Find the Answer Within

by rthieme on August 5, 1997

Find the Answer Within

published in .net Magazine (UK)Summer 1997

William Gibson’s Neuromancer is known to many because of one

word, “cyberspace,” a fulcrum of a word around which a whole new

world has coalesced. Equally memorable, though, is an image of

the cyberjunkie Case jacking into the Dixie Flatline for the

first time.

The Flatline, a.k.a. McCoy Pauley, is a firmware construct,

a set of instructions arranged in a memory bank, giving the dead

man’s memories sequence and form. The construct simulates a

gestalt, Pauley’s personality and knowledge, molded into a shape

something like the potato-shaped universe described by Einstein –

– finite but unbounded. The horizons of the Flatline’s world are

fixed, but inside that world, the friendly ghost seems as

limitless as a live human being. The Dixie Flatline is a persona

fixed in a silicon chip in a way that lets Case interact with his

wisdom.

I imagine Case in his loft at twilight, slotting a ROM chip

into a socket in his skull for a direct feed from his dead hero.

That image fuels my expectations when I jack in to the World

Wide Web. Alas, my dreams are too big for the current Web to

address.

New technologies take a long time to teach us how to use

them. When the telephone was invented, it was thought a way to

call ahead to the next town to say a telegram was coming. The

motion picture camera was used to film stage plays. As we used

those technologies, entering into a symbiotic relationship with

them, they taught us how to extend our senses.

Now we’re trying to extend our minds and brains throughout

the Net. Extensions of our brains, nodes by the millions in a web

of glowing filaments, the Net is a mirror of our hive brain.

Participating in it takes us to another level of corporate

consciousness. So the Net ought to feed back to us reflexive

knowledge about the trip itself. We ought to encounter our hive

brain in a way that lets us recognize ourselves, included in

something bigger that is at the same time reduced to symbols that

enable us to see our new selves.

Ought to. Right. But what in fact do we find when we explore

the mind/brain in cyberspace?

There’s a lot of snake oil out there, more ore than gold.

Caveat emptor. Let the netsurfer beware. If you meet the Dixie

Flatline at a web site, slip him a virus. It isn’t the real

McCoy.

Patience is a requisite when you enter cyberspace hoping to

interact with constructs promising to blow your mind, train your

brain, or simply enhance your health.

It’s a shame, really: if ever there’s a natural fit, it’s

cyberspace and our hunger for growing our minds and training our

brains. Our minds expand naturally into the shimmering non-space

of the Net. The glowing screen seduces us into a night that never

ends. I stay up way too late, following luminous breadcrumbs

through the forest, but often I’m disappointed.

Maybe I’m jaded. My eyes have been trained by fractals,

after all, cycling through millions of colors, kaleidoscopes of

unimaginable complexity. I want the same rush, the same insight

into the nature of things, when I click from site to site

searching for wisdom.

Books are fine; books are good; but when I’m on the Web, I

don’t want books. I want interaction. I don’t want to keep

hitting home pages selling herbs and dubious kinds of healing,

hawking new age postures and potions for body and soul. But nine

times out of ten, that’s what I get.

H. L. Mencken said no one ever went broke underestimating

the intelligence (or was it the taste?) of the American public.

For America, read “world.” When they’re selling symbolic

constructs – promises of better health, wisdom, or transformation

– it’s easy to sell the menu as if it’s the meal.

Typical of sites offering guidance in meditation is FISU,

the Foundation for International Spiritual Unfoldment

(http://www.cityscape.co.uk/users/ea80/fisu.htm). Typical too is

their blend of true and even obvious statements about the

benefits of meditation (“most meditators agree there is an

overall improvement in health”) with claims that can’t possibly

be true unless the site’s webmasters are literally gods. Like

Transcendental Meditation and its “customized” mantras, FISU

markets a generic product masquerading as a set of techniques

tailored to each individual’s “unique vibrations.”

Generic information can be packaged as unique and life-

changing because it is keyed in to “arcane secrets of the

Masters.” The claims would be more believable if the interactive

potential of the Net was used for a demonstration. Instead, most

of these sites are electronic billboards selling products.

Cognitech Corporation

(http://www.interstar.com/health/cognitech.html) offers

Brainware, a technology that promises greater mind/body control,

reduction in stress, increased energy, better concentration,

improved business performance, enhanced memory and learning, etc.

— all this from something that sits on your head like a squid,

its lights flickering and blinking. (They do warn off epileptics

— the device might trigger a seizure). The squid costs a mere

US$340 plus postage.

There’s a broad pattern to these virtual presentations:

It begins with information or real research into what helps

people feel better or take more responsibility for their own

well-being. Often the decision to take responsibility and do

something – anything – mobilizes our resources and gives us

energy and hope. So far so good.

Some of this information is linked to the ancient wisdom of

hallowed traditions. Yoga sites abound, offering journals,

archives, and pathways to classes, workshops, and products

(tapes, books, “meditation pillows”). Spirit-WWW offers links to

all sorts of alternative paths, such as theosophy, lightwork,

extraterrestrials, channelings. Their Yoga Paths page

(http://www.94.20.164.5/spirit/yoga/overview.html) takes you to

the teachings of myriads of gurus.

Who has the right to teach the techniques and philosophy of

Vedic Yoga? Hard to say. Credentials are not easy to come by at

these sites. Instead we are clued in by a new exotic name that

our teacher, once an ordinary bloke, is now an enlightened

master. The home page of Robert Green was renamed when his Guru

Swami Shyam named him Amarnaath (http://www.hookup.net/~greenr/).

He offers selected words of wisdom and a catalog of products.

If the ancient wisdom is truly ancient, there will be a

living breathing connection between masters and disciples, long

lines of adepts who hand on their teaching and practice. Genuine

teachers will gladly provide mundane details like bios,

credentials, and references. It pays to check them out.

Other “traditional” movements play the “exotic” card. The

more primitive and esoteric the tradition, the more potent it

promises to be. Check out the Tribe of Love

(http://www.turnpike.net/metro/tribo/) whose goal is nothing less

than “an international cultural revolution … a humanistic

transformation by giving access to a higher quality of

being/consciousness.” Their promo piece invokes rites of

transformation, Reichian psychotherapeutic techniques, modern

management techniques like reengineering, and shamanism to

provide access to Tropical Bioenergetics, in turn based on the

even more esoteric BioTantra.

Does it work? Evaluating these cosmic claims is like putting

together an investment portfolio or raising children. By the time

you have the data you need, it’s too late to change what you’re

doing. So keep an open mind. Suspend both belief and disbelief.

Doubt everything. In the long run, the truth will out.

Information is easier to provide than creative interaction.

The information may be sound, but it’s often converted into a

model of the universe or cosmololgy. Then something that is in

fact helpful is subtly turned into an invitation to make a

commitment to a belief system or cultic community. In carnival

terms, the WWW site tries to “turn the tip,” i.e. turn the crowd

attracted by the free show — fire-eating or sword-swallowing —

into paying customers inside the tent.

WWW-Spirit, for example, offers links to the World of

Dolphins. Alien Cultures. and Healing Ways. At “Dolphins,” Birgit

Klein shares her experience channeling messages from dolphins.

Telepathic connections open up to spiritual experiences which in

turn are opportunities to heal not only the individual but the

entire planet. The same is true if you follow the link to

Lightworks and read accounts of starseeds and walk-ins (varieties

of extraterrestrials disguised as earthlings, here for cosmic

purposes). Telepathic communication begins with practical advice,

leads to a spiritual connection, and ultimately discloses a new

belief system. Visitors are invited to revise their version of

reality accordingly.

What’s going on here? Channelings from discarnate entities,

visitors from the Pleiades, and whales and dolphins all teach the

same or similar content. It’s always “sandbox stuff:” be nice to

each other, preserve the environment, don’t hit.

In domains that traffic in symbolic constructs, such as

healing, meditation, and spirituality, anybody can say anything

they please and no-one can contradict them. In fact, whether the

mediating structures are angels, dead ancestors, dolphins,

discarnate beings, or extraterrestrials, something beneficial

often happens. The mediating structures, it seems, simply have to

be “good enough” to get helpful truths and tools to people who

need them. The efficacy of the practice is not contingent on the

absolute truth of the belief system with which it is fused.

In short: take what you need and leave the rest.

Most sites provide lists of benefits. Buy this book, watch

this video, wear this squid, and all these good things will

happen.

The Real Life Shark Cartilage Information Exchange proclaims

the value of shark cartilage in treating everything from cancer

and AIDS to psoriasis (http://www.electriciti.com/~reallife/).

After the benefits come testimonials – quotes from

individuals whose lives have been changed. The standard

“conversion formula” — this is how it was, this is what

happened, this is how it is now — is followed.

A final click of the mouse will take you to an ordering

form. Have your credit card ready.

Used judiciously, resources on the Net can help you sort all

this out. The Meditation Information Network

(http://minet.org/newsgroup/) has plenty of critical reflection

on programs associated with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The articles

on Deepak Chopra alone are worth the price of connect-time. They

reveal the mixed motives behind the promises of healers who in

fact are businessmen making a great deal of money. In Hawaii it

was said of the missionaries who came in 1820, “They came to do

good and they did well.”

The wisdom of the ages is consistent with what you already

know. There’s little new under the sun. The Self-Help and

Psychology Magazine (http://www.well.com/user/selfhelp/) has a

page of twelve suggestions for taking care of yourself. They’re

simple, they’re basic, and they make sense (“learn to say no,”

“change jobs if you’re miserable at work,” and “avoid comparing

yourself with others.”)

So if practical wisdom is plain common-sense, and a mystic

is just someone who found out what’s so, why go into cyberspace

at all?

Because wisdom is always mediated through communities. Good

health is a function of connecting with others in positive ways

and taking responsibility for one’s own life. Isolation is

ubiquitous today. The Net is often criticized for increasing

isolation, but it’s a bad rap. Every transformation of the

technology of the Word, from writing to the printing press,

increases our distance from one another but simultaneously makes

available the means for connecting at deeper levels. The Net

separates us and also mediates new opportunities for intimacy and

community. Connecting with each other and hearing what others say

is in itself healing and therapeutic. Then it’s up to us to act.

Good health doesn’t come from knowing what to do. It comes

from doing what works. But remember, as you pursue the truth that

sets you free: if something sounds too good to be true, it

probably is.

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