By Richard Thieme
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.
(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.184.108.40.206/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.