The Matrix – a Gnostic parable? (Credit: The Matrix/Warner Bros.)

August 3, 2023   5 mins

Is it weird where you are? It so often seems that we’re now living in the astounding science-fiction future of our dreams. Yet although it has turned out dystopian in ways we hadn’t quite predicted, there is also a sense that we’re hurtling together through an age of miracle and revelation. The routine magic of our connected, device-dotted world permits us to live in something like a state of perpetual ecstasy, the intuitive fluidity of streams, group chats and limitless information instilling the sense that human beings live now as a race of unleashed demi-gods, jacked into a dreamworld that is at once paradise and hell.

If the 20th century was atheistic, religiosity is now everywhere — I hardly know anyone who lives as a pure-blood rationalist, nor do I encounter many who dwell entirely within one faith or metaphysical tradition. Astrology and occultism flourish in mainstream daylight, while a revived interest in psychedelic experience and synthetic drugs has opened up gnostic wormholes amid the high-res sound-systems of nightclubs that seem more than ever like techno-pagan temples.

Attempting to understand this paradoxical synthesis led me to TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information by Erik Davis, a deeply Californian writer who was born in 1967 but is very much a child of the Nineties. His outlook was shaped as a cultural journalist in that decade he recalls fondly for its “ambient sense of arcane possibility, cultural mutation, and delirious threat that, though it may have only reflected my youth, seemed to presage more epochal changes to come”. He describes TechGnosis as “a secret history of the mystical impulses that continue to spark and sustain the Western world’s obsession with technology”, and insists that “religious questions, spiritual experiences, and occult possibilities remain wedded to our now unquestionably science-fiction reality”.

Starting from the maxim that “magic is technology’s unconscious”, Davis explores the myriad ways in which an ostensibly rationalist-materialist-atheist civilisation invests its new machines with ancient animism and archetypal dreams. Think of the recent hype around AI; how ready we are to project sentience and malign — Chtulian! — will onto a technology that, considered rationally, can never possess such qualities. He also considers the ways in which “ecstatic technologies” such as psychedelic drugs, meditation and shamanism now influence and modify questions of the soul, while asking if religious experience, defined by Carl Jung as that in which “man comes face to face with a psychically overwhelming Other”, may itself be evolving in tandem with technocultural mutation.

The first edition of TechGnosis was published in 1998 — the same year, it’s always startling to recall, in which Google was founded — a prelapsarian time of heady economic growth and triumph-of-liberal-democracy optimism. It’s dizzying to think how much has changed since then, the spree of relentless cultural, societal and technological upheaval we’ve undergone. Yet Davis’s first book has remained relevant (helped by multiple revised editions with updated material). In part this is because it was never fully taken in by the Nineties’ now painfully discredited techno-utopianism, nor did it paint an especially rosy picture of our tech-civilisational future (yes, the one we’re now in). Davis quotes Marshall McLuhan, writing in 1962 about how the Global Village might turn out to be a more uncomfortable place than we anticipate: “As our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside…  we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed coexistence.”

Is there a better description of the online mobs, omni-paranoia, mass derangement, moral outrage, scapegoating, and polyphonic extremism that have defined the years since they put devices in our elegantly evolved hands? This sceptical edge may make Davis an appealing writer to those who find other psychedelically informed theorists too far out, too loose and easy with rationalism and the Enlightenment tradition. He is attractively open to gnostic, mystical, religious and, yes, psychedelic experience — a “heady seeker of sorts”, as he describes his younger self — yet he is also cool-headed and rational, even cynical when it comes to the exploitativeness of technocapitalism. Now in his late fifties and a compelling guest on podcasts and YouTube talks (as well as the producer of many excellent articles on his Substack) Davis advocates a “middle way — between reason and mystery, scepticism and sympathy, cool observation and participation mystique”.

His book churns up an unrelenting, often brilliant spray of ideas, funnelling a dizzying range of information across multiple cultural-intellectual byways and minority belief systems. Davis examines the seminal, future-shock cyberpunk fictions of William Gibson (Neuromancer) and Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash), and the gnostic dystopias of Philip K. Dick. But he also ranges onto magical-esoteric-religious history: the Greek-mythic trickster Hermes Trismegistus, John Dee’s “Enochian” magic, the discovery in 1945 of the heretical gnostic scriptures at Nag Hammadi — even the neuroscientist John C. Lilly’s experiments in telepathically communicating with dolphins by way of intravenous ketamine and a sensory-deprivation tank. He traces the Jesuit theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s messianic vision of a noospheric Omega Point — in which all minds are fused in an ecstatic oneness that brings the divine principle to its earthly apotheosis — through the delirious rhetoric of Nineties Wired-era tech propagandists and Singularity hucksters, whose effusions glossed the acceleration into our era of surveillance capitalism, epistemological fragmentation, radical inequality and political extremism.

Davis insists that the digital age teems with religious and supernatural metaphors. His distinction between the analogue “soul” and the digital “spirit” is memorably suggestive: “The analogue world sticks to its grooves of soul — warm, undulating, worn with the pops and scratches of material history. The digital world boots up the cool matrix of the spirit: luminous, abstract, more code than corporeality.” It is not lost on Davis that his book appeared shortly before the arrival in multiplexes of The Matrix, an exhilarating film that mainlined the mythos of simulation, alienation, deception and sacred uprising into the global psychic mainstream and perhaps primed teenage minds to plunge into the nightmarish hyperrealities of the decades to come.

He is also sympathetic to the neo-psychedelic culture that emerged from a post-Sixties underground to fuse with a more broadly gnostic cultural mood (you can’t open the New York Times or New Yorker these days without seeing articles on psychedelic research, though acknowledgement of the irreducible weirdness of psychedelics is less common). But Davis regards our connected devices and social media as the real acid in the civilisational punch-bowl: perhaps the ruptures we’ve lived through over the past decade are just the beginning of a cyberdelic horror-trip we’ll never wake up from.

Today, the digital future-present keeps echoing the magical-animist-pantheistic past — and vice versa. What are shamans if not “ecstatic technicians of the sacred”, LSD if not a “gnostic molecule”, and Gnosticism itself — the heretical Christian doctrine that declared our universe the botched work of a sinister demiurge, a lesser god — if not “the world’s first metaphysical conspiracy theory”? Meanwhile, the revival of virtual reality and the increasingly realistic texture of video games conjures up the ancient fantasy of simulation and nested realities (“the protagonists of Hindu yarns often found themselves wandering through infinite nests of Borgesian dream worlds”). It is only a short, psychotic leap from there to believing that consciousness is itself a game within a game, that there are levels parallel to or above this one. Even if reality turns out not to be a video game, actual games reanimate gnostic longings. “The boss characters and evil creatures who must be conquered to advance levels are the faint echoes of the threshold-dwellers and Keepers of the Gates that shamans and gnostics had to conquer in their mystic peregrinations of the other worlds.”

At least in its younger form, Davis’s is the sort of intelligence that can barely give itself room to breathe. TechGnosis covers so much ground that you wish he’d linger in one place for a while, probe more deeply into some of the intriguing areas he races over, or make more of the arresting, speculative ideas he frequently dashes out. His book’s enduring cult appeal has arguably made him a touch self-important, assessing (and hyping) its continuing relevance across a series of overlong afterwords. But these are quibbles against the high appeal of a writer so alert to “the powerful, archetypal connections among magic, tricks, and technology”, and the value of psychedelic thought in generating new metaphors. Davis writes of such strange, compelling things with real poetry, his meta-muse unleashed in “those vast cosmic webworks whose own mysterious designs we may glimpse, if at all, in moments past all sense or reckoning”.

Rob Doyle is an Irish novelist, short-story writer and essayist. His most recent book is Autobibliography.