Digital Polytheism (on the Event of Timothy Leary’s 90th Birthday)
written by Timothy Leary & Eric Gullichsen for Reality Hackers, 1988
A UNIVERSE OF BITS AND BYTES
Major historical accomplishments of the 20th century included the personalization and popularization of Quantum Physics, an acceptance of self-reference and circular causality in systems of mathematics and psychology, and the resulting development of cybernetic society.
This philosophic achievement, which has dominated the culture of the 20th century, was based on a discovery by nuclear and quantum physicists around 1900, that visible-tangible realities are written in a digital assembly language we could accurately call “basic.”
It turns out that we inhabit a universe made up of a small number of elements-particles-bits which cluster together in geometrically-logical, temporary configurations.
The solid Newtonian Universe rested upon such immutable General-Motors concepts as mass, force, momentum, and inertia, cast into a Manichaean drama involving equal reactions of good vs. evil, gravity vs. levity, entropy vs. evolution and coerced by such pious Bank-of-England notions as conservation of energy. This dependable, static, predictable, universe suddenly, in the minds of Planck/Heisenberg became digitized, transformed into shimmering quantum screens of electronic probabilities.
Up here in 1988, we are learning to experience what Nils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg could only dream of. The universe, according to their cyberdelic equations, is best described as a digital information process with sub-programs and temporary ROM states, megas called galaxies, maxis called stars, minis called planets, micros called organisms, and nanos known as molecules, atoms, particles. All of these programs are perpetually in states of evolution, i.e., continually “running.”
It seems to follow that the great intellectual challenge of the 20th century was to make this universe “user friendly,” to prepare individual human beings to decode, digitize, store, process and reflect the subprograms which make up his/her own personal realities.
NOBODY KNEW WHAT THESE GUYS WERE TALKING ABOUT
The chain of events that elevated us to this new genetic status, HOMO SAPIENS CYBERNETICUS, began around the turn of the century.
Physicists, we recall, are traditionally assigned the task of sorting out the nature of reality. So it was the quantum philosophers who figured out that units of energy/matter were sub-atomic bits of programmed information that zoom around in clouds of ever-changing, if/then, start/stop, off/on, 0/1, yin/yang probabilities in clusters of pixels, up-and-down recurring stairways of paradox.
When they started out, no one understood what these guys were talking about. They expressed their unsettling theories in complex equations written on blackboards with chalk. Believe it or not, these great physicists thought and communicated with a neolithic tool — chalk-marks on the wall of the cave. The irony was this: Einstein and his brilliant colleagues could not experience or operate or communicate at a quantum-electronic level.
Imagine if Max Planck pottering around in his mathematical chalk-board had access to a video arcade game! He’d see right away that the blips on Centipede and the zaps of Space Invaders could represent the movement of the very particles that he tried to describe in the dusty symbols of his blackboard.
A WILD AND SCARY HALLUCINOGENIQUE
Now let us reflect on the head-bursting adjustment required here. The relativistic universe described by Einstein and the nuclear physicists IS alien and terrifying. Quantum physics is quite literally a wild, confusing psyberdelic trip. It postulates an Alice-in-Wonderland, Sartrean universe in which everything is changing. As Heisenberg implied: nothing is certain except uncertainty. Matter is energy. Energy and matter are temporary states of info-bits, frozen at various forms of acceleration. This digital universe is not user-friendly when approached with a Newtonian mind. We are just now beginning to write a manual of operations for the brain and the universe, both of which, it turns out, are digital galaxies with amazing similarities.
People living in the solid, mechanical world of 1901 simply could not understand or experience a quantum universe. Dear sweet old Einstein, who couldn’t accept his own unsettling equations, was denounced as evil and immoral by Catholic bishops and sober theologians who sensed how unsettling and revolutionary these new ideas could be. Ethical relativity is still the mortal sin of religious fundamentalists.
THE CYBERPUNK AS MODERN ALCHEMIST
The baby boom generation has grown up in an electronic world of TV and personal computing screens. The cyberpunks offer metaphors, rituals, life styles for dealing with the universe of information. More and more of us are becoming electro-shamans, modern alchemists.
Alchemists of the Middle Ages described the construction of magical appliances for viewing future events, or speaking to friends distant or dead. Writings of Paracelsus describe a mirror of ELECTRUM MAGICUM with telegenic properties, and crystal scrying was in its heyday.
Today, digital alchemists have at their command tools of a precision and power unimagined by their predecessors. Computer screens ARE magical mirrors, presenting alternate realities at varying degrees of abstraction on command (invocation). Aleister Crowley defined magick as “the art and science of causing change to occur in conformity with our will,” and to this end the computer is the universal level of Archimedes.
The parallels between the culture of the alchemists and that of cyberpunk computer adepts are inescapable. Both employ knowledge of an occult arcanum unknown to the population at large, with secret symbols and words of power. The “secret symbols” comprise the languages of computers and mathematics, and the “words of power” instruct computer operating systems to complete Herculean tasks. Knowing the precise code name of a digital program permits it to be conjured into existence, transcending the labor of muscular or mechanical search or manufacture.
Rites of initiation or apprenticeship are common to both. “Psychic feats” of telepathy and action-at-a-distance are achieved by selection of the menu option.
CLASSICAL MAGICKAL CORRESPONDENCES
Alchemists of the Middle Ages believed quite correctly that their cosmos was composed of four elements: earth, air, fire and water. Although today our periodic table sports more than 100 chemical elements, the four universal elements still can be identified as the constituents of some processes in the external reality, and within the inner psychological world of humankind.
Each of the four elements is an archetype and a metaphor, a convenient and appropriate name for a universally identified quality. The four are echoed in the organization of both the four suits and the four “court cards” of each suit of the Tarot, inherited from the Egyptians and its symbolism preserved in ordinary Western playing cards. The four also correspond to the four principal tools of the classical practitioner of ceremonial magick.
The wand of the magician represents the phallic male creative force, fire. The cup stands for the female receptive force, and, obviously enough, is associated with water. The sword is the incisive intellect, moving and severing the air, the abstraction in which it moves. Finally, the pantacle (disk) is the grounding in earth (magnetic material), the stored algorithms. (We use Crowley’s spelling of pentacle, which communicates the sense of “all and everything,” advisedly.)
These classical instruments of magick exist in modern cyber technology: The mouse or pen of the digitizing tablet is the wand, controlling the fire of the CRT display and harnessing the creative force of the programmer. It is used in all invocations and ritual as a tool of command. Spinning disk drives are the pantacles, inscribed with complex symbols, earthen tablets to receive the input of “air,” the crackling dynamic ethereal intellectual electricity of the processor chip circuitry programming results. The RAM chips are, literally, the buffers (“buffer pools”), the water, the passive element capable of only receiving impressions and re-transmitting, reflecting.
Iconic visual programming languages are a Tarot, the pictorial summation of all possibilities, activated for the purpose of divination by juxtaposition and mutual influence. A periodic table of possibilities, the Western form of the Eastern I Ching. Traditional word-oriented programming languages, FORTRAN, COBOL, and the rest, are a degenerate form of these universal systems, grimoires of profit-oriented corporations.
Detailed database logs of the activity of operating systems from the Akashic records on a microscale. At a macroscopic level, this is the “world net” knowledge base, the “knoesphere,” the world-wide online hypertext network of information soon to be realized by the storage capacity of CD ROM and the data transmission capability of optical fiber. William Gibson’s cyberspace matrix.
Banishing rituals debug programs, and friendly djinn are invoked for compiling, searching, and other mundane tasks. When the magic circle is broken (segmentation violation), the system collapses. Personal transmutation (the ecstasy of the “ultimate hack”) is a veiled goal of both systems. The satori of harmonious human-computer communication resulting from the infinite regress into meta-levels of reflection of self is the reward for immaculate conceptualization and execution of ideas.
The universality of 0 and 1 throughout magic and religion: yin and yang, yoni and lingam, cup and wand, are manifested today in digital signals, the two bits underlying the implementation of all digital programs in the world, in our brains and in our operating systems. Stretching it a bit, even the monad, symbol of change and the Tao, visually resembles a superimposed 0 and 1 when its curving central line is stretched through the action of centrifugal force from the ever-increasing speed of the monad’s rotation.
CYBER RELIGION OF THE BABY BOOMERS
By the year 2000, Aleister Crowley, William Gibson, and Edward Fredkin could well replace Benjamin Spock as a Baby Boom navigator. Why? Because, by then the concerns of the baby boom generation will be digital. (Or, to use the old paradigms, philosophic-spiritual.)
During their childhood they were Mouseketeers. In their teens the Cybers went on an adolescent spiritual binge unequalled since the Children’s Crusade. In their revolt against the factory culture they re-invented and updated their tribal-pagan roots and experimented with Hinduism, Haight-Ashbury Buddhism, American Indianism, Magic, Witchcraft, Ann Arbor Voo Doo, Esalen Yoga, Computerized I Ching Taoism, 3-D Reincarnation, Fluid Druidism. St. Stephen Jobs to the Ashram!
Born-again Paganism! Pan-Dionysius on audio-visual cassettes. Mick Jagger had them sympathizing with the devil. The Beatles had them floating upstream on the Ganges. Jimi Hendrix taught them how to be a voodoo child. Is there one pre-Christian or third world metaphor for divinity that some rock group has not yet celebrated on an album cover?
ONTOLOGY RECAPITULATES THEOLOGY
The Boomers in the evolving life-cycle seem to have recapitulated the theological history of our species. Just as monotheism emerged to unify pagan tribes into nations, so did the Boomers rediscover fundamentalist Judaism and Christianity in their young adulthood.
Even far-away Islam attracted gourmet Blacks and ex-hippies such as Cat Stevens. Bob Dylan nicely exemplifies the consumer approach to religion. For 25 years Bob (ne Zimmerman) has continued to browse through the spiritual boutiques dabbing on a dash of Baptist “born-again,” nibbling at Hassidism before returning to his ole-time faith of sardonic reformed humanism.
We can laugh at this trendy shopping around for the custom-tailored designer god, but behind the faddism we find a powerful clue.
Notice how Dylan, for example, preserves his options and tries to avoid shoddy or off-the-rack soulware. No “plastic christs that glow in the dark” for Bob! The religion here is Evolutionism, based on the classic humanist, transcendental assumptions:
1. God is not a tribal father nor a feudal lord nor an engineer… manager of the universe. There is no god (in the singular) except you at the moment. There are as many gods (in the plural) as can be imagined. Call them whatever you like. They are free agents like you and me.
2. You can change and mutate and keep improving. The idea is to keep “trading up” to a “better” philosophy-theology.
3. The aim of your life, following Buddha, Krishna, Gurdjieff, Werner Erhart, Shirley, is this:
Take care of your self so you can take care of others. If any.
WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM YOUR FRIENDS
This generation, we recall, had been disillusioned by the religions, politics, and economics of their parents. Growing up with the threat of nuclear war, the assassination of beloved leaders, immune deficiencies, a collapsing industrial system, an impossible national debt, religious fundamentalisms (Christian-Jewish- Islamic) that fanatically scream hatred and intolerance, and uncomprehending neglect of the ecology, they have developed a healthy skepticism about collective solutions.
They can’t retreat back home because Mom and Dad are divorced. No wonder they have created a psychology of individual navigation. Singularity. The basic idea is self-responsibility. You just can’t depend on anyone else to solve your problems. You gotta do it all by yourself — With a little help from your friends.
A DO-IT-YOURSELF RELIGION
Since God #1 appears to be held hostage back there by the blood-thirsty Persian Ayatollah, by the telegenic Polish Pope and the Moral Majority, there’s only one logical alternative. You “steer” your own course. You start your own religion. The Temple is your body. Your mind writes the theology. And the Holy Spirit emanates from that infinitely mysterious intersection between your brain and your DNA.
The attainment of even the suburbs of Paradise involves good navigation and planning on your part. Hell is a series of redeemable errors. A detour caused by failure to check the trip-maps. A losing streak. Many people are carefully conditioned from birth to live in hell. As children, they are largely ignored until something happens to cause them pain or injury. Then, mommy and daddy quickly lavish aid, attention, succor, positive reinforcement. When “all grown up,” and in the world alone to make choices, what kind of choices are going to result from those many years of conditioning? It’s no wonder so many people seem to live in hell, to live pained lives of mishaps and broken dreams. Of course, by realizing this we can begin to decondition ourselves towards healthy hedonism. Reward yourself for making choices that lead to pleasure, and build a cybernetic cycle of positive feedback. Only from the state of free selfhood can any truly compassionate signals be sent to others.
THE ADMINISTRATION OF A PERSONAL STATE
The management and piloting of a Singularity leads to a very busy career. Since the Crowley-Gibson-Fredkin Individual has established herself as a religion, a country, a corporation, an information network, and a neurological universe, it is necessary to maintain personal equivalents for all the departments and operations of the bureaucracies that perform these duties.
This apparently means forming private alliances, formulating personal political platforms, conducting your own domestic and foreign relations, establishing trade policies, defense and security programs, educational and recreational events. On the upside, one is free from dependence upon bureaucracies, an inestimable boon. (Free agents can, of course, make temporary deals with organizations and officials thereof.)
And if countries have histories and myths, why shouldn’t you?
THE PERSONAL MYTHOLOGY
So you search and research your very own genetic memory banks, the Old Testaments of your DNA-RNA, including, if you like, past incarnations and Jungian archetypes. And funky pre-incarnations in any future you can imagine!
You write your very own Newest Testament, recalling that voluntary martyrdom is tacky and crucifixions, like nuclear war, can ruin your day.
You can do anything the great religions, empires and racial groups have done in the name of their God #1. and you’re certain to do it better because… well, look at their track records. There’s no way your Personal State could produce the persecutions, massacres and bigotries of the Big Guys.
Why? Because there’s only one of you, and even with the help of your friends the amount of damage an individual can do is insignificant compared with the evil-potential of a collective.
Besides, you’re a child of the 60s. You’re imprinted to want a peaceful, tolerant, funny world. You can choose your gods to be smart, funny, compassionate, cute and goofy.
IRREVERENCE IS A PASSWORD FOR THE 21ST CENTURY
It has been suggested that the philosophic assignment of the Roaring 20th Century was to prepare the human species for the shifting realities of Quantum Physics and Singular Steering.
Relativity means that everyone “sees” or reacts to things differently, depending upon location, velocity and attitude (angle of approach).
The relativistic insight is in essence irreverent or humorous, i.e., laughable, comical, delightful. With the law of gravity repealed, levity is the order of the day. We rise through our levity, instead of being held down by our gravity.
The word “humor” comes from the Latin word for liquid or fluid, referring to such qualities as flowing, pliable, smooth, effortless, easily changed, non-frictional, transparent, shining, musical, graceful in motion and readily converted into cash.
THE LAST GENERATION IN FLESH?
“Through science and technology we will meet the aliens, and they will be us. ” Norman Spinrad, The Neuromantics”
Information-beings of the future may well be fluid. Human society has now reached a turning point in the operation of the digital programs of evolution, a point at which the next evolutionary steps of the species become apparent to us, to surf as we will. Or, more correctly, as the evolutionary programs run and run, the next stages pop up in parallel, resulting in continuing explosions of unexpected diversity. Our concepts of what is known as “human” continually change. For example, we are no longer as dependent on physical fitness for survival. Our quantum appliances and improved mechanical devices can generally provide the requisite means or defenses. In the near future, the methods of information technology, molecular engineering, biotechnology, nanotechnology (atom stacking) and quantum-digital programming could make the human form a matter totally determined by individual whim, style and seasonal choice.
Humans already come in some variety of races and sizes. In comparison to what “human” might mean within the next century, we humans are at present as indistinguishable from one another as are hydrogen molecules. Along with the irrational taboo about death, the sanctity of our body image seems to be one of the most persistent anachronisms of Industrial Age thought.
We see evolutions of the human form in the future; one more biological-like: a bio/computer hybrid of any desired form — and one not biological at all: an “electronic entity” in the digital info-universe.
Human-AS-programs, and human-IN-programs.
Of these two posthumanist views, human-as-programs is more easily conceived. Today, we have crude prosthetic implants, artificial limbs, valves, and entire organs. The continuing improvements in the old-style mechanical technology slowly increase the thoroughness of brain/external-world integration. A profound change can come with the developments of biotechnology, genetic engineering, and the slightly more remote success of nanotechnology.
The electronic form of human-in-programs is more alien to our current conceptions of humanity. Through storage of one’s belief systems as data structures online, driven by desired programs one’s neuronal apparatus should operate in silicon basically as it dead on the meatware of the brain, though faster, more accurately, more self-mutably, and, if desired, immortally.
Clever cyberpunks will of course not only store themselves electronically, but do so in the form of a “computer virus,” capable of traversing computer networks and of self-replicating as a guard against accidental or malicious erasure by others, or other programs. (Imagine the somewhat droll scenario: “What’s on this CD?” “Ah, that’s just that boring adolescent Leary. Let’s go ahead and reformat it.”)
One speculation is that such viral human forms might ALREADY inhabit our computer systems. Cleverly designed, they would be very difficult, if not theoretically impossible to detect.
Current programs do not permit matching the real-time operation speed and parallel complexity of conventional brains. But time scale of operation is subjective and irrelevant, except for the purposes of interface.
Of course, there is no reason one needs to restrict one’s manifestation to a particular form. One will basically (within ever-loosening physical constraints, though perhaps inescapable economic constraints) be able to assume any desired form.
Authors of current science fiction of the cyberpunk or “neuromantic” school have approached this idea from many angles. Bruce Sterling’s novel SCHISMATRIX recognizes the fact that human evolution moves in clades, radiating omnidirectionally, not moving in a line along a single path. His “Mechs” and “Shapers” correspond closely with our notions of electronic and biogenetic paths to evolutionary diversity.
Given the ease of copying computer-stored information, it should be possible to exist simultaneously in many forms. Where the “I’s” are in this situation is a matter for digital philosophers. Our belief is that consciousness would persist in each form, running independently, cloned at each branch point.