The Lost Dream Of The Virtual Paradise

Written by Britt Elvira Ruitenberg
In conversation with
Science Writer & Artist
Margaret WertheimMargaret WertheimMargaret WertheimMargaret WertheimMargaret WertheimMargaret Wertheim
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Science writer and artist Margaret Wertheim opens the conversation by asking what it means to be religious. She argues that ever since “William James wrote that book society has moved on towards a much more antireligious climate. A climate where people don’t want to use that kind of loose definition of religion.” Instead, she says, “people are using the word spirituality.”

Through screens from different parts of the world, Wertheim and THE FIRST SUPPER engage in an online conversation. The topics are spirituality and technology, of course, but the discussion rapidly embraces the memories and ideas of a time when everything was possible and where the bad couldn’t possibly eclipse the good. We are talking about cyberspace, the protagonist of this story and the dream of a virtual Eden that rapidly vanished away.

The cyberutopia

It all began in the nineties. Around that time, the first PCs were in place and Internet was really getting going as a public tool. Everybody was talking about this technological miracle. But meanwhile, in the background, another discussion was starting to kick off asking an ambitious question: Could cyberspace be something like a Heaven online?.

Wertheim remembers how some people, like the American author Stewart Brand and political activist John Perry Barlow, were putting forward this view of cyberspace as an egalitarian realm. “They really believed that cyberspace was going to be the place where everybody was equal, unjudged and no longer tied to the physical limitations.” Years later many of these techno-utopian thinkers would ironically become part of the long now Foundation, based on a rather catastrophist view of the Future. 

However, back in the 1990 the idea of a digital heaven, a place of peace and equity, seemed to be a promising dream but for Wertheim the answer to that possibility was very simple: this was rather an utopian nonsense. “Clearly there would be good things in cyberspace but it was also clear to me that it would enable enormous systems of hierarchy, of judgement.” Wertheim decided to write against this techno-utopian trend and amidst the 1990s she presented ‘The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace’, a book where she explores the concept of cyberspirituality and reveals how our most impressive technological achievement was returning humankind to a spiritual dualism.

As Wertheim explains, in medieval times there was this dualistic vision between the physical body and the soul, each one existing in a different realm of human experience. However, decades later, with the scientific revolution, “humanity suffered a trauma” because objectivity became the new norm and humankind emphasized the material world over the spiritual one. This changed again with the internet and cyberspace as this new space proved to have the potential to dissolve the materialistic worldview and reconceive the premodern dualism from medieval times.

We are seeing how cyberspace is allowing us to have all these different experiences that go beyond the physical reality, showing that we can be present and do things as a self in two different spaces, a physical and non-physical world.” This later is now the virtual world which initially was envisioned in three dimensions. Margaret refers to ‘Neuromancer’, the Sci-Fi novel by William Gibson and all the Cyberpunk aesthetics of the eighties where cyberspace was a 3D representation of the material world.

Shaping and designing cyberspace was a challenge to embrace but what really escalated the conversation was that the thought of another world, free from our bodies, reopened discussions that we had already deemed impossible regarding immortality and resurrection. Could we possibly live on digitally and come to live in the online world once we are dead?

“I don’t believe it will ever be possible to upload or download a person into cyberspace, but I think there is a way that we will, in a sense, live on in cyberspace”. The answer to the question of immortality is like books, says Wertheim. “Some books have managed to have immense long lives because the influence of their ideas. The same thing goes for cyberspace. Some people have created an immense presence in cyberspace and left a trail of their existence. The question is if anybody will still pay attention to those trails once the people that left them are gone?”.

Digitized ‘self’

It’s interesting to see how our fears about technology haven’t really changed over time. Already in the nineties there was some skepticism of whether cyberspace would be a place of good or evil, something that today is still discussed broadly. 

Take ‘Black Mirror’, for example. What this Netflix sensation does very well, explains Wertheim, “is that it shows how we are creating a society where what happens in cyberspace dominates our life and rather than being a sharing and equalizing force, cyberspace is now this tool for making hierarchies of people” by measuring them by number of likes and followers. 

As harsh as it might seem, we are well on our way to what ‘Black Mirror’ predicts. Technology has become an extension of our own selves and cyberspace has, in some way, created this parallel world but with the difference that it’s not the world premodern people envisioned. What’s the difference this time?, we ask her. Unlike the “Medieval dualism, where the ethical decisions made during life decide whether you will go to Hell, Heaven or Purgatory; in cyberspace ethics play a very little role. The cyberspace we have created is a kind of performative free-for-all where there is no sense of ethical metric, ultimately failing to become a realm of spiritual fulfillment in any way.”   

As we wrap up the conversation, Wertheim realizes that almost 25 years later from her initial observation things have panned out immensely and yet so close to what she had predicted. “Cyberspace has turned out to be an elitist realm where there is an enormous amount of judgement, of attacking, of rivaling, of trolling. Instead of a cyberparadise, it has become more like a cyberhell”.

It seems like from the start the mere idea of cyberspirituality never stood a chance; it was a dream bound to fail. But 30 years ago nobody could have known how spirituality and cyberspace would have evolved. Each one needed to unfold and reinvent itself separately before forcing them into a relationship. 30 years ago was too soon but today is entirely a different context. The Internet is this massive universe and people rely on spirituality to deal with specific emotions that remind us of certain religious feelings: this need to feel connected to a wholeness bigger than ourselves. Today is a different scenario and in the cyberspiritual quest we can but only look at the tools that we have in front of us and ask the same question all over: Can we use them in a spiritual way?. For Margaret Wertheim, this is a worthwhile question that has yet to be answered.

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