse stories). At some point we all sort of merge, humming one note or hummed as one note, ingested by Nirvana and regurgitated as Enlightened Unity.

The other side of the cyberspiritual coin (koan?) is technopaganism, which posits the extension of the divine into computer networks and silicon-based forms. The goal here is not evolution toward unity but celebration of diversity. Mark Pesce, quoted in Erik Davis' "Technopagans" article for Wired Magazine, said "Without the sacred there is no differentiation in space. If we are about to enter cyberspace, the first thing we have to do is plant the divine in it." To that end, "repurposed" technopagan blessings are posted on web pages (see and rituals such as "cybersamhain" are practiced online.

Paganism is the perfect postmodern approach to spiritual practice, in that it empowers the individual to select his own particular slice of "the Great Mystery," which is the unity behind a robust pantheon of gods, goddesses, beliefs, and belief systems. "The Great Mystery" is divine presence manifest in all things, its power as a singularity diffracted through experience and time as a multiplicity. As in "nothing is true, everything is permitted," no single presence is absolute, all carry the weight of the central Mystery. And the Mystery itself is an agnostic conception in that it doesn't presume a knowable absolute truth. You can revere the world without understanding (or claiming to understand) its source. You can worship according to your best perception of what is.

Technopaganism acknowledges that the origins of constructed entities and environments are natural, which is to say that bionic or cyborganic enhancement, though artificial, is a natural extension of the representation of the divine and should not be excluded from religious worship. You don't have to be a pagan to appreciate this validation of the cyborg as a natural entity, shaking loose the golem/Frankenstein mythos which suggests that "artificial life" is monstrous.

Allucquere Rosanne Stone speaks of "cyborg envy," which is "a desire, inarticulately expressed, to penetrate the interface and merge with the system ("Virtual Systems," in Incorporations, ed. by Jonathan Crary and Sanford Kwinter). This kind of longing feeds the mythos of cyborganic transcendence, which is resonant with a longing for "virtual community" among individuals who sit in solitary rooms and co-create cyberspace through the agency of the Matrix (John Quarterman's name for the Internet and its mail-sharing extensions). Virtual communities no doubt exist, but there's a question whether they are all that we would make of them in our grandest utopian or darkest dystopian visions. Rather, virtual community in cyberspace represents a new interactive mode in a transgeographical environment wherein the social construction of identity lacks physical constraint, but the issues of human convergence are not so new. In cyberspace you still have love and hate, union and rejection, war and truce, affirmation and murder, rape and sex…the elements of physical community convey to virtual community, because the basic parameters for human interaction remain the same.

The project of spiritual realization in cyberspace has supports and constraints that are similar to those "in real life"; though a disembodied experience may seem more "spiritual" and more malleable, it is still subject to traditional psychic barriers (ego, greed, fear, doubt, etc.). Transcendence is still way difficult, survival is still the predominant mode.

There is little proof so far that the Internet is an integrating force, and not another Tower of Babel. The "confusion of tongues" is evident in the persistence of flame-war misunderstandings and the transience of community on Usenet and various BBS systems. The libertarian political philosophy of radical individualism provides a philosophical background for; it's difficult to reconcile the individualist approach with a higher spiritual sense of unity. To imagine a noösphere evolving in today's net environment you'd have to ratchet your vision to a very high level, where samsara dissolve into nirvana like so many greyscale dots dissolve into a coherent image. Important to note that this "dissolve" is a process at the interface of perception with the brain, basically an optical illusion.

So the promise of a net-based spiritual evolution is embedded in the construction of our perception of the net, but like so much of our perceptual construction of the world, its reality is not given. I say this as an agnostic, not meaning to deny the possibility of a higher spiritual course, but unable so far to see a reality beyond an expectant aesthetic vision.

Jon Lebkowsky ( writes about cyberculture and digs cyborganics and the free flow of information.

Copyright © 1997 by Jon Lebkowsky. All Rights Reserved.

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